Rise of the Machine: James Cameron’s The Terminator

The Terminator poster

The sci-fi sleeper hit that transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into a global megastar

“The greatest feeling you can get in a gym, or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym, is the pump. Let’s say you train your biceps, blood is rushing into your muscles and that’s what we call the pump. Your muscles get a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode any minute and its really tight and it’s like someone is blowing air into your muscle and it just blows up and it feels different, it feels fantastic. It’s as satisfying to me as cumming is, you know, as in having sex with a woman and cumming. So can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like getting the feeling of cumming in the gym; I’m getting the feeling of cumming at home; I’m getting the feeling of cumming backstage; when I pump up, when I pose out in front of 5000 people I get the same feeling, so I am cumming day and night. It’s terrific, right? So you know, I am in heaven.”

Still startling, isn’t it?

When Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered those immortal words in George Butler and Robert Fiore’s 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron, little did they know that what they had on their hands was a megastar in the making. Sure, their protagonist was already a celebrity on the bodybuilding circuit, with more than a dozen major awards under his belt, but the man who would become known simply as Arnie wasn’t your average musclehead with designs on cracking Hollywood. There were already glimpses of his unique personality in Pumping Iron, which would also star future Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno, a fellow competitor wilting in the Austrian’s indomitable shadow. On the surface, Schwarzenegger was little more than a machine, a muscle fetishist who had terminated the competition 5 years running to claim the prize of Mr Olympia. He was also cocksure and uniquely endearing, with a sense of wit that belied his thick Eastern drawl. A decade later, screenwriters were queuing up to pen the kind of money-spinning one-liners that tapped into Arnie’s inimitable personality, but the transition from champion weightlifter to credible actor would not come easy.

Mr. Universe had already opened the acting doors as early as 1969, though ‘acting’ may be pushing it a tad. Schwarzenegger’s first role was as the bumbling lead in the equally bumbling fantasy comedy Hercules in New York, a cinematic oddity that showcased his physical bravado but little else. Despite the guy’s obvious shortcomings, his larger-than-life physique seemed a perfect match for the arena of mythical giants, and fifteen years and a handful of shoddy bit-parts later, Arnie would land his first of many blockbuster leads as fantasy powerhouse Conan the Barbarian. Surprisingly, he wasn’t exactly dead weight this time around. In fact, his casting was somewhat inspired. Of the film, Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert would write, ‘The movie’s casting is ideal. Arnold Schwarzenegger is inevitably cast as Conan, and Sandahl Bergman as Valeria. Physically, they look like artist’s conceptions of themselves. What’s nice is that they also create entertaining versions of their characters; they, and the movie, are not without humor and a certain quiet slyness that is never allowed to get out of hand. Schwarzenegger’s slight Teutonic accent is actually even an advantage, since Conan lived, of course, in the eons before American accents.

The Terminator : [while wearing sunglasses] I’m a friend of Sarah Connor. I was told she was here. Could I see her please?

Desk Sergeant : No, you can’t see her she’s making a statement.

The Terminator : Where is she?

Desk Sergeant : [uses his pencil to point to the bench] Look, it may take a while. Want to wait? There’s a bench over there.

[points to bench]

The Terminator : [looks around, examining the structural integrity of the room, then looks back at him] I’ll be back!

The most interesting part of that excerpt, ‘Schwarzenegger’s slight Teutonic accent is actually even an advantage’, was presumably something James Cameron considered when casting the star in his second feature, a sci-fi sleeper hit that would exceed all expectations. ‘Conan may have kick-started Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career, but it was The Terminator, released the following year, that would make him a household name. It was hardly surprising to see him shine so brightly. Arnie wasn’t the greatest actor to ever have aspirations of conquering tinsel town — in fact, at that stage in his career he was still about as bad as it got — but utilised correctly he had the kind of “It” factor that millions of Hollywood hopefuls would have sold their soul for. The guy ran on sheer, larger-than-life presence, the kind of excess that was championed by one and all in Reagan’s America. If the ludicrously dissonant Hercules in New York was enough for one insider to inform him that he would never become a leading man, then The Terminator was enough to leave Hollywood’s biggest producers tripping over themselves in an attempt to cast the overnight sensation in their next brawn-over-brains spectacular.


Ironically, Arnie initially read for the part of Kyle Reese, and it took some persuasion from Cameron to convince him that the role of the T-800 was better suited, even if ‘action hero’ was the actor’s ultimate goal. Schwarzenegger was understandably concerned about being cast as an inhuman killer following his swashbuckling turn as Conan, and the villainous T-800 may have proven an unwelcome stumbling block in his fledgling career. Cameron also had to be cautious. Arnie had already signed on for the equally well-received Conan the Destroyer set for release early the following summer, so it was something of a risk for the filmmaker to challenge his lead, particularly after struggling for so long to get his second movie made having only one other director’s credit in Piranha II: The Spawning. With one notable role to his name, Arnie was hardly a well-established draw back then, but he was beginning to catch fire, and the potential was there for all to see. The fact that the studio were pushing to have American football star O.J. Simpson play the role had perhaps convinced Cameron that it was a risk worth taking.

Lance Henriksen, who went on to play Detective Hal Vukovich in the movie, had been the first actor to dress as the T-800. Henriksen oozed tough guy presence too, albeit in an entirely different manner, and a wiry, less conspicuous T-800 may have proven rather interesting when pitted against Schwarzenegger’s musclebound Reece — it certainly worked for Robert Patrick’s mimetic polyalloy T-1000 seven years later — but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role that more than any other would come to define Arnie’s career. Blockbusters such as Total Recall, Commando and Predator have all become cult classics, the latter spawning a mega-money franchise that is almost on a par with The Terminator series, but his turn as the T-800 stands head-and-shoulders above the rest — ironic when you consider that Michael Crichton’s Runaway, a kitsch and horribly dated endeavour released around the same time, was the movie pegged for critical and commercial domination while The Terminator was written off as a potential low-budget dud. Fully aware of The Terminator‘s cultural resonance, Arnie would even reference the T-800 while running for Governor of California in 2003, famously acquiring the moniker ‘The Governator’ along the way. Yes, the film’s legacy was enough to see the Austrian-born star elected into office, and yes, he would ‘be back’ for a second term.

Of course, physical presence isn’t everything — a gazillion lunkheaded wannabees can attest to that — and the distinctly ‘foreign’ Arnold was at a disadvantage from the offset at a time when Cold War tensions had reached a new nadir. After all, Americans wanted American heroes, preferably the kind who knew their arses from their elbows, and they already had the likes of Stallone to vicariously quench their destructive urges. As proven by Conan, a fledgling Arnie required the right role to forge a second headline turn that would hold up to any serious scrutiny. The actor’s Teutonic accent may have played on the mythical battleground, but how could he be successfully utilised in 20th century Los Angeles? At this stage in his career, nothing was certain. Hindsight tells us that he had all the prerequisites to headline some of the biggest action blockbusters of the 1980s, but he could just as easily have been typecast as a swords and sorcery accessory, the kind of pathway that may have committed him to the Hollywood history books as a mere footnote, but The Terminator changed all that.

Kyle Reese – Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead!

The colossal T-800 fit like a glove, Cameron accentuating the actor’s negative attributes to devastating effect. Arnie may have lacked emotion, was incredibly wooden at the best of times, but would a cyborg have been any different? It wasn’t as easy as all that. Arnold would work hard to perfect those twitching nuances and, as with everything else he had set out to achieve, would absorb the valuable experience that came with every production like a sponge, but it was an inspired touch nonetheless. The fact that Schwarzenegger tried to have the famous line ‘I’ll be back’ altered to ‘I will be back’ following problems with pronunciation is one of those make or break moments that can alter career paths irrevocably, one brilliantly lampooned in hyper-referential sitcom The Simpsons during the much lauded Radioactive Man episode. Not only would the line work in his favour, it would become the kind of catchphrase that was shoehorned into several other movies as Arnie conquered the industry picture by picture. Thanks to Cameron’s acerbic screenplay, the actor would become more than just a musclebound void who looked good on a Hollywood marquee. There is nothing dryer than having a killer robot reel off popcorn lines in a manner that lacks total self-awareness, and that translated to a then robotic actor, resulting in a delicious sense of irony that provided the basis for the most recognisable action movie career of the late 20th century.

The Terminator gun shop

In The Terminator, Arnie plays a relentless cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of the unborn leader of a future resistance, a synthetic soldier from a time when Skynet and artificial intelligence have designs on eradicating the human race. Essentially, the T-800 is a sci-fi re-imagining of the then popular stalk-and-slash killer, a machine that will stop at nothing to reach its objective, and for the most part the movie is just as grainy and aesthetically oppressive, evoking those exploitative, low-budget horror productions that would lead to widespread moral panic during the early 1980s. Cameron has cited John Carpenter’s low-budget smash Halloween as his inspiration, using a fever dream about a knife-wielding metallic torso as a “launching pad” for a film in the slasher vein, and the movie’s muted palette thrusts our protagonists into a neon nightmare that presents the city of Los Angeles as a remorseless wasteland not dissimilar to the potential future they’re trying to avoid.

With every robotic movement or mechanical twitch of the finger, Arnie oozed inhuman menace, his herculean frame and potential for life-crushing brutality bringing an almost futile aura to proceedings. While the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees hid behind masks that would embellish their fearsome aura, The Terminator kind of went the other way. The ‘Austrian oak’ is terrifying as the remorseless T-800, especially when the loss of his eyebrows dehumanises him even further and the machine beneath is gradually revealed. The fact that Arnie’s human frame is in some ways more intimidating than the red-eyed endoskeleton buried beneath is a testament to his physical magnitude.

That’s no slight on the design of the T-800, a creation that proved the sobering antithesis to the gaudy, mechanical monsters of yore, which is something of a miracle since the studio originally wanted the T-800 to have a cyborg canine sidekick, and lord knows how that would have turned out for a production operating on such a stringent budget. Made on a relatively minuscule $6,400,000, The Terminator came out of nowhere, generating very little fanfare before entering theatres, but thanks to Cameron’s ingenuity — he even had a hand in designing the endoskeleton — the movie looked positively high-tech back in 1984, embellished by Brad Fiedel’s original score, an industrial factory of a composition buoyed by a muted sense of battle-hardened hope. Visual touches like the T-800’s torn flesh and roving mechanical eyeball have all the hallmarks of a horror movie creation, while the novelty of the machine’s laser-sighted pistol proves a wonderful extension of its deadly precision, as well as providing a superb hook for audiences accustomed to the tech-hungry ’80s.

Aesthetically, Cameron and his crew would work miracles, particularly during those nightmarish flashback sequences experienced by hero Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who is sent back in time along with the T-800 to protect the correct Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and try to ensure that she survives long enough to give birth to the child that mankind’s survival will ultimately depend upon. This provides the movie’s brief and tragic romance, one that proves just as essential to the survival of the human race. Reese and Connor’s disassociated relationship is born from a Polaroid of Sarah, one that Reese clings to as he fights a future war on a landscape of giant, skull-crushing machines, a time where surviving soldiers scurry across veritable boneyards like rodents in the nuclear dust. This image is soon echoed back in present day Los Angeles, Arnie’s unceasing killer pulling up to the wrong Sarah Connor’s home and crushing a toy truck under the wheel of his car, foreshadowing one possible fate for humanity.

At this juncture, it’s hard to imagine that Sarah could give birth to and train the heroic saviour of the human race, but over time she would grow to become one of cinema’s most memorable heroines, thanks to an imposed stay in a mental asylum and years of condescension from smug gawkers too wrapped up in their domesticated realities to entertain such a bleak future vision. When we first meet Sarah, she is a million miles from the resourceful warrior we find in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Frizzy, unorganised and armed with little more than a moped, she is wholly unprepared for the apocalyptic struggles she will one day face, and that is where love interest Reese comes in. In a typically dizzying time travel twist, he is the one who teaches Sarah the survival tactics she will one day need to get by, ultimately passing them on to his future son, a leader he had once fought alongside.

Sarah Connor – Should I tell you about your father? Boy, that’s a tough one. Will it affect your decision to send him here, knowing that he is you father? If you don’t send Kyle, you can never be. God, a person can go crazy thinking about all this…

Sarah is first confronted by Arnie’s cyborg assassin during the iconic scene at the Tech Noir nightclub, a masterclass in dramatic tension that displayed Cameron’s burgeoning talents. It is here, beneath the grungy neon of downtown Los Angeles, that our disbelieving protagonist realises the true extent of her predicament and the seemingly menacing Kyle Reese suddenly becomes her saviour. The scene also reveals the true capacities of our monster pursuer. We’ve already seen the extent of the T-800’s strength and brutality, but when it emerges from a barrage of gunfire with barely a scratch, we quickly realise this is no ordinary threat. Connor is torn between a seemingly indestructible monster and a potential lunatic, her unwillingness to accept such a life-altering occurrence leading her into the arms of the police, who are just as willing to write Reese off as a nutjob and prematurely end her nightmare. Police custody usually means a temporary halt to danger, but we soon find out that patience and programmed killers just don’t mix.

The Terminator Tech Noir

For me, the Tech Noir scene is the most beautifully executed in the entire film, but the infamous precinct massacre is easily the most talked about. At a time when moral outrage was at its most sensitive and volatile, the sight of the myopic and irrepressible Terminator wiping out an entire precinct like a one-man Armageddon was shocking to say the least. This is arguably the most ruthless killing spree from a horror character ever committed to celluloid, one that gave birth to the iconic line that almost never was. Law enforcement was generally out of bounds back then. Cops would fall, but they usually went out with a sense of nobility and were always suitably avenged. The T-800 picks off the members of this particular precinct with a dead-eyed insouciance that is borderline-nihilistic. Sure, many of his victims are faceless extras, but our two lead investigators are disposed of with equal glibness, making the thin blue line positively anorexic. The scene does for The Terminator what Marion Crane’s premature death did for Hitchcock’s Psycho. It smashes convention, opens us up to endless uncertainty, emotions that are the very basis for fear. Arnie may have been a rank amateur at this stage of his career, but could any living actor have pulled off that scene in the manner that he did? It is formidable, iconic, utterly terrifying.

Surprisingly, there is also humour to be had. It’s sparse and selective, providing just the right amount of levity in an otherwise nihilistic endeavour. Cameron placed more of an emphasis on humour in Judgment Day, which was just as well catered to Arnie’s reprogrammed cyborg, but the original T-800 was a different beast entirely. Here, the humour is derived from our cybernetic monster’s fearsome aura and how unprepared for it humans are in 1980s Los Angeles. The most famous example of this happens during the incredible highway chase between Arnie’s motorcycle-riding death machine and his desperate targets, when a beat-up Terminator, his face torn to shreds, climbs into the driver’s seat of a truck and asks the passenger to “Get out!” He doesn’t need asking twice. But the part that tickles me most is when our T-800 stalks the corridors of a run-down apartment block having just repaired his wounds with a giant automatic weapon, leading a neighbour to stumble backwards and yell, “God daaaaaammmmn!” It’s a priceless moment, an emphatic echo of exactly what we’re thinking as an audience. I’ve heard people deny The Terminator‘s horror credentials. The fact that the film was first devised as a slasher suggests otherwise, and the gallows humour on display is yet more evidence. The best horror movies have a strong sense of irony because they understand that what we are watching, despite the fear and the bloodshed and the nihilism, is pure escapism, the thrill of being terrified without becoming bogged-down in the dark realities. The Terminator is extremely dark, motivated by scepticism for mankind’s chances of long-term survival, but it’s never joyless. Crucially, it knows where to draw the line.

By now, the Terminator franchise has gone well beyond the devastating simplicity of cat-and-mouse horror, introducing all kinds of characters and sub-narratives and modern special effects, but whenever I think of the series it is Arnie who immediately leaps to mind, and the one-on-one pursuit that made the first two movies so engrossing. This was a jarringly high-concept tale back in 1984, but budgetary restrictions kept the action mercifully grounded, something sorely lacking in some of those later sequels. Intimate stories are typically much scarier. Once the series embraced the endless possibilities of CGI, intimacy became anonymous broad strokes, simplicity became grandiose world-building, and as a result they took their finger off the conceptual pulse. While embracing modern technology, Terminator 2 simply replaced the T-800 with an even bigger threat, casting Arnie as the movie’s roundabout protagonist and smartly giving us more of the same. Such a development freshened affairs, but the basic structure remained, which is why it is considered one of the greatest sequels ever made. Beyond that, the series lost its way, first through weak repetition and then through needless narrative expansion, and without Arnie at the helm it simply wasn’t the same.

The Terminator 9

Terminator 2 is one of those rare sequels that many consider superior to the original, and it certainly excels in different ways, but despite the obvious comparisons I like to think of each as two completely different films attached to the same central story, both achieving their goals flawlessly, which is the most we can ask of any movie. Cameron’s sequel works as an exhilarating slice of blockbuster action; groundbreaking for its special effects and uniquely humorous in its approach. It flips the script by transforming one of cinema’s most intimidating creations into a humane and likeable entity, and though the Director’s Cut would prove laborious for large segments, the original theatrical release is exquisitely paced and infinitely re-watchable.

Its predecessor is a very different animal — a bleak, dystopian nightmare which triumphs as an exercise in visceral terror; a science fiction story that somehow manages to put the majority of horror movies to shame. It doesn’t fool around with tedious exposition or weigh us down with intolerable chunks of backstory. It’s too fast-paced for all that, too urgent. The Terminator absolutely will not stop. EVER! So it was only natural that Cameron would follow suit, refusing to let his audience pause for breath in a truly breathless outing. There may be no separating the two in the minds of many, which is a wonderful notion in itself, but for me the original is the more important movie. It was a film that forged superstars and shaped careers, leaving an indelible mark on modern sci-fi cinema, with an enduring influence that will be felt for many more years to come.

The Terminator logo

Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd
Music: Brad Fiedel
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Editors: Mark Goldblatt


  1. The original Terminator movie is still the best of the franchise. It has a superb story, great cast, and Cameron was firing on all cylinders with this one. Its just a brilliantly made movie. I watched it again recently and it still has you on the edge of your seat, especially the final where the Terminator endoskeleton is crawling after Sarah. I like T2 as well, but its more a showcase of action set pieces, were the original is packed with far more suspense.


    1. Hi, Paul.

      I think I’d have to agree with you. I am partial to horror, which gives the original an obvious advantage in my mind, and though T2 is just as enjoyable as an action vehicle and pretty much flawless, the T-800 is far more suited to horror. Arnie was genuinely terrifying.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, T2 was totally stunning, but it didn’t have the same horror element as the original Terminator film. Arnie’s brilliant performance in the firs movie made the t-800 utterly frightening. The pace of the story is superb as well and I think the effects, especially when the endoskeleton rises from the flames before the final showdown is one of horrors most iconic images.


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