Yes, there was a time when James Cameron had to work with budgets under $200 million, and his films generally made less than a billion dollars. The Terminator had a relatively low budget of $6.5 million, and there are times when it feels like a low rent action flick…I think mostly because so many low rent action flicks (starring the likes of Dolphe Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme) have imitated it.
The plot, for those who are somehow unaware, follows a struggling young waitress in LA named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is being chased by two naked men from the future. One of them is a steroid-sculpted cold-blooded killer and future governor (Arnold Schwarzeneggar). The other is a scruffy dude named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Schwarzeneggar kills a whole mess of people, but Reese protects Connor and eventually tells her that he is from a war-torn future that only her womb can save. But that damn Terminator keeps coming!
‘70s films were obsessed with overpopulation and ecological disasters. ‘80s films were obsessed with the threat of humanoid robots. This seems kind of bizarre, considering that a quarter century later we still can’t really make a robot that can walk on two-feet or understand human language the way that we do, but I guess robots were changing the world economy in the ‘80s – propelling Japan to near superpower status and speeding the erosion of America’s industrial base. I don’t remember people really talking about it at the time (and mechanization seemed to be a much more explicit worry of ‘50s and ‘60s sf), but maybe Blade Runner and The Terminator are playing on these sub-conscious fears. Maybe an even more likely explanation is that this is a manifestation of anxiety about the growing importance of computers.
Anyway, the film is pretty thrilling; it’s really more of a horror film than an action film. I think the low-budget feel works to the film’s advantage, though the big ending has aged pretty poorly (stop-motion fx!). The scenes in the future are among the best, and I wish that Cameron had made a film about the resistance in the '90s instead of McG's in the '00s. The film even manages to say some interest things about destiny (and creates a nice time loop). The score is terrible though – the signature rhythm is great and unforgettable, but the rest is awful synthesizer music (just try not to laugh at the music that accompanies Linda Hamilton’s first appearance).
Cameron’s Avatar has been accused of ripping off a whole host of stories, films, comic books, concept albums, performance art pieces, dream journals, etc. He actually set a precedent for this here in his first real film. Harlan Ellison sued, claiming that the story ripped off two of his Outer Limits episodes: “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand,” and now all releases say “acknowledging the works of Harlan Ellison” at the beginning of the end credits.