- Directors: James Cameron
- Producers: Gale Anne Hurd
- Writers: Harlan Ellison, James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, William Wisher Jr
- Genres: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
- Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton
The film opens in the ruins of Los Angeles in 2029, showing that the world has been devastated by nuclear war. Intelligent machines control the post-apocalyptic Earth, and are determined to exterminate the human race. The action then shifts from the future to May 12, 1984. Two men appear in Los Angeles in separate locations, manifesting in sudden, blinding flash-storms of electricity. One is heavily muscular, and appears unscathed by his journey; the other man, slim and wiry, seems to have been weakened by his journey, though he regains his strength fairly quickly. Both men are naked. The mysterious muscular man (Arnold Schwarzenegger) obtains clothes and weapons and begins hunting down all women named “Sarah Connor”, using a phone book to track his targets. He successfully kills the first two of the three listed women. When he attempts to kill the last Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), he is stopped by the other man, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who has also been gathering weapons and equipment. It transpires that Reese has been sent back in time to protect her.
While hiding from their assailant in a parking garage, Reese explains that the man hunting Sarah is actually a cyborg assassin called a “Terminator”, built by Skynet, an artificial intelligence network created by Cyberdyne Systems. In the near future, Reese explains, Skynet gained self-awareness, intitiated a global takeover of military hardware, and launched a nuclear war against humanity. Skynet ordered that a scant number of humans were to be kept alive in order to be used as slave labor. John Connor, Sarah’s son, rallied the few remaining humans and led a resistance movement against the machines. After a grinding campaign, the human resistance was on the verge of victory; in a last-ditch effort, Skynet sent the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah before John was born, preventing the resistance from ever being founded and (presumably) allowing the machines to win by default. Reese volunteered to follow the Terminator back in time to protect Sarah; after his use of the time transportation equipment, it was to be destroyed by the resistance in order to prevent further Terminators from going back in time.
The end of the film shows Sarah pregnant and traveling in Mexico on November 10, 1984. She records audio tapes which she intends to play for her son, John, at some point in his life. She reveals to the tape that John is Reese’s son, conceived during their night at the motel six months earlier (see Predestination paradox), although she expresses doubt as to whether or not she will reveal to John the identity of his father. While Sarah’s car is being refueled, a young Mexican boy takes a picture of her, which John will give to Reese decades in the future.The boy shouts a warning about the approaching weather in Spanish, which the gas station’s owner translates as “a storm is coming”. Sarah wistfully responds, “I know”, pulls out of the gas station, and drives into the distance where storm clouds are approaching over mountains. The end credits start to roll as her Jeep disappears.