"The Terminator" brings film violence into the realm of the surreal. A slickly made, shoot-'em-up sci-fi fantasia, it stands for the proposition that, inside the most staid local theater, there is a drive-in yearning to be free.

Sometime in the future, a Strategic Air Command computer decides to eliminate human life altogether (that sure makes its job easier); but the survivors of the ensuing holocaust, led by the mysterious John Connor, band together against the machines. So the wily computer time-warps a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into contemporary Los Angeles to kill Connor's mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton), before she can conceive him. Her only hope lies in Kyle Reese (the attractively earnest Michael Biehn), one of Connor's Merry Men who zips into the past to protect her.

A Terminator (as if you didn't know) is a killing machine made of TV cameras, microprocessors and indestructible metal, onto which living human tissue is grafted to lend a human appearance -- it's sort of the dark side of the "Six Million Dollar Man." Director and cowriter James Cameron gives us fascinating glimpses of a Terminator's eye view -- a television screen in infrared, with gobs of meaningless data computer-printed along the borders. And Emmy-winning makeup artist Alan Winston ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") achieves some startlingly grotesque effects, particularly when the Terminator, stopping to repair the damage from a few shotgun blasts, saws into his own flesh with an Exacto blade.

As a robot, Arnold Schwarzenegger has finally found a role appropriate to his talents. Schwarzenegger never found the right style for the "Conan" movies -- he was too busy striving for actorish effects to have any fun. But here, shot in low angles to make him seem even larger, peering down over the great prognathous slab of his jaw, his face sealed in a permanent grimace, Schwarzenegger's every appearance is a howl. As wittily created by Cameron and cowriter Gale Anne Hurd, he's not just a remorseless killer -- he's the Thing That Won't Go Away.

Why anyone would invent a robot with an accent as thick as Black Forest cake is never explained, but that's the kind of goofy incongruity you look forward to in movies like "The Terminator." And the movie gets a lot of mileage out of gun love -- this will have no part of what Mickey Spillane calls "sissy .38s." Instead, he rampages around the City of Angels with a nine-millimeter Uzi in one hand and a 12-gauge autoloader in the other, adding a .45 long-slide with laser sight to provide a note of delicacy.

Cameron began his career as a special-effects expert with the ebulliently exploitative New World Pictures; Hurd started out with Roger Corman. These origins explain the high garbagey style of "The Terminator," the way it gleefully pillages everything from "The Forbin Project" to "Escape from the Planet of the Apes," everyone from John Carpenter to Luis Bun uel. Cameron throws in every effect in the director's manual, and the movie is noisy with car chases, shattering glass, shotgun blasts and explosions, all shot in lustrous, strobe-lit gun-metal blues.

The road of excess may not lead to the palace of wisdom, but it sure is fun. As Lt. Traxler, a cop investigating all these terminations, Paul Winfield ("Sounder") gives a wonderful cameo performance. Chewing gum and smoking at the same time, moving languorously through the precinct halls behind his big, swaying belly, Winfield picks up a stale cup of coffee and, informed that someone dropped a cigarette in it, takes a sip without skipping a beat -- he's the ultimate imperturbable bureaucrat. He's having fun, too.