Everyone I know thinks Terminator 2 is that rarity, a sequel that's better than the original. Quite simply, they're wrong. T2: Judgement Day is a thrilling Arnie time-waster with lots of guns and 'splosions, but the film that started it all kicks its arse in almost every conceivable way.
First of all, Terminator isn't an "Arnie film" (unlike T2). Instead it's the film that created Arnie films. The archetypal Arnie film is Commando, in which we cheer on the Austrian Oak as he stomps around doing extreme violence to (a) his co-stars, (b) any cars or buildings in the vicinity and (c) the noble art of acting. The whole point of an Arnie film is that he's the unstoppably awesome hero. While it lasted (i.e. the eighties), Schwarzenegger was one of the most potent cinematic icons ever... and Terminator created that icon. Here he wasn't the hero, but the monster in a horror movie. He was terrifying, but also colossal, awesome and The Man.
Note that with the debatable exception of Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic status began with the first Terminator and ended with the second one. I'm serious. What's he done worth a damn since 1991? That may or may not be coincidence, but in T2 Arnie turned his Terminator persona into a good guy. Suddenly Robert Patrick was picking up the bad guy honours and Arnold was Cuddly Uncle Arnie. Note how closely Schwarzenegger's movie persona had been patterned on the Terminator, right down to his catchphrase of "I'll be back".
Being an Arnie film, T2: Judgement Day is basically an excuse to crack open a beer and raise a toast to all that heroic Schwarzenegger ultra-violence. On the other hand, Terminator manages to be scary, ominous and suspenseful. Yup, it's a horror movie.
Its characters' personal journeys are better than those of the sequel. Sarah Connor goes from Everywoman to hero, whereas T2 starts off with John and Sarah as unlikeable, whiny, criminally inclined sacks of shit. Terminator also gives us a great relationship between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, helped immeasurably by the time-travel aspect. There's something perfect about a clever time-travel story, and this one's a doozy. Admittedly you'll go nuts if you try to figure out the details, but Reese admits that "I don't know tech stuff" and one can always assume that there's a fuller explanation out there somewhere. And I love recursive details like that photo.
The budget was next to nothing, which will boggle your mind in itself. (Terminator was James Cameron's first feature after his Roger Corman crapwagon debut: Piranha II.) The only slightly dodgy visual is the fake Schwarzenegger head during gouged-eye scenes, but otherwise the film looks as good as any big-budget modern blockbuster. Hell, its car chases and action scenes are *better*! Terminator has a very hard look, with dark shadows, low camera angles and lots of lighting contrasts. Thus the film's atmosphere is established with lighting and mood instead of expensive effects... but for my money, the most effective images are during that quiet look at shelter life in 2029. Seeing children adds a whole new perspective to our view of that future, as does their idea of television. Personally I find that scene infinitely more affecting than the effects-laden visions of nuclear blasts in 1991.
Random trivia: apparently O.J. Simpson was originally slated to play the Terminator, but according to Cameron in 1984 "people wouldn't have believed a nice guy like O.J. playing the part of a ruthless killer".
The characterisation is always strong, even with smaller roles like the policemen. They're funny! The score is also the most memorable of any Cameron film, with that unforgettable clanking Terminator theme. I could go on to point out details like how the machines are always portrayed as crushing stuff under their feet (or treads, or wheels), or how everything bad that happens in the film is because of a machine (e.g. Sarah's answerphone telling Schwarzenegger that she's at the Technoir club)... but hell, does it matter? Terminator is a lean, dark, nasty character-based horror movie with lots of action and some shocking suspense that holds up even after repeated viewings. Knowledge of T2: Judgement Day adds a frisson to our last sight of the Terminator, but otherwise this film is a gem, perfect unto itself. One of the greatest and most influential genre films of all time.