I’ve found that it can be difficult to separate personal feelings from movies when I’m reviewing them. For reasons I won’t go into, I have a bit of a soft spot for The Terminator. So that’s always going to flavour the way I view the movie and the story it communicates.
The Terminator begins with a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing in a flash of light before beating up a group of punks and stealing their clothes. Shortly after this, another naked guy appears in his own flash of light and has a much harder time getting his own set of clothing. These strange gentlemen both proceed to phone booths, open up the phonebook (haven’t they heard of just Googling someone?), and search for the same person: one of three women named Sarah Connor.
Arnold starts tracking down these women and systematically eliminating them. The Sarah we’re supposed to care about turns out to be a young woman (Linda Hamilton) who waitresses at kind of a sh*tty restaurant and lives with a roommate who’s wayyyyyy into eighties music. Sarah’s at work when she learns about the first Sarah Connor murder; understandably it shakes her up a bit, but she doesn’t break her plans to go out that night, even when her skeezeball date cancels.
She heads out on the town (oh, yeah, the roommate and her boyfriend are killed in the meantime) but quickly gets freaked out when she realizes she’s being followed. This realization turns to horror when the news informs her of the second Sarah Connor murder. Sarah calls the cops, who think they’re dealing with a serial killer. Arnold shows up at the techno club where she’s hanging out (because those were apparently real things in ’80s-land) and tries to kill her. But the second guy, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), shows up and fills Arnold with just all of the bullets.
On to Scene 24, which is a smashing high-speed car chase with some lovely exposition. It turns out that both Arnold and Reese are from the distant future of 2029. An artificial intelligence called Skynet took over the world and caused a massive holocaust. But under the leadership of a man named John Connor, after years of suffering the humans put up such a good fight that they were on the brink of victory. As a last-ditch attempt to alter the course of the future, the machines sent a cyborg, or Terminator, back in time to kill John’s mother and ensure he is never born. (That would be Sarah, in case you were wondering.)
The chase scene ends badly, and both Sarah and Reese are taken back to the police station to answer some questions. The Terminator follows them there and shoots up the police station. Reese and Sarah flee and end up in a seedy motel. While making homemade explosives, Reese tells Sarah about his tragic history as a holocaust survivor and informs her that he agreed to this mission because he wanted to meet her. Sarah doesn’t believe that she’s anyone special, but Reese insists that she’ll become a badass who will see the robot war approaching and train her son to survive it.
He then confesses that he’s been in love with her during his entire adult life, ever since John Connor gave him a picture of her for no discernible reason. Overwhelmed by the situation, Reese’s love for her, and probably murder-related shock, Sarah kisses him and they have sex.
Shortly after, the Terminator finds them. There’s another car chase, during which Sarah and Reese throw explosives at him to no effect, because good aim doesn’t exist until it really, really counts. The chase ends in a massive explosion, revealing the Terminator’s metal skeleton and the fairly impressive skills of ’80s-era special effects teams. He pursues Sarah and Reese into a nearby factory. Reese uses their remaining explosives to blow off the Terminator’s legs, but he dies in the process. Sarah then crushes the Terminator in some kind of industrial press, finally killing it for good.
About six months later, Sarah’s in Mexico preparing to become one of those crazy survivalist people. She’s visibly pregnant and is recording messages to her unborn son as a coping mechanism. After some deliberation, she tells John who his father is and that they loved each other in the short time they were together. While she’s thinking about him, a little Mexican kid takes her picture—the picture Reese will eventually receive and fall in love with—and Sarah tucks it away for safekeeping. The movie ends with the declaration that a storm is coming and the implication that Sarah will be ready for it.
To most people, this movie is an action flick with a nice little romantic side story. But to me, this is entirely a tragic love story affected by a violent present and an unimaginably horrific future. The shoot-‘em-up bits were entirely secondary to the love story itself. Now try to hold your vomit in: I totally have justification for this opinion.
Let’s start with Reese. He grows up during the end of the world, and the only way he can cope with that is by fighting back. It’s a hard life full of fear and uncertainty; he probably knows full well that if he ever cared about anyone he knew, he would eventually lose that person. So when John Connor gives him the photo of Sarah, Reese latches onto it for comfort. True, Kyle probably projects all kinds of expectations onto her image. He already knows that Sarah is John’s mother and that she’s a badass, so Reese expects her to have both maternal and military instincts right off the bat.
In spite of his likely desire for a “safe” relationship, one in which he won’t lose the object of his affections, he eventually grows to love Sarah — or his idea of her — to the point where he gives up the safe relationship to keep Sarah herself safe, no matter what that might mean for them or even for him. And when he meets her, he probably sees that she’s not at all the person he was expecting: she’s not yet a mother, and her first experience with violence is in part because of him.
But here’s the interesting thing: Reese keeps loving her anyway. Whether it’s because he’s in love with a future version of her, and thus knows that she’ll eventually become that person, or whether he recognizes that present Sarah is her own kind of special, Reese gives up his relationship with the picture and starts a real relationship with the real Sarah.
Now let’s get to Sarah. As evidenced by her skeezeball boyfriend cancelling their date, she hasn’t had much luck with guys before the story begins. Then her life completely falls apart: some relentless threat is coming after her because of something she hasn’t done yet, and the threat just keeps coming and won’t ever, ever stop. In the middle of all this uncertainty is one single source of safety and the answers she needs. On top of that, this person has loved her for a long time before even meeting her. Doesn’t it make perfect sense to meet that person’s affection with her own?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something mildly unsettling about falling in love with a guy after meeting him just a day earlier, especially when you meet that guy while he’s shooting up a nightclub. And it’s even more unsettling to sleep with that guy when you don’t even know if he’s got future-herpes or anything. I’m just saying, this is probably exactly the kind of thing Sarah’s mother should’ve warned her about before the Terminator horribly killed her.
But if you look at the big picture — girl who’s got nothing left in the world meets guy who never had anything in the world and they get together — it’s actually pretty amazing. And if you go even more big picture, there’s so much stuff riding on them (apart from each other, I mean — heyo). If Reese had never fallen in love with Sarah, he might never have gone back. But let’s say he did anyway. Let’s say he was the good soldier who went back to protect his commander’s mother. If he and Sarah had never fallen in love, John Connor would never have been born.
And if that had never happened, the war with Skynet would have been over far sooner and ended in the destruction of the human race, meaning the machines never would have sent a Terminator back in the first place to kill Sarah. True, the whole war may have been Sarah’s fault (I haven’t seen T2 yet, but I think I know a spoiler), but essentially, the future of the human race rested with Reese and Sarah falling in love with each other. Don’t you think that’s a lot more important than a lot of violence and action?
Okay, yes, the violence and the action was pretty dang awesome. The first time I watched this movie, I had to cover my eyes while the Terminator opened up his arm and skinned his eyeball. The second time around wasn’t nearly as bad. I mean, his face looked pretty plastic in some parts, but I can give that a pass given the state of special effects at that time.
But I didn’t look at this as an action or sci-fi flick. Like I said before, I saw this as a love story. And quite honestly, it’s one of the better love stories I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t sappy or overwrought or full of emotion and longing and heartache and choreographed musical numbers (although don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that stuff). It was real, or as real as you can get when the story involves time-travelling cyborgs. The relationship between Reese and Sarah felt real, and that’s hilarious given that it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Overall, this is surprisingly one of my favourite movies. I didn’t realize that until just now, but I think this movie is one of the better ones I’ve ever seen for its balance of romance and action, and for its dependence on the former rather than using it to enhance the latter. You don’t know how annoying it is to me, seeing action movies where the girls just exist to be sexed up. The girl was just as big a badass as the guy, the sex was completely consensual, and it all resulted in a baby that would grow up to save all of humanity.
If that’s not true love, I don’t know what the hell is.
Final Grade: A
- The opening sequence was actually super sick.
- There are three shots of people opening a phone book and searching for Sarah Connor. Two of these are on a right-hand page, but one is on a left-hand page. Isn’t one single company responsible for printing the phone book? And if that’s the case, why would there be a difference in the way pages are printed? The only thing I could think of would be if the left-hand result is in an older or newer phone book, but that would either require A) a lot of just-turned-legal people to be added to the phone book or B) a lot of people to have just died. I’m seriously overthinking this, aren’t I?
- I’m a little bit in love with Pugsley. Do they think he’s a dog? Does he think he’s a dog? Or do they just enjoy messing with people? Who even cares.
- Everyone thinks “I’ll be back” is such a great and iconic line, but I’m such a bigger fan of “Come with me if you want to live.”
- I can’t decide if “only living matter can go through the vortex” is a brilliant way to get around ‘80s special effects and use a human actor, or if it’s an even more brilliant way to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger that yes, his butt absolutely has to be on camera.
- Why did the motel room absolutely need to have a kitchen? This was not explained and it’s driving me mental. Was it for making the plastiques? For gas line-related backup security measures? For making delicious waffles? WHAT WAS IT.
- I love that this movie revolves around preserving the existence of John Connor, and yet we don’t even see him. How’s that for good storytelling? That is all.