"The Terminator" opens in Los Angeles in 2029 A.D., at night while enemy Hunter Killer hovercraft prowl the post-apocalyptic rubble of the city for human prey. Heavy combat vehicles with massive treads crush hundreds of human skulls into powder while human survivors exchange fire with skeletal metal terminators with fiery red eyes. A preamble of sorts comes up and sets the scene: "The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here in our present . . . tonight." The actual story unfolds at 1:52 AM when a garbage truck driver watches crackling blue plasma-type waves envelope him and his vehicle.
A garbage truck operator is emptying trash bins when a plasma-like web of jagged blue lighting bolts envelopes his vehicle and shuts the vehicle down. He flees when the T-101 Terminator assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger of "Conan") appears naked out of nowhere. Skynet has dispatched the T-101 from the future back to the year 1984 to assassinate the mother of resistance leader John Connor. The naked T-101 saunters up to three punks at the Griffith Park Observatory overlooking Los Angeles. An obnoxious, blue-haired punk (Bill Paxton of "Aliens" and "Twister") and his friend (veteran heavy Brian Thompson of "Sudden Impact" and "Cobra") ridicule the T-101. The Terminator kills both of them while the third strips off his clothing. Meanwhile, elsewhere in L.A., another naked man, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn of "The Rock") materializes from the future. He steals a homeless man's pants, evades the L.A.P.D., breaks into a clothing store, steals Nike sneakers and a trench coat. Whereas the T-101 wants to kill Sarah, Kyle sets out to save this damsel-in-distress! Not surprisingly, young Sarah Connor doesn't have a clue that anybody yearns to either murder her or save her.
Sarah works at a fast-food restaurant. The T-101 finds three Sarah Connors in the L.A. phone book and kills the first two and then invades Sarah's apartment and kills her roommate Ginger and Matt (Rick Rossovich of "Top Gun") her boyfriend. Eventually, Sarah discovers what is happening and holes up at the Tech Noir nightclub where the T-101 tracks her down. Kyle Reese rescues Sarah, and they flee, but the L.A.P.D. capture them. Reese has to cough up his far-fetched story to a by pompous psychologist Dr. Peter Silberman (Earl Boen of "Alien Nation") who doesn't believe a syllable of his saga. Silberman diagnoses Reese as suffering from paranoid delusions and boasts that he make a career out of analyzing the guy's stories. During Reese's interrogation scene at police headquarters with Silberman, Cameron and co-writers Gale Ann Hurd and an uncredited William Wisher, Jr., provide audiences with crucial expository information about Skynet and the war with the cyborgs that seek to annihilate mankind.
The bulk of "The Terminator" concerns the T-101's tireless efforts to kill Sarah while Reese struggles to lead her to safety. During their flight, Reese and Sarah become romantically involved and Reese gets Sarah pregnant with future resistance leader John Connor. Talk about twisted time travel?! Cameron intersperses a flashback to the future where a T-101 (Schwarzenegger's pal Franco Columbu of "Beretta's Island") invades a resistance bunker and goes on a murderous rampage before he is eliminated. Throughout the blazing action sequences, Cameron gradually strips the T-101 down to its alloyed metal endoskeleton. Reese explains to Silberman that a Terminator is a cyborg, half-man, and half-machine that will never stop until it kills Sarah. Everybody at the police station regards Reese as a fruit cake with his unbelievable story until the T-101 shows up with an arsenal of weapons and shoots up the premises, killing at least 17 cops. Reese and Sarah escape, hid out in a motel where they build pipe bombs, but the resourceful T-101 finds Sarah's mother, kills her off-screen, and imitates her so that it can learn Sarah's whereabouts. Another ramped up chase ensues with the T-101 caught in a blazing 18-wheeler. The fire scorches its entire body in the last 15 minutes so that all that remains is the skeleton. Reese dies blowing the skeleton in two. The torso of the T-101 continues to stalk Sarah until she crushes it in a tool manufacturing factory so that only the hand and forearm, which appears in the sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." James Cameron has more road trip action in this thriller than actual science fiction, but the action-packed scenes more than deliver their quota of thrills and chills. One of the earliest scenes in a pawnshop has the T-101 gathering an arsenal of hardware from an unsuspecting clerk (Dick Miller) and then killing him instead of paying for it. The "I'll be back" scene at the police station massacre is probably the best scene in this supercharged little spine-tingler.