Study Guide

The Terminator Hero's Journey

Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

Sarah Connor will be our hero for this story, but you wouldn't know it from looking at where she starts. Hers isn't the fantastical Shire or a far-flung future aboard The Enterprise, but the life of a typical college student. She works a dead-end job as a waitress, and she looks like she hates it. We guess this is partly because she's not good at the job, but mostly because she has the worst restaurant patrons ever in her section. That kid does not deserve sherbet.

Sarah also lacks any serious responsibilities. The most pressing matters she confronts are getting to work on time (she's late) and glamming it up for her date (he's a no-show).

Call to Adventure

Sarah's student lifestyle twists into a nightmarish survival-of-the-fittest scenario when she learns that someone is killing Sarah Connors across L.A. She calls the police, but before they can arrive, she's confronted by a hulking man who tries to kill her.

Another man jumps in at the last second and starts a fire fight in the Tech Noir night club. When the man says, "Come with me if you want to live," the line provides the dividing point between Sarah's ordinary world and the adventure to come.

Refusal of the Call

The guy who saved Sarah explains everything while they enjoy a late-night high-speed pursuit. His name is Reese, and he's been sent from the future to protect her. Protect her from what? Protect her from a cyborg sent back to kill her to prevent her unborn son, John Connor, from ever being born.

Sarah doesn't believe this, because this level of crazy is not something one believes outright. It sounds more like a LARP game that's gone way off the rails than a plausible explanation of current events. When she begs Reese to let her go, she's refusing the call to adventure.

Meeting the Mentor

We also meet Sarah's mentor in these scenes. It's Reese, the guy spouting crazy like he's got the stuff on tap. What more could you ask for in a mentor?

As audience members, we know that Reese is telling the truth, so we can see his role as the mentor clearly. The exposition he drops on Sarah about the future, the Terminators, and her destiny are all lessons. They give her the information she'll need to succeed on her quest, both to kill the Terminator and also to raise John to be the hero of humanity.

But Sarah, who doesn't know she's in a science-fiction movie, isn't quite convinced yet.

Crossing the Threshold

Sarah crosses the threshold—in other words, she moves away from the ordinary world and toward the journey—when she starts to think all of this may be plausible. After all, the big guy did get shot a whole bunch of times, he was lit on fire, and he smashed his fist through a window, all without skipping a beat. Could he really be a cyborg?

We can see Sarah's acceptance when she starts asking Reese questions that go along with his stories about the future and the Terminator. She wonders how they can kill it, and she asks questions about her relation to this terrifying new reality.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

The Terminator tracks Sarah and Reese down to a car garage, and another high-speed pursuit ensues. The pursuit ends in a car chase, and the LAPD catches up with them. Sarah and Reese are brought to the police station, and here, she discovers new allies in the detectives Traxler and Vukovich.

Both men want to help her by finding the Sarah Connor killer, and Traxler offers her protection by having her stay in the police station. They also try their best to explain the events of that evening, though their version of events lacks a murderous cyborg.

As for Dr. Silberman, he's more of a frenemy. He thinks he is helping Sarah by diagnosing Reese as "a loon." Unbeknown to him, by not believing Reese's story, he's making it easier for the Terminator to track Sarah down.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

The approach to the inmost cave is a moment of preparation for the hero and her newfound allies, one where they prepare for the journey ahead. This stage is missing from The Terminator. With Reese locked up, Sarah figuring things out, and the police not believing Reese's story, no one can prepare for the challenge that, just moments ago, told the front desk, "I'll be back."

This turn of events heightens the sense of dread we have for our hero. The Terminator proves a challenge for the well-prepared citizens of the future. For the unprepared police officers of the present, there will be blood.

Ordeal

And blood there is. The Ordeal consists of the hero facing death around the middle of the story, and the Terminator's assault on the police station meets this criterion. As the Terminator rampages through the station, it kills anyone it sees.

Traxler and Vukovich meet their demise during this stage. Sarah, alone and scared, is rescued by Reese moments before the Terminator finds her, and the two steal a car and escape. Although Sarah escapes with her life, she loses her allies and her last safe haven. Now she and Reese are on their own against a cyborg that just killed an entire precinct of armed officers.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)

In the Reward stage, the sword can be an actual sword, but it doesn't have to be. It doesn't even have to be a weapon. In Sarah's case, the reward that will help her face the Terminator is a growing confidence in herself and her abilities. We see this when she nurses Reese's wound, administrating her first field dressing even while she complains that she isn't capable of balancing her checkbook. She also helps Reese create homemade explosives, a task that, if you ask us, seems way more difficult that balancing a checkbook.

The Road Back

During this stage, Sarah is tasked with completing the adventure. More accurately, the Terminator shows up at her hotel room, knocks on the door, and forces her to complete it. This stage includes a third high-speed pursuit, but this time, Sarah takes an active role in her and Reese's defense by driving the truck and saving Reese's life when he is shot. Ultimately, Sarah and Reese manage to blow up the tanker truck the Terminator hijacked, but they celebrate a little prematurely. We still have two more stages to go.

Resurrection

Sarah's resurrection isn't a return from the dead. Rather, hers is more of a metamorphosis, one in which her personality shifts from meek, mild-mannered young woman to the warrior who will teach her son how to defeat the machines of the future. Think of a caterpillar wrapping itself in a chrysalis, only instead of a butterfly it comes out as an insectoid Batman.

We see this change in Sarah after the Terminator chases her and Reese into the factory. Reese is exhausted from his injury and has neither the strength nor the will to go on. But Sarah? She'll have none of it. She screams at him, "Move it, Reese! On your feet, soldier! On your feet!"

We see further evidence of Sarah's resurrection into the stuff of legend after Reese blows up the Terminator. Although he dies in the process, he only destroys the lower half of the Terminator. The machine's upper half chases after Sarah through the assembly line. Even with a chunk of shrapnel stuck in her leg, she manages to trap it under a hydraulic press and finish the job. This act makes her the first person in history to destroy a cyborg.

Return With the Elixir

Sarah doesn't return to the ordinary world where she started her journey, but she does obtain the elixir, the thing that will change the world. For her, the elixir is knowledge of the future, of the Terminators, and of the role she'll play.

Her transformation complete, she begins teaching her unborn child, John, through voice messages. Rather than return to the ordinary world of waitressing and Friday-night dates, Sarah chooses to continue the journey. She rides off toward her destiny, here represented by the storm roiling on the Mexican horizon. What she'll encounter there nobody can say. Well, unless they've watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Those people can probably tell you.

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