The old adage of 'less is more' is proved right with The Terminator. The subsequent sequels, reimagings and reboots seem overblown and self indulgent in comparison and I will say this even of the TV series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles, the reimaging that comes closest to the original in my opinion. Seeing this movie on the big screen for the first time highlighted how all elements of a film, especially action set pieces, need to support the story and not the other way round. The restrictions of the budget ($6.5 million) and the talent of the production team led to special effects innovation with a combination of stop motion and visual effects, and a focus on character and story over expensive technical flash and bangs. Can you believe it? An action science fiction film where there is an emotional anchor. The key element that most blockbusters today are lacking. This is Sarah Conner's (Linda Hamilton) story and her horror at her situation, the terror she feels as a victim and her courage as she takes charge and saves herself by the end of the movie is the journey we go through as an audience member. In my opinion, the audience always needs a surrogate in an action film and a good action movie makes this surrogate the lead or at least the emotional lead (see Marie in The Bourne Identity. Jason is a mechanism and metaphor, which is why the sequels are pretty but not fulfilling as soon as Marie exits). The Terminator sequels make Arnie the emotional anchor and that is where they go wrong. He becomes a collection of fish out of water scenarios punctuated by quotes, not an audience surrogate that works for me, although it seems to work for some.
Like Jaws before it, the lack of budget for The Terminator forces James Cameron to reveal the machine beneath the living tissue incrementally, ratcheting up the tension with well structured suspense. The imagination is more powerful than the real thing. What really struck me while watching the film was how gritty the action sequences were. Each impact is felt. You feel the exhaustion and sweatiness of Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) and Sarah as they run until they cannot run anymore. And speaking of the two human leads, they do very well in creating a connection in a very short period and selling the heck out of it. So much so that the ending is quite sad. The glimpses of the future are well done and install the sense of doom that ultimately stays with you after the credits role. Not a completely happy ending for this film. It was a great film to revisit and to see on the big screen. And as always it is great to see the Bill Paxton cameo.