The Terminator (1984): 10 out of 10: Time travel meets a future dystopia meets eighties hair in one of the best B-movies ever made. Considering this was directed by a guy whose only film at the time was Piranha II: The Spawning. It seems like a miracle.
The Good: Repeat viewings will clue one in on a couple of things. For starters, this is a tightly made film with great pacing and foreshadowing. Little things (Arnold Schwarzenegger running over a toy truck in one of the first scenes as an example call back to themes and scenes later in the film.) The film is so well paced that when it turns it up to eleven (Police station natch) the surprise in genuine and in-universe.
There is also a surprisingly successful time travel romance film. The Terminator handles the conundrum of time travel much better than many films for whom time travel is their raison d’être. Despite some occasionally clunky dialogue, the romance between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn works. One can imagine that film sans the whole end of the world unstoppable Terminator part. (As an aside Gene Siskel in his review of the movie said as much wishing they had dumped the Arnie character and concentrated on these two kids. Roger Ebert for the record disagreed).
The Bad: Okay, I love practical effects. You love practical effects. We all love practical effects. Let us be honest, the Terminator in the first film goes a little skeleton from that Sinbad movie at the end. In addition, Arnie’s mask/makeup when he is fixing his face makes him look a little too much like Michael Myers.
The Ugly: Like Jaws and Die Hard, Terminator has spun off some subpar sequels and a ton of god awful ripoffs. Some of the original OMG factor is invariably lost with the familiarity of the plot and the sea of pretenders.
In Conclusion: There is a scene early on in that wonderful eighties bar Tech Noir Where Linda Hamilton finally gets hold of the police, and they tell her you don’t worry, stay in the crowd, and we have someone on the way. You will be safe. When I first watched the film, I believed that. The movie kept selling me safety, only to pull the rug out from under again and again. I have seen few films which have played that parlor trick any better and not a cheap trick of the killer pretending to be dead, but a real one of a genuinely relentless machine. After all, as Michael Biehn says “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 sequels have lessened that message and blurred those lines. This film gets to the heart of it. It is an action film, a romance, a sci-fi thriller, but most of all it is a horror film about something that can’t be stopped and where you are never truly safe — a great movie.