The nuclear holocaust has already happened as The Terminator begins, and the usual postcataclysm mopping up is in progress--the kind of Hobbesian nightmare projected in The Road Warrior, Blade Runner and Red Dawn. But hope springs eternal. We are led to believe that historical cause and effect are reversible, that the future can reinvent the past. The bad guys of the postwar world are not really guys of the but machines, and they send one of their kind back to the twentieth century to eliminate the human ancestor of their only effective opponent. The time traveler is an advanced android, or cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who simply won't take no for an answer. He fashions an impressive arsenal from an ordinary ammo shop and goes about blasting everything in sight on the theory that his prey will get hit in the barrage. But the target mother has a protector as well. The good guys from the future (real humans) send their own representative back to L.A. (where else?) to warn her and forestall Terminator Schwarzenegger as best he can.
There's more mayhem in their brief encounters than has been seen in years of sci-fi movies, but it is neither sickening nor particularly terrifying. We're talking hard-core comics now, and The Terminator is no more real than "Superheroes" or "Masters of the Universe." What's more, it is fast and funny and it takes us into its campy confidences. When one character tries to explain the space-time dynamic and how it is possible for effects to influence their causes, she gives up in exasperation. "If you try to figure it out," she confesses, "you go crazy." I can imagine the writers coming up with that line late one night after a frustrating session on the Kaypro.
Schwarzenegger is said to have been offered the human part but chose the cyborg role instead. It was a brilliant choice. More humongous than the Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla, fiercer than King Kong, bulkier than the Incredible Hulk, he has finally found his movie metier. Linda Hamilton is effective as the once and future mother, and James Cameron constructs his movie with the slap and dash of an early Carpenter. They hardly make good "B" movies like this anymore, but they should.