1984. Directed by James Cameron.
A cautionary tale about the ultimate cost of the escalating Cold War, The Terminator is a cyberpunk noir masterpiece, and Cameron's finest film.
A terminator, a cyborg that looks human, is sent back through time to assassinate the mother of the future leader of the resistance against the AI army of Skynet, the world's first true AI that triggered nuclear destruction of the Earth. The future rebels use the same technology to send back a lone soldier to protect terminator's target.
The Terminator is a sprinter's race, not a marathon. Once it starts, it never lets up, mimicking Schwarzenegger's iconic killing machine's ruthless approach to it's mission. Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's script is lean and brutal, a quality that fills every frame of this film. Adam Greenberg's cinematography viciously captures the ugly, back alley twin of the cocaine infused 80's American cinema experience. This is a film that shoots for the heart, by way of the guts, brains, and every part of the human soul. Filled with ugly blue-greens, the world is desolate, whether the story is depicting current times or the chrome dominated future.
One of things that really stand out is Hilary Wright's costume designs. Many of the characters are 80's staples, the cops, the punks, the damsel in distress with outrageous hair, but each of them is a broken reflection of their safe counterparts. Cameron uses even the most innocuous presences to illicit fear and panic. There is nowhere to hide.
Brad Fiedel's score is perfect. In keeping with the above themes, it has a way of taking certain notes and riffs from other sources and twisting them, making them mean something, The love scene is one such example of how the music, that would normally be cheesy, is actually pitch perfect for the characters and the emotions they're experiencing, and this helps build the best part of the film.
Despite it being a sci-fi nuclear warning, it's also an organic story about love and family. The idea of being hunted simply to prevent a child you don't even have from existing is a fascinating concept, bringing to the fore ideas of destiny and perhaps more dubious commentary on other volatile topics.
Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn are fantastic. The development of their relationship, a romance out of desperation is so inevitable that you instantly buy it. Paul Winnfield and Lance Henriksen take their police roles and elevate them above the usual B Movie crowd by portraying human personas, not silly impersonations of peacekeepers in a world gone mad. Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast as the killer. His embodiment of the terminator is a titanic vehicle hurtling towards it's final destination, echoing the horrors of nuclear disaster.
Finally, the special effects are harrowing Stan Winston's command of the metal monster is unparalleled. Jack Bricker's design for the machines were unlike anything seen before, while Doug Beswick's stop motion abilities were a tour de force, managing to make the terminator a living thing, threatening to clamber off the screen and into viewer's reality.
The Terminator is a seminal work of art. It does exactly what it sets out to do and with minimal gloss. At it's heart it's a chase story winding through a complicated geopolitical minefield. Top shelf action scenes and genuine character development are what propels it into the heights of films that must be seen.