There’s nothing like a nerdy action film and Terminator is no exception. Cyborgs, blazing guns, SPLOSIONS, and the battle of humanity against its creations-what’s not to love? The original film is stunning to watch because of the incredible attention paid to the visual details. The shots are well planned and motifs and themes are carried equally well even when the plot has a few holes and the time space continuum is confusing. So far as analysis is concerned, there’s a lot to be said about the way that machines are referenced. The answering machine at Sarah Connor’s house is forever reminding callers that they’ve been “fooled by a machine,” and references to humans ignoring red flags by listening to blaring music through headphones, ignoring emotional gut instincts over “reason,” and ultimately missing the evidence that machines were in control of war spurring the great war run in the background of the film keeping things tight, moving, and lots of fun to watch.
Gender, specifically masculinity, is another interesting background theme in the film. As an interesting piece of trivia, Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally cast in the role of Kyle Reese. We can certainly debate the decision making skills of the former Governator of California (whose ‘signature’ is on my college diploma) but we can all agree that when he told James Cameron that he would make one hell of a homicidal cyborg he was right on the money. The tone of the film would have taken on a strikingly different color if Lance Henriksen had carried the role in this film. For the record, Henriksen would shine as a cyborg in another classic nerdy action film, Aliens.
Watch the entrance of the Terminator closely: we see him in a prepared warrior crouch through the haze of smoke in his entrance not all too different from the stage debut of an erotic powerhouse. His physique is buff and immaculately sculpted. He is naked and unashamed as the cultural image of masculine perfection. The camera utterly adores his body and relies on shots that are traditionally used on the erotic female form; close-ups on body parts, a camera starting at the feet and working up the body, and situations that create tension in the body to enhance the look of physical features. The terminator stands silhouetted against the cityscape of Los Angeles glittering like the night sky and is framed at the center of everything.
In contrast to this, the character Kyle Reese is practically thrown into a skid row alley and lands trembling in a fetal position. Later in the film, his character would describe time travel as being similar to birth. His body is already damaged; we see scars and burns on his back and rather than strutting, he scurries like a rat. Unlike the Terminator who confidently walks upon to a trio of hard punks posturing with aggression and demands clothing at the expense of death, Reese is immediately pursued. He wears the pants of a homeless man (interestingly, homeless individuals are stripped of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality in general by society) and pulls clothing off the racks of a nearby store. Not one person is killed as the result of his actions whereas the Terminator shocks us by reaching into the chest of one of the punks and ripping out his still beating heart. Reese is seen as practically pathetic so far as his body is concerned but his quick thinking innovation wins us over. He is distinctly human.
Now, the thing to remember is that Michael Biehn is far from being scrawny. He’s certainly got a set of well-defined muscles and he knows his way around a gun as well. His character is that of a life long soldier who has seen the ravages of war and desperation for his entire life. The terminator is the hyperbole of masculinity in both his larger than life physique, completely objective thinking, and patent disregard for any obstacle. Kyle Reese is presented to us as a real man. He still falls into many of the stereotypes with his own quick trigger finger (Sarah Connor advises him to put the gun down on multiple occasions as if femininity is defined as moving away from violence) and strong body but he is also endowed with immense vulnerability.
“Flashbacks” are a common narrative device that explains the story to the viewer but Reese is depicted as emotionally suffering from the war he’s seen. At one point, he sits in his parked car and the construction machines become the war machines of future and the losses he has sustained as a fact of life. The way that he jerks and drives on is the reminder that humans feel pain and loss, that soldiers suffer. He has apparent physical scars, a tattoo/laser brand, and what looks a lot like a form of PTSD especially when the following deleted scene is taken into consideration.
Throughout the course of the film, the terminator’s human skin is battered. The beauty that he had at the start of the film becomes mangled, especially in his face. Eyes are the window to the soul and one of the first things we learn is that the terminator is soulless and terrifying. His power is seen through his relentless resurrection. He’s shot, run over by a truck, set on fire, and blown into pieces and yet he persists. This is also presented by humanity’s quest to persevere against the impossible odds of fighting machines through the inspirational leadership of the unseen John Connor as messiah who wakes up the fighting spirit of the humans and brings them back from the brink of extinction through their will to live.
Notably, Sarah Connor has a continuous buildup of power throughout the film. Physically, she is the weakest link and has the least knowledge of weapons. She is also a powerful observer who always seems to have second thoughts or “bad feelings” about things despite lacking the confidence to act on them at the start of the film. It is after she initiates sex with Reese that she experiences her biggest internal change on both a physical and emotional level. On the physical level, she has conceived the human messiah and on the psychological level she starts to charge barking out the command, “On your feet, soldier!” and pushing Reese to continue forward with her.
What I find fascinating about the love story between Reese and Connor is the question of dominance and submission. Reese is not the leader of the revolution, he is a soldier in it. In the bizarre space time continuum, it is his son that is the leader of the revolution as well as his superior in the human army. In regards to his relationship with Connor, it is made clear that his entire life has been about her despite having never known her. He lives in service to her and the revolution is recorded in matrilineal terms. Despite her obvious love for him, the name of her son is John Connor not John Reese which counters the traditional naming process of first born sons. Moreover, he has never known any pleasure aside from her and in the end he dies for her.
The terminator has one objective: to kill Sarah Connor. At the start of the film, we are led to believe that Kyle Reese has the singular objective of protecting her. After explaining what the terminator is, Connor asks if he can stop it. He pauses solemnly to say that he does not know and ultimately we learn that his mission was not to defeat the bad guy and get the girl as with most action films but rather to find the woman he has served his entire life, consummate that love, and then take her to the next level of battle with that which is inhuman. It is Sarah Connor who ultimately prevails over the machine after what we learn was the conception of her child.
Their love scene is incredibly powerful as it is the keystone of Reese’s mission. Although their child may be the savior of humanity, Connor has little in common with the Virgin Mother of the Redeemer. She is the one who initiates sex between them after he reveals that he is a virgin. We can surmise that she is not. Moreover, the camera spends a fraction of the time eroticizing her body. She is nude only within the crucial plot point of establishing that sex is happening unlike the many scenes that oogle the bodies of men. Although there is very little sex in the movie, it is sex positive and in many ways it has to be. Sexuality is indelible to the human story and it is treated as such in the movie. The love scene is sexy but it is in no way gratuitous and without it the entire story crumbles.
What could have easily been a male dominated impregnation scene is not. It is a female led scene. She is sexually experienced, he is not. She is fully clothed and uninjured, he is shirtless and wears both bandages and scars. They are both vulnerable and emotional but unlike him, she is more comfortable with having feelings of fear and anxiety and more willing to be present with them. She asks him about the women in his time in an admittedly heterosexist frame of inquiry as to whether or not he has experienced intimacy in the past and he responds within the context of war: they are “good fighters.” She clarifies her question to be more specific about her intentions and he opens up about the intimacy he has experienced looking at her photograph. His pain moves her to tears as her hand caresses one of the larger scars on his back. At the end of his monologue, he withdraws from her and walks straight to their handcrafted bombs in another retreat back to war. She chases him and initiates the kiss with both of her hands around his throat.
Her fierce compassion for Reese refuses to give up and she is seen throughout the film protecting him by advocating non-violence as an equally powerful tool for survival. She does not use sex “against” him but rather for him and his emotional well being. On both a micro and macro level, sex is key to survival for individuals on the brink of emotional extinction and for humanity as a whole. Neither character is aware that the product of their lovemaking will be John Connor.
Masculine dominance and power is always being expressed in the movie through violence. Connor’s femininity is expressed through her abject resistance to violence and comfort with sexuality without being an erotic object in the film. In an early scene in the film, she is unshaken by a lewd phone call intended for her roommate with a sense of humor and nothing but warm feelings for the ill-fated duo despite the fact that neither have taken her into remote consideration. When Reese hands her a gun while he gathers supplies, we see her discomfort with it and she does not open fire and even in her final confrontation with the terminator she kills through indirect means. Where most female heroines keep sex appeal in their tool belt, empathy is the strongest tool that Connor wields.
Her empathy is what sets her aside from the other humans in the film. The police fail to actively listen to the situation, the psychiatrist with training in how to listen is depicted as being deeply committed to not listening and being self-involved, her roommate spends every moment possible listening to her music through head phones, and humanity itself is nearly doomed purely because it did not pay attention to the signs that Skynet had become self-aware. Although the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are present, human vulnerability is honored across the gender spectrum. Although it puts us at risk it is also our salvation.