The Terminator Turns 30

Above: Looking back at the surprise hit that launched a franchise

Today, The Terminator has a place in the pantheon of all-time great action movies and the U.S. National Film Registry, which is reserved for films the LIbrary of Congress deems “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” but back when it was released in 1984, this futuristic sci-fi action flick with a hint of “creepy stalker bad guy” horror splashed in for good measure snuck up on a lot of people.

Try to picture the pitch meeting for this film: a first-time writer/director wants to make a movie about an indestructible robot killing machine sent back in time to snuff out the mother of the future leader of the rebellion.

Even once it got made, there weren’t a lot of big names for the studio (producers Hemdale Film Corporate, distributed by Orion Pictures) to hang their hopes on – this was James Cameron’s first real project, unless you count Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, female lead Linda Hamilton was best known as “Vicky” from Children of the Corn and Arnold Schwarzenegger was coming off a couple of Conan movies, but was closer to “Muscluar Action Guy #1” than “Bankable Action Hero.”

But instead of being another run of the mill action flick that failed to register, The Terminator became the launching pad for two outstanding careers, another iconic character and a franchise that will see its fifth installment, Terminator: Genysis, hit theatres on July 1, 2015.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how this happened.

For starters, Schwarzenegger is a presence on screen and believable as an unrelenting cyborg sent back in time to track down Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. He hadn’t yet been given an opportunity to spread his wings as an actor, so the fact that this role was limited to walking around being menacing, kicking some ass and announcing “I’ll be back!” was perfect. A year later, he made Commando, becoming a bona fide Hollywood action star and went on a pretty damn impressive run of success throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It wasn’t until he started doing stuff like Junior and The Eraser that things started to cool down.

All too often in action flicks, one of the leads doesn’t fit the role – either the bad guy doesn’t scare you or the good guy doesn’t seem like the “save everybody from the bad guy” type, but what made it work here is that The Terminator didn’t really follow the typical “good guy saves everybody” structure. Instead, it felt much more like a horror movie with Schwarzenegger as the unstoppable menace haunting the “helpless” Sarah Connor.

Hamilton was perfect too – a relative unknown who held her own next to Arnold and grew from oblivious to resourceful as the cat and mouse between her and the T-800 played out. You could also see how she would maybe become someone entirely different as a result of said experience as well, which, of course, is how things played out as the franchise progressed.

On top of that, the idea of robots and “the future” as a general construct was still somewhat scary and unknown in 1984. Marty McFly and Doc Brown hadn’t yet given us a glimpse at what 2014 would look like (where are the hoverboards already?) and technology wasn’t nearly as advanced and omnipresent as it is now. Today we have computers that play chess and robots that have replaced humans in countless manufacturing jobs and assembly lines, but back then, everyone still thought we’d be living like The Jetsons by the year 2000.

The last part of this – and it can’t be understated – is that little known writer/director (and Canadian) James Cameron was actually a movie-making genius just waiting to unleash his creativity and originality on the world. He followed up The Terminator with Aliens and The Abyss before changing the game with Terminator 2: Judgment Day and going on to crush records with Titanic and Avatar.

No one knew it back then, but this was one of those perfect storm situations where a bunch of relative unknowns came together and made something important. At the time, it was just another sci-fi action flick.

Today, The Terminator is one of the best movies the genre ever produced and the launching pad for Cameron, Schwarzenegger and a franchise that has grossed $1.4 billion worldwide.

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