Terminator, The (1984): Critical Response Then, Later, Now

Critical Response: The Test of Time 

It’s All Relative

How reviewers and the shifting socio-political and cinematic contexts in which they operate have affected the critical response to the movie and its artistic status in film history,

Upon initial release, in October of 1984, the critical responses to The Terminator were mixed, ranging from praise to complete dismissal.

Variety praised the film as a “blazing, cinematic comic book, full of virtuoso moviemaking, terrific momentum, solid performances and compelling story … Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast in a machine-like portrayal that requires only a few lines of dialog.”

Richard Corliss of Time magazine said that the film had “plenty of tech-noir savvy to keep infidels and action fans satisfied.” He placed The Terminator on its “10 Best” list for 1984.

The Los Angeles Times called the film “a crackling thriller full of all sorts of gory treats … loaded with fuel-injected chase scenes, clever special effects and a sly humor.”

The Milwaukee Journal called it “the most chilling science fiction thriller since Alien.”

The distinguishing virtue of The Terminator is its relentless tension. Right from the start it’s all action and violence with no time taken to set up a more detailed story,

It’s like a streamlined Dirty Harry movie – no exposition at all; just guns, guns and more guns.”

Not since The Road Warrior has the genre exhibited so much exuberant carnage” and an example of science fiction/horror at its best.

As director, Cameron’s no-nonsense approach will make him a sought-after commodity.”

The Monthly Film Bulletin praised the film’s script, special effects, design and Schwarzenegger’s performance.

Linda Hamilton is admirable as the woman in peril who discovers her own strength to survive, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is eerily scary as the unstoppable cyborg.

An unabashedly B-movie, but one with style with flair.

The Pittsburgh Press dismissed the film as “just another of the films drenched in artsy ugliness like Streets of Fire and Blade Runne.”

The Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars, noting that “at times it’s horrifyingly violent and suspenseful at others it giggles at itself. This schizoid style actually helps, providing a little humor just when the sci-fi plot turns too sluggish or the dialogue too hokey.”

The Newhouse News Service called the film a “lurid, violent, pretentious piece of claptrap.”

Scottish author Gilbert Adair called the film “repellent to the last degree,” charging it with “insidious Nazification” and with an “appeal rooted in an unholy compound of fascism, fashion and fascination.”

Reappraisal and Reevaluation, from 3 Stars to 5 Stars?

In later years, many critics changed their mind, observing that what originally seemed an inflated, if generous and energetic big picture, now seems quite a good little film.

Others went so far as to claim that The Terminator was “one of the most original movies of the 1980s and likely to remain one of the best sci-fi films ever made.”

In 1998, Halliwell’s Film Guide described The Terminator as “slick, rather nasty but undeniably compelling comic book adventures.”

Film4 gave it five stars, calling it the “sci-fi action-thriller that launched the careers of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the stratosphere. Still endlessly entertaining.”

TV Guide gave the film 4 stars, referring to it as an “amazingly effective picture that becomes doubly impressive when one considers its small budget … For our money, this film is far superior to its mega-grossing mega-budgeted sequel.”

Empire gave it 5 stars, calling it “as chillingly efficient in exacting thrills from its audience as its titular character is in executing its targets.”

This gripping sci-fi horror thriller established James Cameron as a master of action, special effects, and quasi-mythic narrative intrigue, while turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into the hard-body star of the 1980s.

Alan Jones awarded it 5 stars out of 5 for Radio Times, writing that “maximum excitement is generated from the first frame and the dynamic thrills are maintained right up to the nerve-jangling climax. Wittily written with a nice eye for sharp detail, it’s hard sci-fi action all the way.”

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian awarded it 5 stars out of 5, stating that “on the strength of this picture, Cameron could stand toe to toe with Carpenter and Spielberg. Sadly, it spawned a string of pointless and inferior sequels, but the first Terminator stands up tremendously well with outrageous verve and blistering excitement.”

In 2008, The Terminator was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”