James Cameron had apprenticed doing special effects and second unit work at Roger Corman's New World Productions (among his credits are miniature effects for John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), which hired Corman's effects crew for a few key sequences). Gale Anne Hurd, a former assistant to Corman, was working her way up through the company. Eager to break out, the two collaborated on an idea inspired by a pair of paintings that Cameron made between Corman assignments: a metallic, gun-wielding robot skeleton stepping out of fire in a futuristic war zone and the torso of the same skeleton crawling on the ground to some unseen target.
Those images were spun into a script about a cyborg (part flesh, part machine) from the apocalyptic future, where machines rule the world and wage a war to exterminate the surviving members of the human race. The cyborg is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future leader of the human resistance. Her protector is scruffy human guerilla fighter Reese, who follows the cyborg to the past. (Science fiction author Harlan Ellison later claimed that they plagiarized some of his short stories, specifically "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand," and successfully sued the production; he is given story credit in new prints of the film.) Cameron and Hurd sold a small studio on financing the film as a low-budget action thriller with Cameron directing. His sole previous directing credit was Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), a production from which he was twice fired, according to his own account.
Cameron had written the cyborg part with Lance Henriksen in mind and even painted an image of Henriksen in the role. The studio, meanwhile, suggested Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role of the human hero, Reese, and the dubious Cameron met with the actor at their insistence. The rest, as they say, is history. Both Schwarzenegger and Cameron became much more intrigued by the possibility of Schwarzenegger as the Terminator himself, despite reservations from Schwarzenegger's agent and resistance from the studio. It was quite possibly the smartest decision ever made by Arnold in his Hollywood career. The biggest film in the former bodybuilder's still shaky screen career had been Conan the Barbarian (1982), a brawny fantasy adventure that, for all its success, did little to establish his credentials as a contemporary action star. As the Terminator, however, he's an unstoppable juggernaut. Schwarzenegger's size makes him a veritable sci-fi Golem in black leather, a badass who looks like a human and moves like a robot: deliberate, daunting, a tank on two legs. His dialogue is minimal and his accent, at the time a hurdle in his career, actually worked in his favor for the few lines he had. The combination of blank expression, emotionless baritone voice, and physical directness with an accent that rings just out of place in urban America made the character's familiar line, "I'll be back," into a trademark for the actor.
For Sarah Connor, the human innocent targeted by the Terminator, Cameron and Hurd cast Linda Hamilton, whose mix of tough and tender later won her the lead in the urban fantasy TV series Beauty and the Beast. Michael Biehn almost didn't get the role of Reese because he auditioned with a heavy Southern accent that he had worked up for an earlier audition that day, a stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He won the part after a second audition using his own Midwestern voice (he grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska though he was born in Alabama) and brings a twitchy intensity to the role. Lance Henriksen was given a supporting part as a police detective who pegs Reese as a paranoid schizophrenic after hearing his tales of time travel and killer robots, and young Bill Paxton and future X-Files baddie Brian Thompson have small roles in the very memorable opening scenes. They play the punks who get beaten to pulp by Schwarzenegger after he emerges from a smoky ball, naked and utterly unfazed.
For all his excitement, Schwarzenegger was unavailable for a year, due to a contractual commitment to shoot the Conan sequel, and The Terminator was put on hold until he was free. Cameron used the time to tune up the script and storyboard the entire film and producer Gale Anne Hurd worked through potential production issues. At just over $6 million, the production was low-budget by studio standards but ambitious for the scope of action and effects that Cameron and Hurd had in mind. Stan Winston was hired to bring the Terminator to life, designing Schwarzenegger's make-up effects (such as the robot exoskeleton that shows through the rent flesh) and the stop-motion effects of the uncovered skeleton juggernaut first imagined in Cameron's paintings. Many of the more elaborate spectacles, notably the future-war effects, were created with elaborate miniatures shot on a smoky set with forced perspective photography to give the illusion of scale and distance. Budget-conscious back-projection and front-projection was employed for actors to run through the future landscape. When the production ran low of funds in the final days, Cameron and a skeleton crew ran around Los Angeles getting inserts and close-ups and necessary shots without bothering to get permits, a lesson in down and dirty filmmaking that he took away from his Corman apprenticeship. Schwarzenegger reportedly jumped in to do some of his own stunts.
Cameron gave the film a dark, grungy, "tech noir" look, dominated by night scenes and pounding action, and the effects followed suit, creating a vivid world on limited resources. If they don't always look "realistic" by the standards of CGI-enhanced modern effects, they are consistently dramatic and imaginative and have a visceral grit to them. Composer Brad Fiedel's percussive electronic score ("It was the idea of this mechanical man and his heartbeat," he explained in an interview) matched Cameron's driving pace. Reese shouted out exposition in the heat of action scenes, explaining the history of the future to Sarah Connor while on the run for their lives. The film slowed just enough for audiences to catch their collective breaths and ride the rhythm to the next action sequence, and Cameron punctuated the tension and the action with witty flourishes and moments of black humor.
"Originally the studio perceived it as a down and dirty action exploitation film," recalls producer Hurd, and Cameron couldn't convince them to promote it as a science fiction film. The studio planned to dump it in theaters and make its profit quickly, before word of mouth got out. It hadn't occurred to them that the word of mouth might be positive, but good reviews, repeat customers, and an unexpected female audience (responding to a tough, tenacious female hero and a surprisingly effective love story under fire) gave the lean, mean B-movie legs, as they say in the business, and turned it into a huge hit.
The Terminator spawned two sequels and the 2008 TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Cameron, who cited Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien (1979) as his inspiration for making a woman the hero of The Terminator, was hired to write and direct Aliens (with Hurd producing) after the success of The Terminator. (Cameron also consolidated Weaver's image as an action movie badass with Aliens). Hurd has since produced such films as Tremors (1990), Armageddon (1998), and Hulk (2003) and Cameron, after reteaming with Schwarzenegger on Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies (1994), went on to break box-office records with Titanic (1997). But for all the technical sophistication of Cameron's later productions, none of them have the scrappy energy of this grungy little tech noir. Gritty, clever, breathlessly paced, and dynamic despite the dark shadow of doom cast over the story, this sci-fi thriller remains one of the defining American films genre or otherwise of the 1980s.
Producer: Gale Anne Hurd
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (additional dialogue), Harlan Ellison (The Outer Limits teleplays "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand", originally uncredited)
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Art Direction: George Costello
Music: Brad Fiedel
Film Editing: Mark Goldblatt
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Paul Winfield (Lieutenant Ed Traxler), Lance Henriksen (Detective Hal Vukovich).
by Sean Axmaker