Ba da daaaaah…. da daaa daaaaaaah….. ba da daaaaaah….. da daa DAAAAAAA daaaaaaaa….. Can’t you tell that’s The Terminator’s theme song? No? I really tried.
Out of the many things I try and do for this site, I particularly enjoy my 100 greatest films series. It’s fun to watch, or in most cases, REwatch some movies to see what I can learn from them. It can be hard to watch a movie and force myself to analyse as I watch, try and figure out what I can learn from it. There were many angles I thought I could write about when it comes to the Terminator.
I could have written about how it’s a multi-genre film. (A touch of horror, sci-fi, action and even romance.) Or I could write about the pacing, how it slows down when we need it to, and then speeds up to keep us on the edge of our seats. But I’ve finally decided that I should focus on something it does pretty damn well:
What is Character Development?
Look, I’m sure most of us know what this is, but before we start talking about The Terminator I thought it was important to know exactly what we’re talking about.
Character Development refers to two things.
One form is how we slowly learn more about the characters. Their personality, history, values and more. The story establishes who they are.
The other form of character development is how characters change or grow from the events in the story. Consider how unrealistic it is for a person to go through life-changing events like those normally seen in a film, and not to change at all.
Scrooge from A Christmas Carol becomes more aware of the plight of others and dedicates himself to helping the poor and destitute. Walter White from Breaking Bad goes from a mildly pathetic science teacher to one of the most terrifying criminal bosses in fiction. Donna Noble from Doctor Who has, in my opinion, the most tragic story I’ve even come across because she loses all her development. She became an empathetic, kind and caring person through her adventures with The Doctor. However, in order to save her life, The Doctor wipes her memory clean, reverting her to the selfish, rude and narcissistic dope she was when they met.
So what does this have to do with The Terminator?
Introducing the Main Characters.
The Terminator has three main characters, the titular Terminator, Kyle Reese and Sarah Conor, introduced in that order. When looking at stories, be they games, books, tv shows or films, we should all bear in mind that everything is done with intent.
Crackling white lightning arcs all over the ground. A breeze from nowhere ruffles the nearby trees and a driver of a garbage truck (Operating at 1.54am? Is this normal?) flees in shock when he sees our first character.
Look at how this character is introduced. Imagine you’ve never seen this film before (even though it’s nearly 35 years old) and this is the first time you’ve seen this person. Strong, mysterious, intimidating, and even the pose just oozes power and strength. Let’s face it, this character is almost set up to be the classical hero if it wasn’t for one factor. The music in the background has a constant pulsing beat that is almost like a heartbeat. It’s ominous, intimidating and scary.
After seeing the last character kill a few random strangers for their clothes, the camera pans to another part of Los Angles. The now-familiar breeze and lightning appear in an alley this time, and another strange man appears from nowhere.
Here we meet an identical method of introduction. Our first two main characters are preceded by the exact same mysterious wind and energy, and a flash of light. But only one sticks the landing. Again, look at the pose. He’s in the foetal position. Weak, cold, scared. This man is totally different from the first one we meet, but obviously, they come from the future. Kyle gets up slowly, groaning in pain. The Terminator rose confidently and surveyed his surroundings.
Finally, we meet Sarah Connor. Instantly we’re put at ease. The ominous and sparse drumbeat soundtrack is replaced with a light and breezy piano one. It’s no longer a dark, dingy, dirty night, now it’s a bright sunny morning.
The soundtrack puts us at ease. She’s young, she’s on a scooter, she’s carefree. So carefree she has no helmet. Being in daylight makes her more normal. Dressed in pastel colours, soft, gentle and forgiving colours, we are put at ease compared to the strangeness that came before.
Now that we have our three main characters, let’s see how they develop!
Developing the Main Characters
So now that we have met the gang, let’s look at how they develop. All of the characters develop past their initial introductions and are ultimately changed by the end of the film. But how does a good storyteller do this?
Establishing who they are
Each character’s appearance at the start of the film, ( how they look, not how they are presented) tells you about their past a bit. The Terminator is large, muscular and his skin in without blemish. The way he moves has an odd quality to it. He walks in straight lines and a stiff manner. His voice is without emotion and deadpan.
Compare this to Reese, who is thin, almost gaunt, and is covered in various scars, obviously from battle. He scurries when he moves and is hiding at all times.
Then we have Sarah, who obviously spends a huge amount of time on her hair. She almost hops off her scooter and skips into her place of work. She even cracks a joke to herself.
So now we have a rough idea of how these three people are different to one another. Their characters have been developed for the audience. Now let’s see these characters change.
Changing from the story
Just look at the things each character does through the film. Within minutes of meeting him, the audience sees the Terminator literally punch a hole in a man’s chest for his clothes. As we watch the film he commits murder after murder, sometimes needlessly. Clearly, this is a being that does not care for human life. After this we see him kill a Sarah Connor but not the Sarah Connor. Later we see him gun down an entire nightclub on the off chance he gets the real Sarah Connor.
Then we see how Reese takes to the past. He steals clothes yes. trousers from a homeless man and other clothes from a shop, but he doesn’t kill for them. The Terminator kills a man for weapons but Reese steals from a cop car instead. If we didn’t see the Terminator’s actions first, Reese would seem like a petty criminal.
We also see Sarah’s actions changing her character. At first, we see her struggle in a fairly average job. Customers are mean, demanding and judgemental. A parent ignores her child putting ice-cream in Sarah’s pocket. She gets home and prepares for her Friday night date and tends to her pet iguana. All of this is just an average life for an average girl. She’s just average.
But it’s Sarah who realises there’s someone out there killing other women with her name. She spots Reese and ducks into a night club where she’ll be seen and safe. She is a smart woman who adapts to the situation she’s in. Although she is a bit of a “damsel in distress” at the beginning of the film she proves to be resourceful.
I think there’s a really key moment in the last third of the film that shows how it’s subverting expectations. The Terminator is part horror, part action, part science-fiction movie. If we look at it as a horror or action movie then it becomes obvious that Reese (the hero) will defeat the Terminator (the monster) and end up sleeping with Sarah (the final girl). This pattern is really obvious for quite some time. Sarah doesn’t do much bar scream, panic and ask questions.
The pair are found yet again by the Terminator, and a chase scene begins. Sarah shows Reese a pipe bomb they made earlier and Reese says something really important. It’s just a fleeting line, it’s just a minor detail that makes practical sense at the time. Reese, behind the wheel, says to Sarah “TRADE PLACES!”
Even though there are only twenty minutes left in the movie, Sarah starts acting more like a hero than a damsel. Sarah pulls Reese back into the truck when he gets shot. She continues to escape the Terminator even when he’s driving a truck and she’s limping.
With the Terminator hot on their tail, breaking down a door, Kyle succumbs to his injuries and falls to the floor. He begs Sarah to go on without her. But Sarah has changed now. She has been listening to Kyle describe her and her unborn son as great leaders. People that will lead a resistance against the machines. Heroes of the war to come. So she acts like it.
She pulls Reese up by his jacket and says:
“Move it Reese! On your feet soldier! On your feet! Move it!”– Sarah Connor, future badass.
Then she pulls him up, supports him and drags him through the factory, fleeing the skeletal Terminator.
(On a side note, the special effects of the skeletal Terminator are a real rollercoaster. A cross between puppetry and stop motion it looks awful in some points and amazing in others.)
The Damsel of Distress
Reese has one pipe bomb left and jams it in the Terminators body, blowing it to pieces. However, he dies in the process, leaving Sarah alone and injured from a piece of debris lodged in her leg. Now here is where we expect the film to end. If Sarah didn’t change from the events of the film so far, I’d end it there myself. But she did.
The upper half of the Terminator, although injured, survived the blast and begins to crawl towards Sarah, determined as ever to kill his quarry. Sarah is now alone, but has learned from her time. She is changed. She’s now the hero.
She clambers across the factory, leading the Terminator to a narrow crawl space before slamming a gate down, trapping it. Once she does, the Terminator reaches out to try and strangle her. But Sarah finds the button that will operate the machine and crush the Terminator. Before she does she says:
“You’re terminated, fucker.”Sarah Connor, damsel in distress no more.
This final line, this quip just before the hero wins, is something that would normally be given to Reese, but as we’ve seen, Reese has traded places with Sarah. She is now the hero, so she gets the quip at the end of the battle.
Finally, we’re brought a little forward in time. Sarah, now pregnant, is talking to her unborn child through recording tapes, telling him about Kyle Reese and how she must prepare for the oncoming war. She is notably different now. Her fashionable hair is now tied back and out of her eyes. She has a dog (which was shown throughout the film to bark when confronted by a Terminator) and a large revolver sits on her lap.
This is a huge difference in the first shot we see of Sarah. She goes from this…
… to this…
What Storytellers can learn from The Terminator
As I said with The Goonies, there’s a lot here to be dissected, learned from and inspired by. Yes, The Terminator is a bit of a cheesy action film, but it does have impressive character development in Sarah Connor. What’s even more impressive is the huge change in Sarah from the beginning of The Terminator to the beginning of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. She continues to change and grow.
Make sure your own stories always change the characters if it should. No-one survives two days fleeing a death bot from he future without changing just a little bit.
I wrote this partial review partial character study because The Terminator is listed on a poster I bought saying it’s one of the 100 Greatest Movies.
I think it does belong on the poster. The film has thrown a huge shadow over pop culture. The phrases “I’ll be back” and “come with me if you want to live” are almost exclusively spoken in an Austrian accent. (Although Arnold wouldn’t say “Come with me if you want to live” until the second movie. Kyle Reese says it in this one!) It spawned four films and a tv series and is iconic enough in its own right.
I hadn’t watched the film in years before writing this review, and I’m glad I revisited it. One thing is for certain if I ever want to rewatch a film and see something great, I’ll be back.
The Terminator can be bought on Amazon or viewed on Netflix.
Check out my novel The Longest Night for a thrilling read!
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