On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the film’s release, we look back at James Cameron’s most melancholy blockbuster.
1984’s The Terminator is Jim Cameron’s saddest movie. It’s about humanity’s best and worst impulses, hopelessly bound with one another in an inescapable loop of life and death. If his other films don’t always end in absolute triumph, there’s at least the suggestion that the danger has passed and peace is on the horizon. The worst is still to come in The Terminator: there’s no final victory and order is not restored at the end of the movie. In its place we have a young woman, pregnant and alone in a new country where she barely speaks the language, driving an open-topped jeep into an oncoming storm.
It’s also, paradoxically, his bravest and most boldly humanistic movie. Because it’s also about the drive to push forward and fight on in the face of impossible odds and to try and survive no matter what. The fact that there’s no chance for the protagonists to have a happy ending doesn’t stop them from trying to improve the future for others.
Finally, it’s his most romantic movie. It closely focuses on the two main characters, without any B plots and massive spectacle that’s found in other Cameron films. There’s a bad guy (Arnold Schwarzenegger), but he’s literally a robot with no real character or backstory. And there are supporting characters, but they’re mostly just cannon fodder, set up to get mowed down. Terminator is almost exclusively about two young people on the run, getting to know and respect one another, and the value of that time together.
Those two young people are Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, played respectively by Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in career-defining performances that, in a fairer world, would have made them both superstars. Terminator was a watershed moment for Arnold Schwarzenegger and he is terrifying as the relentless, pitiless, killing machine set on changing the future; but Hamilton and Biehn’s love story gives the movie its heart. Time travel movies are great vehicles for tragic romances, and Terminator is a brilliant entry in that tradition.
Biehn manages to be both hyper-competent and heartbreakingly vulnerable as a soldier out of his depth against a seemingly unstoppable opponent. Reese is the only one who can keep Sarah safe from the Terminator, and even he’s just hanging on by his fingernails. And Hamilton sells every step of Sarah’s transformation from a shallow put-upon waitress whose biggest worry is finding a date for Friday night to a battle-hardened warrior facing down an apocalyptic future. Sarah is the one character who learns and changes over the course of the story. She learns that she’s stronger and braver than she ever thought possible, and she learns the value and necessity of those traits.
She also learns about the paradoxical nature of existence, how nothing ever begins or ends and how hopelessly enmeshed everything is. Reese is sent back to protect Sarah from the Terminator, but also to prepare her for the war to come. But Reese was trained by John Connor, who was in turn trained by his mother, Sarah. And of course, Reese turns out to be John’s father, so the father is trained by the son who was trained by the mother who was trained by the father who was trained by the son.
It’s about humanity’s best and worst impulses, hopelessly bound with one another in an inescapable loop of life and death.
That’s a fun narrative trick, but it also speaks to a deeper truth about reality: life and death and the impulse to create and destroy are impossible to separate. If the Evil Machine Skynet had never sent a Terminator back in time to kill John Connor, then Kyle Reese would not have gone back and fathered him. In trying to preserve its future, Skynet unknowingly ended it. Much like humanity tried to ensure an end to the threat of nuclear war by creating Skynet in the first place only to have Skynet determine the best way to curb war was by curbing humanity.
There’s also a cut scene from the very end of the movie in which pieces of the defeated Terminator recovered by the very company would go on to develop Skynet. Skynet didn’t just facilitate John Connor’s birth, but its own as well. Normally, cut scenes shouldn’t factor into how a movie is interpreted. But Cameron went on to develop those themes in the sequel, so in this case, it’s worth making an exception.
There is no life without death in The Terminator, no creation without destruction. But nothing’s ever quite over because death isn’t the end. Reese dies protecting Sarah, but they create a child before he leaves and he’ll be reborn in a few decades too, and then he’ll live and fight and suffer and go back in time again and die again and around and around we go. There’s no relief for anyone in The Terminator, no end to fighting and loss, but there’s also always victory and triumph and love.
Ultimately, unexpectedly, The Terminator is Cameron’s most romantic movie. It suggests that pain and conflict and death aren’t just an inevitable part of being alive, but they’re inexorably tied to humanity and love too. But that doesn’t make life not worth living; the moments of pleasure and love balance out all the suffering. Sarah literalizes this notion in the closing moments of the film when she says of her relationship with Reese “In the few hours we had together, we loved a lifetime’s worth.” The whole point of the thing is to learn and love and grow, regardless of the fact that it ends in death.
There’s a reason none of the movies without her are any good.