It sure is funny how memory plays tricks on you. I can tell you in which theater I saw the way ahead of its time Terminator back on initial release in 1984 (ironic that: 1984); and yet my memories of the film itself are shaded by a veil of "man that was awesome".
In viewing the film now, almost 30 years later, one can't but notice the cinematic conventions used to get around things like budget constraints, the lack of blue screen and of course, ironically, CGI. That James Cameron succeeded so well in showing us things that hadn't been seen before is a testament to his filmmaking craft, (like the very first Star Wars film, which from the opening sequence was one big Wow, ain't seen nothin' like THAT before).
So, does this iconic film still stand up? Overall, yes, even though the story, the pace, in fact the entire genre has been done to death - but yes, so much of it stems from this fountainhead of a film. Note Cameron's use of close up and focus on an item, like a gun or knife, so that he can cutaway from the action without having to try to show you things that couldn't be generated yet. His editing and pacing are superb here, and funny thing - as much as I dislike car chase scenes, so much of the film is just that (probably some of the weaker moments, really) - and it is within these car chase scenes that the film shows its age. The squeeling tires as police cars burn rubber - all so very dated now, just as the sound effects of same (obvious film "sweetening" done in post production, and again a budgetary and technology issue). Also, look at how Cameron used a shot of the skeletal cyborg's feet as he climbed the stairs in pursuit of his prey - pretty nifty, you only had to place the fake feet on the steps and move them from above camera - instead of creating CGI to show you the action... this is yet another example of how a true filmmaker gets around his limitations.
But regardless, the film is just like its main character: relentless. So very little time to catch your breath (like Aliens in that regard).
Of course there are a few picadillos to consider - first and foremost is why a cyborg is speaking with a heavy Austrian accent - but who else would you have cast for the part? Arnold is so perfect, and this is the film that gave him iconic status - even though he only says about 100 words in the entire piece. This is Arnold's film, make no mistake, even though the heavy lifting is ably done by Michael Biehn (who later showed up in Aliens) and Linda Hamilton. On the side you have the perfect minor role of Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield), the tired and yet still sharp policeman who puts together that someone is systematically killing off all the Sarah Connors. His interplay with Lance Henrickson (who later went on to star in the wonderful and underrated TV series Millennium, as well as playing Bishop, the cyborg in Alien; another Cameron film), is so effortlessly acted that it's a joy to behold. (Another interesting side note: Henrickson was originally tabbed to play the title role, but then Arnold came along...).
And talk about flashbacks - those hair styles! Yikes! Then the technology on display - clunky phone recorders, pay phones, huge video machines - wow!
In viewing this now, 30 years later, and since I knew the story and how it all played out, I had time to think - which I didn't back at the U.A. 6 in 84. Things that make you wonder - how a computer AI wouldn't have been more imaginative in trying to achieve its goal. I guess that is part of the charm, and again, a product of the non computer world of 1984 - assuming that a machine would simply take the immediate goal in front of it instead of processing the information and reaching a better conclusion (although Cameron did display a certain algorhythm in the scene where the landlord asks if there's a dead cat in Arnold's room - Arnold's HUD shows "possible responses" including the priceless "fuck off". However, it occurred to me that while Arnold was chasing Connor and shooting the hell out of the back window etc., that a cyborg should have been aware that the best way to disable a fast moving vehicle would have been to shoot the tires!!!!! Dumb machine!!!!
Anyhow, this was a nice trip to the past - and while some of my warm and fuzzy memories of this film were tripped up, and the film hasn't aged as well as I would have hoped, it still entertains. If I were to go back in time and review it in 1984 it would surely have gotten a 100 rating, but here in my jaded present, an 80 is still nothing to sneeze at.
Oh, and before I forget - here's an interesting tidbit; during the credits it states that Cameron and producer Gale Ann Hurd wrote the screenplay - and then there is a disclaimer that some of the "concepts" for the film were provided by Harlan Ellison. This made me take notice as Ellison will always be in my memory banks as the writer of perhaps the best Star Trek episode "City On The Edge of Forever", as well as the cult classic film A Boy And His Dog. Turns out that Ellison really had nothing to do with Terminator, but sued Orion claiming that some of his short stories outlined the concepts used in the film - the solution of course was a settlement and inclusion of the little disclaimer - hooray for Hollywood attorneys!