Point of View

Three-Act Structure

Time-travel narratives can be a little, um…messy. What with causality loops, multiple timelines, and an army of potential paradoxes, these stories can get super muddled in the when and where departments.

Lucky for us, The Terminator is on the straightforward side, as far as time-traveling stories are concerned. The main story takes place only in 1984, the future is presented in flashbacks (flashforwards?), and the narrative sticks to the three-act structure favored by Hollywood films. Better still, we only have one paradox to wrestle with, and as far as these things go, it's not that bad.

Basically, The Terminator's narrative structure is Time Travel 101. It's the perfect intro course for more advanced time-travel brain-busters, such as 12 Monkeys, "All You Zombies," and, the PhD of time-travel narratives, Primer.

Nice and Easy

The three-act structure consists of, well, three acts—hence the name. These acts are the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Put it another way: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Yep, it's that simple.

The setup provides the audience with all the information they'll need to understand the story. In The Terminator, we learn about the future war with the machines and the plan to send a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she gives birth to John Connor, humanity's future hero. We also learn about Kyle Reese and his mission to protect Sarah. This stage also sets up some excellent development for Sarah's character down the road, showing her as a meek and mild young woman rather than the awesome warrior she'll need to be.

Now that the setup is out of the way, we can kick things up a notch and enjoy the confrontation. The confrontation, as the name suggests, shows the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist playing out. In this act, we witness the Terminator storming the police station, and we see Sarah and Reese's last-minute escape. Sarah also starts to learn how to defend herself against the Terminator. Reese becomes her lover.

Finally, it's time to wrap things up with the resolution. The conflict between Sarah and the Terminator ends when she drops a hydraulic press on the thing. That's certainly one way to end a conflict. Sadly, Reese dies during the final battle, but we learn that his death was not in vain. As we watch Sarah preparing for her predestined future, we learn that the father of John Connor is Kyle Reese, the very man who went back in time to protect Sarah.

And that brings us to—

Cause and Effect

And then cause, again. Followed by effect. Again. Yeah, we're going to talk about the predestination paradox. Now, that's a real fancy name for a pretty simple concept. Essentially, it means that some event makes a person travel back in time, but that person's time-traveling results in the original event that required the person to go back in time in the first place.

In The Terminator, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother (original event), but John Connor would never have been born had he not sent Reese back in time in the first place.

In terms of narrative, it's all pretty straightforward. Reese was sent back in time, he and Sarah got busy, and the result was John Connor. John will grow up to be humanity's future hero and will one day set into motion the events of the film. Done and done.

Things only really get complicated if you want to bust out the graph paper and get all scientific about it. Then things can get really weird.

For example, wouldn't there have to be a timeline in which John Connor didn't exist? But if that timeline didn't exist, then how did the causality loop get started in the first place?

Or, if the machines didn't send a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah, wouldn't they have defeated John Connor? After all, John only sent Reese to intercept the Terminator. So would the machines have defeated their enemy by not trying to defeat their enemy?

Then again, might this be an example of the post-selected model of time travel? What about parallel universes? Does the film operate on Back to the Future rules, which say you can change the future over and over again, and we're just watching one particular go at it?

And round and round we go on the timeline equivalent of a Ring of Fire. Please keep your arms, legs, and existential crises inside the ride at all times.

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