James Cameron had a fever-induced dream one night in 1982.

Nay, a nightmare.

It could’ve been a lack of sleep over his involvement in Piranhas II, who knows?

But James Cameron had something of a Biblical revelation one night. He was struck with a vision of a robot traveling through time to assassinate him.

This experience led to the creation of The Terminator, a sci-fi classic about a time-traveling cyborg sent to prevent the birth of John Connor, humanity’s savior.

The savior’s name was modeled after Jesus Christ (J.C.). Or maybe James Cameron himself is the messiah since he shares those initials, too.

James Cameron – The Filmmaking Christ!

All right, maybe I’ll take it down a notch here.

Backstage photo of James Cameron, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio after winning an award for Titanic in 1997.
(L-R) Kate Winslet, James Cameron, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Cameron is a filmmaking genius, sure. Does he think highly of himself? The jury’s out on that one.

He’s gained the reputation for being hard to work with but that’s because every artist needs to be strict about his vision, otherwise it won’t come to fruition.

If you allow others to hijack elements of your masterpiece, the whole project will go astray.

Only the one with the vision can make the vision happen.

Thus, Cameron has to be strict on film sets lest his budget goes to waste. He will order you into a tank of water to film a scene.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t put himself in the same water, either. He applies the same standards to himself, as most don’t know.

Anyway, James had an idea from a nightmare that became a Hollywood dream for decades to come.

The Terminator – Cheesy Premise

Cameron probably wrote the plot down on a notepad the following morning so he wouldn’t forget it. It blows when we can’t remember every cool dream we’ve had. Make sure to have a pen and paper by your bedside, kids.

But when Cameron wrote down the basic plot line for the first Terminator, he probably recoiled. I certainly would have.

A machine from the future goes back in time to kill the mother of the Human Resistance leader.

Movie poster for The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger is wearing a leather jacket, exposing a V-portion of his chest. He has a leather glove and is holding a gun skywards. He is also wearing sunglasses with a red computer code seen in the right lens.
The Terminator poster. Orion Pictures. 1984.

Maybe I should phrase it another way, to make the corniness more apparent: A time-traveling robot is sent to kill a woman who will birth the man who saves the humans.

Ah, much better. Or, I should say, much worse.

On paper, The Terminator had a cheesy sci-fi storyline. Time-traveling cyborg assassins!

It’s fodder for B-movies you’d see on SyFy. I’ve seen quite a lot of those in my time, back when it was simply the Sci-Fi Channel.

Science Fiction – The Glory of the Bizarre

I’ve seen films ranging from giant mosquitos to underground subway bugs, to a closer Sun burning everything on Earth.

And that’s not mentioning the sub par special effects we see in these movies. The monsters move like puppets or images made on a 1998 Microsoft desktop.

It seems that only the “great” filmmakers understand that the less you show, the better. Less is more. Steven Spielberg rarely showed the shark in the first Jaws because CGI wasn’t advanced enough back then.

The Terminator – Hiding Bad CGI

Cameron had limitations with special effects but he generally tried to hide them if he could.

After performing crucial surgery on its own eye, revealing the red blinker beneath, the Terminator started wearing sunglasses to continue infiltrating effectively.

It’s funny how this became a staple of the character’s iconic look, when it was initially done for practical reasons.

Scene from The Terminator. Anrold is looking through the glass at the receptionist's desk with sunglasses on. He's about to utter his catchphrase, "I'll be back."
The Terminator. Orion Pictures. 1984.

So how did The Terminator achieve icon status, despite its cheesy story? How did it surpass in quality to its sci-fi contemporaries?


It’s all in the execution, my friend.

The Terminator – Steely Execution

When we first see Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese, he is panting. Sweating. Scarred and scared. Naked.

He is as vulnerable as a newborn after being thrust into a different era with its own dangers.

Scene from The Terminator. Michael Biehn is playing Kyle Reese. Kyle doesn't have a shirt on and is angrily pointing a gun at a police officer.
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Orion. 1984.

Kyle Reese isn’t Superman. Kyle is slim with a prominent Adam’s apple. He narrowly avoids capture by police officers, which would’ve guaranteed an untimely end to his mission of protecting Sarah Connor.

Every close-up of his face reveals sweat and fear. They showcase a paranoid man who perceives danger in every corner.

Kyle Reese is a man afflicted with a thousand-yard stare. He’s a soldier gifted with eyes that drill into you when snapped to attention.

Michael Biehn had the unusual responsibility of giving the film’s unorthodox narrative all of its emotional weight and verisimilitude.

“The Terminator … is OUT THERE! He does not feel pain, remorse, or FEAR. He will absolutely not STOP. Until you … are DEAD.”

But what is Superman without his Darkseid?

The Terminator – Manufactured Evil from the Future

Arnold Schwarzenegger left competitive bodybuilding to break into Hollywood a few years prior. While he enjoyed some success playing Conan in 1982, nobody could take him seriously as an actor.

Arnold didn’t just invest time hitting the weights at Gold’s Gym, he also took acting classes every night. His biggest struggle was erasing his thick Austrian accent to a more discernible diction.

While his accent drew the scorn of many, it seemed to strangely suit him for the role of a robotic assassin.

Robots with programmed voices are not going to sound like Morgan Freeman, let’s be real. They’re going to sound stilted and stiff, like Arnold’s natural voice.

Scene from The Terminator. Arnold is raising a shotgun, shooting at police officers. There is a broken window behind him.
Orion Pictures.

With mechanical limbs, the Terminator would not logically be flexible with its movements. As Arnold and James discussed during a sitdown, the machine has to be efficient with its movements to both preserve energy and stay within the confines of its metallic chassis.

The role needed someone to play the part of a robot. Convincingly.

Who better than a champion bodybuilder? A 6-time Mr. Olympus?

Arnold’s Bodybuilding and Mechanical Movements

Competitive bodybuilding is not only about beefing up your physique and finding the perfect symmetry. Bodybuilding goes down to the overall presentation of the contestant.

The judges score them based on how fluidly they can transition from one pose to the other.

In the first scene of the Pumping Iron documentary, Arnold was getting lessons from a ballerina. The masculine icon was learning feminine poses! Imagine that.

A black and white photo of Arndol Schwarzenegger in a bodybuilding competition. He is without a shirt and is striking a pose.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While you need to display how well the human body can be sculpted, you also need to showcase its elegance in a kinesthetic sense. All the weights you lift and protein powder you ingest are secondary when the day of the competition arrives. Your posing has to be on point.

Throughout the first Terminator, Arnold perfectly captured the machine’s movements with his powerful limbs and posing expertise. His gait, limb movements, and head turns radiated coldness and a lack of humanity beneath the flesh.

In contrast to Reese’s fear and paranoia, the Terminator exuded malevolence and laser-eyed determination to find and murder its target.

For the limited acting that Arnold had, he fit comfortably in the role given. The “perfect” actor found the perfect role.

The Terminator – A Dark Future Kept in the Dark

The man and machine hailing from the future represented an era that didn’t need to be shown explicitly on screen, save for some brief flashbacks.

Cameron didn’t need to show us any hamfisted scenes of John Connor giving a rousing speech to his Resistance compadres. In fact, John Connor wasn’t shown in the first movie at all.

Scene from The Terminator. Arndol Schwarzenegger is wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses. He is at the police station, looking for Sarah Connor.

We can tell how bad the future is by simply focusing on these two characters and how they interact with the film’s present time.

Kyle’s survivor sense allowed him to slip through the police after being warped back.

The Terminator’s cold-blooded nature allowed him to effortlessly mow down scores of officers in their own police station.

Perhaps due to budget constraints, Cameron gave us a simple introductory narrative card and a few nighttime scenes while merely hinting at things.

We, the viewers were left with our own imaginations to fill in the blanks. Sometimes what we see and hear in our heads is more terrifying than whatever is produced on a screen.

Cinematic Narrative – Macro vs. Micro

Oftentimes, focusing on the film’s macro-level narrative quickly loses its relevance to the audience. The only way we can relate to said macro-level narrative is by seeing micro-level tension that is a byproduct of the former.

Don’t show us buildings blowing up, show us the faces and reactions of the humans who lived there, now without a home.

Scene in The Terminator. Sarah and Kyle are at the motel, before their love scene. Sarah is looking at Kyle with pity, upon learning about his struggles.

Don’t show us humans being wiped out by a computer’s nuclear blast, show us the long-term effects of the fallout. Show us the dirty faces and trembling hands looking for rats to eat.

The Terminator is a jewel that came from a pile of coal.

It was a movie that was destined to fail and fade away but was saved by Cameron’s smart directing and Arnold’s and Biehn’s visceral performances.

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