Los Angeles, 1984
The Terminator takes place in a ravaged hellhole of a city. A shroud of smog and spent gunpowder covers the sky in perpetual darkness. Abandoned buildings crumble from across the horizon, and childless playgrounds rust from neglect. Death runs rampant here, and the skulls of human victims litter the streetways like cobblestones.
If you haven't guessed by now, we're taking a trip to Los Angeles.
City of Fallen Angels
Okay, we're kidding. While film does take place in L.A., the description above is of the film's dystopian vision of the city's future, which isn't nearly as bad as L.A. today. (Sorry, we just can't resist.)
A dystopia is a fictional society where everything has gone horribly, terribly wrong, even if the powers that be say that everything's going great. George Orwell's 1984 is a prime example of this concept in action.
Fictional worlds can also come in the opposite flavor, of course, and we call those utopias. These imaginary worlds are the social equivalent of Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way. Sometimes a utopia and a dystopia can be kind of hard to tell apart—it can depend on your perspective.
Anyway, right at the beginning, the film clues us in to how we got into this mess: "The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades." Yep, that fits the definition of a dystopia pretty well.
Later, Reese fills us in on what it's like to live in a world where machines rage on humans to exterminate them. As he tells Sarah, "You stay down by day, but at night you can move around. You still have to be careful because the H-Ks use infrared. But they're not too bright. John taught us ways to dust them. That's when the infiltrators started to appear. The Terminators were the newest. The worst."
Adding this information to what we learn from Reese's flashbacks, we can tell exactly the kind of dystopian world humanity is heading for. Unlike 1984, which featured the ultimate in tyrannical governments, The Terminator's dystopian future is one where society has collapsed completely.
In the future this film shows us, our comfortable, modern lives have been replaced with a nightmare in which every day is a battle for survival. The humans of this future eat rats to survive while they scurry secretively through the wasteland of civilization to their underground nests—just like, well, rats. Modern conveniences such as heaters and televisions are lost to them, and any working machines are actively working to kill them.
Perhaps the only bright side to this dark future is that the machines began their war against humanity in 1997. Could you imagine the horror they might have wrought if they had access to our social media accounts? We shudder to think of it.
Once Upon Our Modern Times
But that's only one of The Terminator's two settings. The other is modern-day Los Angeles—or, rather, what was modern when the movie came out. The reason the filmmakers chose Los Angeles was because it was cheap to film there.
And that's that. See you in the next section.
Oh, all right. The truth is that the filmmakers did shoot in L.A. because it was cheap and easy to do so, but the way Cameron chose to feature the city is thematically important. With some notable exceptions, like Griffith Observatory, the movie exclusively features the less attractive facets of L.A.
When Reese first comes from the future, for example, he's dropped into a dirty alley that serves as a bedroom for a homeless man. The police chase Reese through this alley, and we see that it's littered with garbage, dumpsters, and various throwaway items like mattresses and wooden pallets. Most of the film takes place at night, with vehicle lights and neon signs lighting up the city. Even when Sarah and Reese find a safe haven during the day, it's under a highway bridge or in the crummy room of the Tiki Motel.
By filming the setting in this way, the film is drawing direct parallels between the L.A. of 1984 and the L.A. of 2029. The garbage and broken concrete strewn about the city mirrors the debris of civilization we see from Reese's time. The neon lights of the Tech Noir sign have more than a passing resemblance to the lasers flying across the future sky. Then there's the construction vehicles: giant machines that trigger Reese's first flashback, as they remind him of the Hunter-Killers.
Also, with the way Reese and Sarah drive, we're pretty sure we know where all those wrecked cars in the future came from.
It's as if the film is warning us that we are well on our way to this futuristic nightmare, like it or not. It's warning us that the choices we make are leading us to a world where machines rule and civilization has been destroyed. In fact, we can see this ultimate downfall of humanity in the very city that surrounds our characters.