This is part 2. Read part 1!
In the end, Sarah Conner strikes the final blow and defeats the Terminator. Of course, without Kyle Reese this would have been impossible. But the fact still remains that Kyle, by himself, would have failed. What does this mean?
Well, on one level, not much. Considering the events of the story as events, Sarah had to destroy the Terminator because Kyle wasn’t around to do it. That’s just how it went down. But, the fact of this event at the climax of the story can tell us something about what is being presented as a whole and the central role that Sarah Conner plays in it.
In a direct and obvious sense, Kyle couldn’t succeed without Sarah in the first place. Saving Sarah was his mission, and if she refused to be saved he would have had very little hope. “Come with me if you want to live” Reese says. If she had said no and run the other way, that would have very likely been the end.
So, from the very beginning, at least marginal cooperation is required of Sarah. But it is clear that more is being required of her over all. Self-preservation drives her to flee from the Terminator, but self-preservation is what drives Skynet to send the Terminator after her. Skynet may not be more afraid of Sarah than Sarah is of Skynet, but it is at least as afraid of her. It is afraid of her because she is going to be (and by the end of the film she is) a mother.
The defining line for Sarah’s character is the bitter, rhetorical question: “Do I look like the mother of the future?” She thinks the answer is obvious (“no”), but could Kyle possibly think of her otherwise? She is the mother of the future. In some sense this movie is tragic because of that.
When we see Sarah at the beginning of the movie she is a waitress at a diner, she lives with a roommate who is like the personification of ditzy irresponsibility, and it is pretty clear that she thinks of herself as just a waitress, just the retiring friend who gets stood-up. Like lightening that illusion comes crashing down. The ditzy friend, ears plugged so she couldn’t hear destruction coming, is dead. Her dude-bro boyfriend is as easily destroyed, pathetically brushed aside by the killing machine that is after Sarah. Not Sarah the waitress or Sarah second pick for dancing at the club, but Sarah the woman, Sarah the future mother. Her opinion of herself at the beginning of the movie is an illusion, just as it is an illusion for all young women for the same reason.
The tragedy of it, however, is that she has no time to come to grips with the reality behind the illusion, no time to prepare. The future is now. She hasn’t had time to mature by the end of the movie, but she needs to be mature. The very last scene, skimming along the desert road into the unknown, is ominous partly because we really aren’t sure if she is ready to be what she is, or to face what she has to face.
Writing articles about this movie, one of my favorites by far, I’ve noticed how heavy the subject matter is. In part 1, I said that this movie helped to define the action movie genre and the meaning of “’80’s”, and that is true. But those archetypes (clichés?) are – and I am not running them down – more lightheartedly violent and shallower in plot (see Commando, Predator, or Conan the Barbarian. Hmm... maybe it’s just Arnold in lead roles…).
But The Terminator, while it can just wash over you (smashing and exploding) if you don’t reflect, expresses surprisingly deep themes. This movie is a classic which, while helping to define some important pop-cultural categories, is not limited by them.
© 2013 John Hiner III