Humans always seem to be too trusting when they should be cautious, yet refuse to believe what is right before their eyes. James Cameron’s 1984 classic The Terminator shows this to the extreme.
The world all but came to an end after Defense Network Computers ascended to a new order of intelligence and deemed all of the human species as a threat. The very machines that citizens implicitly trusted to keep their borders safe turned on them in a microsecond and nothing could be done to reverse it. Virtually nobody was prepared for this possibility, save for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Her fortune did not come from her being prepared by an encounter with a time-traveling Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). She survived to fight on because she was able to place her trust in the right places. The Terminator is a warning to all mankind that trust is essential, but it should come at a price. The film repeatedly inverts expectations of who can be trusted. The computers humans rely on daily are no more reliable either than close friends, parents, or even the police. Yet, a manic man with high powered weaponry who claims to be sent from the future to protect a seemingly random and unimportant woman is shown to deserve to be taken at face value.
I Always Have
No matter how much Sarah wants to be able to trust her roommate or the police, she should not. These are people who claim to care deeply for her. Ginger (Bess Motta), Sarah’s roommate, shows herself to be a caring friend. She consols Sarah when her date cancels and appears to be a caring friend. Yet, when Sarah needs her the most, calling from the Tech Noir club, Ginger is too distracted to pick up the phone in spite of repeated calls. Sarah is betrayed by her mother’s voice when she gives away her and Reese’s (Michael Biehn) location to the Terminator. She knows the questions she is being asked are strange, but answers them anyway because she cannot fathom that a confession to her mother could endanger her.
It is the distrust in the police The Terminator inspires that is perhaps the most challenging. The police claim to want to protect Sarah after realizing somebody has killed several people with the same name. Yet, when she attempts to call for their aid, she is bounced around relentlessly. When she is brought in for questioning, they proceed in mocking Reese and downplaying her concerns. Ultimately, when the Terminator breaks into the police station, the ones who are sworn to protect civilians have no success in doing so. It is only the least trustworthy character, Kyle Reese who claims to be from the future, that has the ability to protect Sarah repeatedly.
The anomaly that is Resse requires no suspension of disbelief himself. Sarah is not somebody who is lost and seeking meaning like her on-screen contemporary, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), in the same year’s Starman. Sarah witnesses a menace take shotgun shells like a sponge. She is traumatized, and in that moment in the parking garage, she has no longer has any reason to doubt anything Reese says to her.
Forgetting everything held as the ordinary is the theme of the film and it is what allows Sarah to ultimately survive and defeat the Terminator. She has to forget that she is not the war-hardened hero Reese tells her she will soon become. Sarah has to tap into a version of herself she would never have considered possible before the Terminator intruded in her reality.
I’ll Be Back
The Terminator takes a creative approach to time travel. This trope is not itself unique, but what part of the timeline the film takes place in is. There are a few common time travel plots. A film may follow characters as they go back in time only to realize that their time travel was the cause of future events in the first place. Conversely, characters might go forward in time only to learn their future was inevitable.
In The Terminator, it is the present and somebody comes from the future to protect the past, but in so doing, risks his future never happening. Reese makes it clear that the future he comes from is only one of infinite possible futures. For all he knows, a Terminator hunted Sarah Connor in every timeline, or, equally possibly, this moment was an anomaly in the timeline.
Future Terminator films would continue to push and explore this time travel mechanic. This film as it stands alone, however, continues to force the viewer to question everything they trust. The fact that Reese leaves the possible repercussions of time travel wide open means endless possibilities. In an alternate future, Reese may not have been Jon’s father. Just as much so, the senseless deaths that occurred at the hands of the Terminator may never have happened in an alternate timeline. The Terminator is scary less so because an invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger is wreaking havoc and more because it throws the fabric of reality into question.
The Terminator is as cruel to its viewers as it is to its characters. It destroys the sense of trust inherent in the most trustworthy aspects of daily life while throwing into question what might actually be possible. There is a reason beyond the corny, yet repeatable lines and slightly outdated, yet revolutionary visuals that The Terminator is a true classic. It is its ability to still harrow audiences with its open-ended nature and subversion of all natural instincts.