Study Guide

The Terminator Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)

Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)

What would you do if you had a time machine? Would you go back to see dinosaurs? Take some modern tech back to your ancestors? Kill Hitler?

The thing is, time travel is rough. You have to worry about paradoxes, about wiping out your own existence, and about the treacherous conditions of yesteryear. Also, it's not like no one has tried to kill Hitler before (maybe one was a time-traveler?). It's just not that easy.

Of all time-travelers, Kyle Reese might have it the toughest. His job is to go back in time to protect Sarah Connor from a killer cyborg—called a Terminator—using only the tools and weapons available in the 1980s. Even his method of time travel is rough: it's an electrically charged rift in space-time that drops him naked into a dingy L.A. alley. Certainly makes a tricked-out DeLorean look like a first-class ride by comparison, right?

Even sporting a homeless guy's pants, Reese has an important role to play in the film: he has to save—and mentor—Sarah Connor, whose son will save the world.

Of Tutors and Terminators

Reese is the mentor of the film because he has the knowledge to defeat the Terminator. Along with keeping Sarah safe, he must pass on his knowledge to her for use in the future war to come. We see him take on this mentor role as soon as he and Sarah get together:

REESE: All right, listen. The Terminator's an infiltration unit. Part man, part machine. Underneath, it's a hyper-alloy combat chassis. Microprocessor controlled. Fully armored, very tough. But outside it's living human tissue. Flesh, skin, hair, blood…grown for the cyborgs.

It's quite a line to drop on a gal right after getting her into your (stolen) car, but Reese is a guy who doesn't have time to waste. He needs Sarah to understand what is after her, like, yesterday. Otherwise, she might try to treat the cyborg like a normal killer psychopath, and that would be insufficient. She'd get killed, like everyone else who has come across the machine and assumed it was a normal human.

As a bonus, by teaching Sarah all of these things, Reese is also teaching us, the audience. Each book or film is a new world to explore, but without a mentor character to guide us, it can be difficult to know where to begin. This is especially true for fantasy and science-fiction stories, as they have a lot of special rules that the audience needs to learn before it can fully understand the story or world the story takes place in.

In a way, Reese is our mentor, too.

Say What, Now?

Of course, Sarah doesn't believe Reese at first, and she totally tries to jump out of the car. Later, she starts to wonder if Reese may be telling the truth, but the police and Dr. Silberman don't believe him, and they come up with several ways to reinterpret the events of that night.

And that makes sense. Taken out of the fantasy or science-fiction worlds they inhabit, mentor characters can seem a little…crazy. We know Reese is telling it like it is, because we've seen the Terminator performing some inhuman acts. But everyone else thinks the guy has lost it. As a result, the Terminator racks up an impressive body count without much interference. It even manages to take out an entire police station like a griefer playing Halo with hacks.

It's this last event that leads Sarah to accept Reese's time-traveling shtick, and she starts paying attention to his lessons afterward. He teaches her how to make homemade explosives, and he teaches her that dogs can be used to spot Terminators. He also tells her about the tactics used by future soldiers: "You stay down by day, but at night you can move around. You still have to be careful because the H-Ks use infrared." These are tips, no doubt, that Sarah will pass on to John later.

We can see that Sarah has taken these lessons to heart in numerous scenes. When the Terminator attacks at the Tiki Motel, for example, Sarah takes a more active role in her own defense. And at the end of the movie, we see her with a dog, just in case.

Time-Crossed Lovers

There is one more aspect of Reese's character we should consider: he is totally crushing on Sarah.

After a lovely evening making explosives, Reese keeps watch at the window, and Sarah goes to talk with him. She wonders if he's disappointed in the supposedly "legendary" Sarah Connor, but he says he isn't, dropping this sweet line on her:

REESE: John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old…torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line...every curve. I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.

Sarah decides she feels the same way, and the two get busy that night. Now, this romantic subplot isn't just there to add a little steam to the story: it creates a direct contrast between Reese and the Terminator. Both are from the future, and both are the best at what they do. In fact, given the fact that they come from the same brutal world, it's not surprising that Reese can sometimes take on traits similar to his cyborg foe.

For example, the Terminator doesn't show any pain when he gets shot, because, duh, metal. In the same way, Reese can control his pain, emotional and physical, to an inhuman level:

SARAH: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. So much pain.

REESE: Pain can be controlled. You just disconnect.

Yet what separates Reese from the Terminator is his ability to love and his willingness to sacrifice himself for another person. The Terminator can do neither of these things, and in this way, we see exactly what separates the humans from the machines.

This same human quality manifests itself in Sarah. As one smarty-pants points out, "[Sarah] does not acquire [her] toughness through force of necessity or through the influence of the hostile 'environment' into which she has been thrust […]. It happens all of a sudden because it happens through her love for Kyle" (source).

In other words, it isn't just Reese's lessons that help Sarah become the mother of the future; it's also the love they feel for each other that gives Sarah, and by extension all of humanity, the fight to battle the machine.

Sadly for Reese, love does not plot armor make. After taking a bullet, he struggles to fight the Terminator on the highway, and then in the factory. In a last-ditch effort, Reese crams an explosive in the Terminator's endoskeleton. Injured, he can't clear the blast zone in time, and he is killed in the explosion. But his sacrifice is not in vain, as he damages the Terminator enough to allow Sarah to destroy it.

Neither was his love in vain, by the way: it's revealed at the end of the film that Sarah is totes pregnant with the future savior of humanity, John Connor.

By teaching Sarah, Reese also becomes a teacher to his unborn son. In this way, he becomes more important to humanity's survival than he even realized when he took the mission back in time. And that's the power of love.

Er, sorry. Wrong time-travel movie. But you get the idea.

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