Study Guide

The Terminator

The Terminator Introduction


Release Year: 1984

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: James Cameron

Writer: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd

Stars: Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger


"I'll be back."

It's one of the simplest sentences in the English language. But how many times have you seen somebody suddenly adopt a stiff demeanor and deep, menacing, Austrian accent when announcing their intention to return after a trip to the bathroom? If we had a penny for every time somebody did this to us, we'd have at least 50 cents.

Well, we have The Terminator to thank for that. Yeah, that's probably not news to you.

Released in 1984, The Terminator is a classic tale of girl meets boy, killer cyborg meets girl, and boy fights killer cyborg for girl's affection and survival. You know, your usual movie.

Anyway, said cyborg, the Terminator, is sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to her son, humanity's future leader in a war against the machines that have taken over. To survive, Sarah must team up with another time-traveler, future soldier Kyle Reese. What follows is a tale of shoot-outs, car chases, and star-crossed lovers that culminates in…well, we don't want to give too much away.

The film did well, coming in number one at the box office during its first two weeks. Fans and critics enjoyed the movie for its violent, kitschy goodness. It didn't topple any records, nor did it sweep the awards circuit as some other James Cameron movies would do in the future. But it snagged three Saturn Awards in '85, including Best Writing and Best Science Fiction Film, and it started a huge franchise.

Not too shabby.

If the awards proved too few on the first go-around, our culture has certainly done its best to make up for the slight. The American Film Institute has showered the film with accolades: the Terminator earned its place on the "100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains" list, both as a hero and as a villain—the only character to do so. "I'll be back" enjoys a spot on the Institute's "100 Years…100 Movie Quotes." And the film sits proudly on many, many Best Films of All Time lists.

But The Terminator's highest achievement may have come in 2008, when the Library of Congress included it on the National Film Registry. The Library of Congress adds certain extraordinary films to the registry "to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America's film heritage" (source). It was added the same year as Deliverance, In Cold Blood, and The Invisible Man. That's an impressive group of peers for any film, let alone one conceived as a B-rated monster flick.

Like fine wines, 16-bit video games, and Rowan Atkinson riffs, The Terminator has only grown better with age, since the passage of time has intensified our culture's fondness for its craftsmanship. This baby has spawned a science-fiction franchise that includes one of the greatest sequels ever made, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There are also three other sequels that…happened. The story has also been extended in books, comics, and video games. There are even Terminator toys.

Because nothing says '80s R-rated goodness like a line of kids' toys.

  

What is The Terminator About and Why Should I Care?

The Terminator is one of those wonderful little quirks in cinematic history. The producers cobbled together a measly $6.4 million, and the filmmakers, many of them either unknown or underappreciated at the time, came back with a sci-fi classic. That's like giving kindergartners some construction paper, glue sticks, and googly eyes and having them create an Off-Broadway puppet show that would make Jim Henson green with envy.

Before The Terminator, James Cameron's only directorial credit was being fired from the gloriously awful Piranha Part II: The Spawning. But The Terminator showed Hollywood what Cameron could do, jumpstarting one of the most important directorial careers of the last few decades.

Cameron's film career resulted in several important movie milestones. Teaming up with Industrial Light & Magic, he helped revolutionize computer-generated imagery in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. He set the all-time highest grossing box office record with Titanic in 1997 (source). After that, he continued to innovate with special effects while toppling his own box office record with Avatar.

He also piloted the Deepsea Challenger to the ocean's deepest point in a record-breaking dive. Not only is that crazy awesome, but it's also a major scientific breakthrough in our exploration of the oceans.

The Terminator brought make-up effects guru Stan Winston to the forefront, too. While not unknown before The Terminator, he really showed his stuff with the T-800. After the film, Winston worked with Cameron again on Aliens, winning his first Academy Award for his visual effects. After that, his filmography is a chronology of crushing it: Edward Scissorhands, Predator, Jurassic Park, The Thing, Iron Man, and Congo.

(Oy. Congo.)

And, of course, we need to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator launched Schwarzenegger's career, like, into orbit. He was a huge movie star in the '80s and '90s—after which he became the 38th Governor of California from 2003-2011. He was even known as the "Governator."

Think about that. If not for a low-budget monster movie, the political landscape of California—the sixth-largest economy in the world—would have been completely different for nearly a decade.

The world is a weird place, Shmoopers. Real weird.

And that's why you should care about The Terminator. Because sometimes small things can have unexpectedly huge impacts.

Also, come on: it's a fun movie to watch.

Trivia

For the film's Polish release, the title was changed to The Electronic Murderer because the word "terminator" phonetically translates to "apprentice" there. That would be a way different movie. (Source)

Michael Biehn collaborated with James Cameron in three of the best science-fiction films of the 1980s: The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and The Abyss (1989). Either as a running gag or by coincidence, Biehn's characters have their hands bitten in all three films. Sarah Connor bites him in The Terminator, Newt noshes his digits in Aliens, and Ed Harris chews the Biehnery in The Abyss. (Source)

Science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison took Orion Pictures to court, claiming The Terminator was a rip-off of his Outer Limits episode "Solider," which was an adaptation of his short story "Soldier From Tomorrow." While Ellison and Orion settled out of court, the film remains affected by these legalities, as the producers were required to provide a special "thank you" to Ellison in the film's credits. (Source)

Arnold Schwarzenegger has only 17 lines of dialogue in the film. His famous catchphrase—"I'll be back"—is line 15. You have to give him credit: it's impressive that he managed to build a career out of only 65 words. Heck, at this point, it's taken us almost as many words to explain how few words he spoke in the film. (Source)

Orion president Mike Medavoy originally wanted O. J. Simpson to play the Terminator because he was impressed by the football-player-turned-actor's athleticism in a Hertz commercial. Director James Cameron didn't like the idea, because, in his own words, he thought an "African-American man chasing around a white girl with a knife" would prove problematic. Yeah… (Source)

The Terminator Resources

Website

In the Know
IMDB is the source for all things movies, and The Terminator is a movie. Voilà.

The Church of Cameron
Wow, the folks at this website sure do love themselves some James Cameron.

The Life and Times of Cameron
Biography gives us the lowdown on James Cameron's career, starting with his work on Roger Corman flicks and moving on to the global successes that were Titanic and Avatar.

The Wiki-800
A Terminator fan wiki that contains information on everything from the films to the quarter-munching awesomeness of T2: The Arcade Game.

Book or TV Adaptation

Adapt or Die
Yep, there was a novel adaptation of The Terminator. Written by Randall Frakes and Bill Wisher, it expands on several key questions. For example, where did the Terminator get that leather jacket?

History of Terminator Comics
As you can imagine, this is going to get weird, because comics get weird. How weird? Terminators will fight Superman before this is over.

The Spin-Off Fans Deserved
But not the one they got to keep. The Sarah Connor Chronicles was well-loved by its fan base, but Fox cancelled the show after just two seasons.

Articles and Interviews

I'll Be Back (for the Sequels)
AMC gives The Terminator some love by including the film in its "The Greatest Films" line-up.

Back in 1984
It's not just AMC. Everyone loves The Terminator today, but how did this low-budget film fare back in the day? If the Hollywood Reporter's 1984 review is any indication, not too shabby.

Still More From '84
In case you need more proof, the New York Daily News also gave the film a great review.

Antique Road Show
To balance those old reviews, here's Guardian's 30th-anniversary review. You know, to see if things still hold up.

The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction
This essay by Amanda Fernbach discusses masculinity in science fiction and of course considers The Terminator.

16 Things You Might Not Know
Even if you know all the things on this Mental Floss list, just remember how much fun it is to know things.

Perfect Stranger
Ryan Lambie discusses his favorite shot from The Terminator. Hint: it's not the one you think—well, unless you're thinking of the death of the first Sarah Connor.

Video

Autobots Articulate
This classic Terminator trailer is narrated by Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime himself.

Bros of a Feather
Cameron and Schwarzenegger discuss what it was like making The Terminator.

Mixed Review
Siskel and Ebert discuss The Terminator on their show, At the Movies. Their opinion on the matter is, um, split.

30 Years in 5 Minutes
IGN blasts through 30 years of Terminator history in 5 minutes. Buckle up.

Oh, So Wrong
CinemaSins lists all the things wrong with The Terminator. It doesn't have a sin count to match Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, but there are some glaring flaws, nonetheless.

Why Is This Not a Thing?
It really needs to be. Now.

Audio

Dah-duh-duh-dah DUN
Here you can find the original soundtrack to The Terminator. In case you like your soundtracks with more than a hint of synth.

The Definitive Duh-Duhs
And here you can find the definitive edition of the soundtrack.

Images

Poor Trigger Discipline
The Terminator shows a complete lack of trigger discipline in the official movie poster. Then again, it's not like he cares if he shoots himself in the leg.

Lifetime Special
Reese and Sarah spend a romantic evening in a hotel room making homemade TNT.

Action Man
Reese goes to town on the Terminator in this scene set in the Tech Noir night club.

Career-Maker
In this scene, Arnold speaks the three little words that will make the rest of his career.

BFFs
James Cameron and the T-800 endoskeleton pose for a red-carpet photo op.