That’s right, I am reviewing something that isn’t a book!
Because it’s refreshing to sometimes divert to something else, I decided that once a week for Sci-Fi Month, I would watch and then write about a science fiction film. This week, the film of choice was James Cameron’s The Terminator.
I picked this movie because it’s one that, for all of its pop culture significance and despite having a fondness for it, I hadn’t actually seen this for years. I remembered how the plot went, and there were a few scenes that had stuck in my memory for reasons I will explore here, but remembering them and being familiar with the movie are different things. So, I decided to revisit it and see how accurate my memories were.
(If you missed it last night, there’s a Storify archive of my livetweeting here!)
OK, now everybody knows the story of The Terminator, right? Self-aware artificial intelligence, killer cyborg from the future, Resistance soldier sent to stop him, mother of a future saviour caught up in it all. We’ve bought the T-shirts and said That Line at some point in our nerdy lives. The imagery is among some of the best known in the entire geek universe, so I was ready for all of that.
What I wasn’t ready for, after all this time, was how hard the story beneath it all would punch me in the feelings.
It’s also pretty much a given by now that, for fans of this franchise, perhaps the one thing that can give all of that iconic Arnold-ness a run for its money is Linda Hamilton’s performance as Sarah Connor. I admit to being a bit of a purist here, because the more recent TV series and most certainly the newer movies in this franchise have held about as much interest for me as reading a 1984 Los Angeles phone book. Nobody outdoes the original for me. (Well, Lena Headey could maaaybe put up a good fight – but then she usually does, am I right?)
Anyway. Linda Hamilton, you guys. Amid an abundance of cheesy action movies where the main female character is more likely to be found screaming, running away and/or being rescued since she can’t bloody well stand up for herself because then what good is the Super Heroic Male Lead, there’s this lady. Now if we’re checking boxes, then yes, Sarah Connor screams and runs and is rescued – but look twice and you’ll see a number of very important, nuanced differences. When she’s faced with the very understandably terrifying facts about her future and the reasons she’s being targeted by an unstoppable killer, Sarah listens to Reese. She realises she’s in a whole world of trouble, but that this guy is obviously trying to help – so she asks questions when she has a chance. (Reese also recognises that it’s better for her to know and is therefore upfront with her, but I’ll get to him in a bit.)
It takes some time for Sarah to come to terms with who and what she’s apparently destined to be, and it doesn’t happen without a bit of freaking out. All of that is perfectly understandable. What’s impressive about her is that, given the choice between entrusting Kyle Reese with her life and safety in their entirety and taking both into her own hands with his help (there are those nuanced differences again), Sarah takes control where she can. She asks questions, arming herself with as much understanding as Kyle can provide. She lets him teach her how to make pipe bombs, and therefore literally arms herself. When she runs, she’s baiting the Terminator while it’s on her heels IN A GASOLINE TANKER TRUCK. When Kyle is wounded and can’t run, it’s Sarah who barks the orders and gets him moving again. This woman will not give up her life without a fight, and however relatively weak she might be against an unstoppable killing machine, this is what makes her a strong protagonist. In a movie about killer cyborgs and dystopian futures and dedicated Resistance fighters, this story is held up by the supposed victim. When the dust settles, the story remains to be told by Sarah herself, and I am so in love with it I can hardly stand it.
“I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.”
THAT LINE, YOU GUYS. *Wipes tears off her keyboard*
Arnie can have his iconic one-liners. Those are well and good, and I love them as much as the next fan, but the scene that gives us that line right there is going to be the reason I refuse to wait another twenty damn years before watching this movie again. Let’s talk about Kyle Reese.
From the very first moment we lay eyes on the Resistance fighter sent back to save Sarah’s life (and ahem, what a moment that was), there is, if you’re paying attention, potential doom already nipping at Kyle Reese’s heels. The Terminator arrives with all of the coolness and detachment we know it for, all power and composure and certainty, ready to do its job. When Reese arrives after it, there’s nothing controlled about his circumstances. Right away, he is literally dropped into Sarah’s world, and where the Terminator shrugged it all off and walked away, Reese is left feeling all of the pain and disorientation you might expect in such a situation. Before he’s even gone very far, the police are after him. EVEN IN THE PAST HE HAS TO STAY ON THE RUN.
This sets up a lot of tension given the urgency of his own mission, and even while he manages to stay one step ahead of the Terminator, it’s clear – and Reese even admits to Sarah – that it’s uncertain if he’ll be able to stop the thing. This is a man who has grown up in a place and time where making it to the end of the day is an achievement; of course he doesn’t sugarcoat the situation when he’s explaining it. The world is a small handful of decades away from effectively ending. Why bother mincing words?
So he’s got a job to do, and everybody’s praying he can do it, including Reese himself. But this soldier is no unstoppable force. The real surprise in this movie, at least for me, is how heartbreakingly vulnerable he actually is. In the film’s one love scene, during a respite from all the running and shooting (a respite from his war, basically), Reese confesses that he’s never had a woman in his life because he’s always been in love with Sarah. This is a window into another kind of vulnerability he has to deal with, and it’s clear that the hardened soldier on a mission isn’t sure how to handle it, even when he’s opening up to Sarah about it. The choice to take it further, to reciprocate those feelings, is Sarah’s to make. Again, she’s in control of her life because REESE LETS HER TAKE IT – even though she may well have done exactly the opposite, pushing back against her fate, and been justified. The whole story rests on what you could say is a flipping of expected gender roles in an action movie, and I cannot love it – or these characters – fiercely enough.
Also, I want to note that the cinematography here is also worth mentioning, even thirty years later. Don’t get me wrong, the special effects definitely belong in the 1980s – but for all that, I still found myself squirming at the eyeball surgery. When the Terminator, now free of the flesh and blood and down to a clanking, limping metal skeleton, is stalking Sarah and Kyle through the factory, it damn well creeped me out. And the shooutout in the police station is a hellish, smoking wasteland stuffed into a handful of rooms and corridors. Wonderfully apt, and amazingly captured.
There are so many good reasons this movie has endured, and they go so far beyond the pop culture that now, after finally revisiting it, I understand better why it’s stayed with me at all, for all this time. I am an absolute sucker for a well-told story, and The Terminator has a damned good one at its heart. You may not expect to find it, but it’s there.
And now I have it available to me whenever I please and it’s going to be REWATCHED SO HARD. This was a good decision on my part.
And it won’t end there, either. Next Saturday, my Science Flixtion adventures continue with the sequel…