The Terminator topped the US box office for two weeks and helped launch Cameron's film career and solidify Schwarzenegger's. It received critical acclaim, with many praising its pacing, action scenes and Schwarzenegger's performance. Its success led to a franchise consisting of four sequels (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys), a television series, comic books, novels and video games. In 2008, The Terminator was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In 1984 Los Angeles, a cyborg assassin known as a Terminator arrives from 2029 and steals guns and clothes. Shortly afterward, Kyle Reese, a human soldier from 2029, arrives. He steals clothes and evades the police. The Terminator begins systematically killing women named Sarah Connor, whose addresses he finds in the telephone directory. He tracks the last Sarah Connor to a nightclub, but Kyle rescues her. The pair steal a car and escape with the Terminator pursuing them in a police car.
As they hide in a parking lot, Kyle explains to Sarah that an artificial intelligence defense network, known as Skynet, will become self-aware in the near future and initiate a nuclear holocaust. Sarah's future son John will rally the survivors and lead a resistance movement against Skynet and its army of machines. With the Resistance on the verge of victory, Skynet sent a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah before John is born, to prevent the formation of the Resistance. The Terminator is an efficient killing machine with a powerful metal endoskeleton and an external layer of living tissue that makes it appear human.
Kyle and Sarah are apprehended by police after another encounter with the Terminator. Criminal psychologist Dr. Silberman concludes that Kyle is paranoid and delusional. The Terminator repairs his body and attacks the police station, killing many police officers in his attempt to locate Sarah. Kyle and Sarah escape, steal another car and take refuge in a motel, where they assemble pipe bombs and plan their next move. Kyle admits that he has been in love with Sarah since John gave him a photograph of her, and they have sex.
The Terminator kills Sarah's mother and impersonates her when Sarah, unaware of the Terminator's ability to mimic victims, attempts to contact her via telephone. When they realize he has reacquired them, they escape in a pickup truck while he chases them on a motorcycle. In the ensuing chase, Kyle is wounded by gunfire while throwing pipe bombs at the Terminator. Enraged‚ Sarah knocks the Terminator off his motorcycle but loses control of the truck, which flips over. The Terminator hijacks a tank truck and attempts to run down Sarah, but Kyle slides a pipe bomb onto the tanker, causing an explosion that burns the flesh from the Terminator's endoskeleton. It pursues them to a factory, where Kyle activates machinery to confuse the Terminator. He jams his final pipe bomb into the Terminator's abdomen, blowing the Terminator apart, injuring Sarah, and killing himself. The Terminator's still functional torso reactivates and grabs Sarah. She breaks free and lures it into a hydraulic press, crushing it.