Right after my father bought our first VCR, I talked him into renting Terminator to christen it. I hadn't seen it but friends insisted it was great. My father reluctantly agreed, though judging by Terminator's cover and storyline, he scoffed, saying, "Come on, this is stupid!"
Two hours later, as the Schwarzenegger cyborg rose yet again from what should have been its doom, my father had his knees on the chair and elbows on the kitchen table, lurching forward, yelling, "Jesus Christ! It's back! The goddamn thing is coming back!'"
Terminator actually made you root for the humans, the good guys. Which was an accomplishment: John Connor and Sarah Connor both reminded me of the kind of half-hick yuppie jocks from my hometown in San Jose, a loathsome species, and humans in general, well, they're just not all that sympathetic. I'm always willing to root for the alien/shark/zombie to slaughter humans in large numbers and in horrifyingly violent ways. But in Terminator, the humans were so doomed and such underdogs, almost like Dostoevskii's little children, that they became actually sympathetic.
Terminator was a great sci-fi thriller and that was it. Schwarzenegger played his role as the villain well - he killed hundreds of people, all sorts, the types who never died in movies, like 20-somethings dancing in 80s discos, or cops in a precinct. Even though it was never explained why a cyborg would speak English with an Austrian accent, you somehow accepted it. The role fit him well, he lucked out; at the time he was still considered a joke of an actor, and he was. And still is.
What happened after that, as the Reagan Era transformed from aggressive stupidity to campy collaboration, was something I hadn't thought about much until I saw Terminator 3 last Sunday. Schwarzenegger's appeal crossed from adolescent Middle American males to a kind of half-ironic cult status with the punk avant-garde, who claimed Terminator as one of their own. Today it may not seem so obvious, but even seven years after punk first shook Anglo-American underground culture, it rarely ever was allowed to be represented in anything as mass-oriented as film. So punks were more forgiving than they should have been. Schwarzenegger's character appealed to them because he was violent, anti-social, fearless, misanthropic, and more importantly, he had short hair, a scowl, wore leather and wrap-around sunglasses. The fact that he couldn't act itself fit in with the punk ethic. He was even kind enough to murder some punk rockers in the beginning of the film, something punks appreciated. Another thing that made Schwarzenegger appealing to punk intellectuals was that the movie's violence and his persona were completely incomprehensible to both the hippie intellectuals still dominant in the early-80s, as well as the ever-loathsome Christians. Punks were happy to form a coalition against them with Middle American trash.
Within a few years, the academics and "liberal elite" intellectuals got wise: they went populist. By the end of the 1980s, the rush to embrace and claim Schwarzenegger became one of the most flagrant symbols of the once-liberal intelligentsia's surrender to populism. They clearly didn't enjoy watching Terminator on a gut level, but they knew they had to like it. Thus, Terminator and Schwarzenegger became the subjects for gazillions of film theory theses, in which hordes of loathsome twerps and careerists used obfuscatory theory language to snuff out any discussion of gut reaction. The movie mattered because it de/(con)struct-ed some notion of Self and Other, etc. Middlebrows, hiding their revulsion for violence, celebrated Schwarzenegger for his campy value. That intellectual cover cast a kind of sleeping spell over America's opinion-makers: squeezed between cowed liberal intellectuals trying to connect with America, a punk sensibility that had merged with the aggressive corporate culture of the time, and the masses of Middle American males who genuinely liked Schwarzenegger, he somehow became the most overrated, untouchable, and pound-for-pound least talented, sleaziest actor of our time. If you criticized Arnold, it meant that you "just didn't get it."