A cyborg assassin called "The Terminator" is sent back through time to 1984 to kill the seemingly innocent Sarah Connor - a woman whose unborn son will lead the human race to victory in a bitter future war with a race of machines. If the Terminator succeeds, mankind is doomed. Sarah's only hope is a soldier from that post-apocalyptic war, who has chased the Terminator back through time. The future of the human race depends on which one finds her first...
When James Cameron started shopping around his Terminator script in the early 80s studio enthusiasm was, to put it mildly, muted. Why should it have been otherwise? Cameron, after all, was then a relatively unknown quantity whose first and only movie (Piranha II: Flying Killers) hardly ranked alongside Citizen Kane in the pantheon of great Hollywood debuts. Nor did the collective studio pulse quicken at the idea of D-list character actor Lance Henriksen playing the film's eponymous death machine.
Finally, Cameron decided that merely running through a bog standard pitch wasn't quite getting the message across and, before a meeting with the independent production company Hemdale, persuaded Henriksen that the executive responsible needed to be shown the power of what he intended. "I went in decked out like The Terminator," recalls the actor. "With gold foil from a cigarette packet over my teeth and a cut on my head. I kicked the door open and the poor secretary just about swallowed her typewriter. I sat in the room with (the executive) and wouldn't talk to him. I just kept looking at him. After a few minutes of that he was ready to jump out the window."
Hemdale agreed to back Cameron and, once Henriksen nobly stepped aside in favour of the then hot-ish Arnold Schwarzenegger, put up a sizeable chunk of the film's $6m budget. It proved to be an investment that would be paid back many times with The Terminator racking up a box office gross of around $60m. Indeed, Schwarzenegger's shades-sporting time-travelling cyborg would become nothing less than a cinematic icon as he laid waste to Los Angeles in an attempt to kill Linda Hamilton and hence irrevocably change the future to humanity's detriment.
Yet, even after being given the greenlight by Hemdale, there is no doubt that the fortunes of the film itself could have gone either way. Certainly, back in the mid-80s, having Arnold Schwarzenegger in your film was no guarantee of success. The Austrian Oak's previous movie, Conan The Destroyer, had performed disappointingly while his next, the Brigitte Nielsen-staring Red Sonja, would pretty much sink without trace. To mainstream cinemagoers Schwarzenegger was little more than a joke, a mumbling behemoth whose grasp of both acting and the English language, appeared minimal at best. Moreover, The Terminator's budget, while sizeable compared to Piranha II, appeared disastrously small given the amount of Stan Winston-assisted special effects that the director had in mind. Finally, there was the problem of how much of the film Cameron had half-inched from other sources. Certainly fans of Michael Crichton's Westworld couldn't help but notice the similarity between the Terminator and Yul Bryner's invincible robo-cowboy while the film's premise of a sentient all-controlling computer that would wage war against humanity was similar to a short story by sci-fi author Harlan Ellison.
"I loved the movie" says Ellison. "Was just blown away by it. I walked out of the cinema, went home and called my lawyer." (Ellison would eventually receive a credit after threatening legal action.) Indeed, the fact that Cameron's film would become one of cinema history's headline-grabbers rather than a shoddy footnote is largely due to the obsessive, if not downright maniacal, determination of its director. A college drop out, the Canadian-born Cameron honed his technical skills, like so many others, at Roger Corman's New World company before graduating to fully-fledged director on Piranha II. Unfortunately the filmmaker fell out with the movie's Italian producer who informed Cameron that the dailies were "shit" and locked him out of the editing room — forcing the director to break in at night and secretly splice together his own movie.
On The Terminator, Cameron decided, the movie would be done his way or not at all. And if that meant personally demonstrating stunts or even having to tell Schwarzenegger exactly where to put each of his limbs at any given time then so be it. "Jim would say, 'I want you to lay there Arnold,'" recalls Henricksen who played LA cop Sergeant Vukovich. "'Then, when I tell you, I want you to start lifting up with your head. Then your shoulders, Then I want you to sit up. Then I want you to look straight up.' He had to give up any ego at all."
Schwarzenegger threw himself into the part, enduring hours in the make-up chair and training in the use of guns so as to demonstrate a robotic lack of emotion despite the mayhem going on around him. It was a commitment, like that of the financiers, which would be handsomely rewarded. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn may have been the film's nominal heroes but it was Schwarzenegger who would indeed "be back". "No matter what I did after that," says Schwarzenegger. "People always come up to me and ask, 'When are you going to do another Terminator?'"
Cameron, meanwhile, would find himself back on the sequel treadmill for his next project, Aliens — although this time no one would have the nerve to lock him out of anywhere.
As chillingly efficient in exacting thrills from its audience as its titular character is in executing its targets.