Study Guide

The Terminator The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

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The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

He's back. For the first time.

Yes, we're here to discuss the character that became a cinematic icon…before that very same role became a mockery of itself. Seriously, even Elton John would be embarrassed to wear those glasses. Yeesh.

Anyway, shake it off. We're here to remember the good times.

(By the way, in this section, we're specifically talking about the Terminator as a character. If you are looking for more of a discussion of its symbolism, then click on over to our "Symbols and Tropes" section. We'll have more for you there.)


The Terminator isn't a terribly round character. It's actually the definition of a flat one.

The thing is sent from the future with one objective: to kill Sarah Connor in the past so she won't give birth to John Connor in the future. That motivation is the single force driving the cyborg throughout the film.

As the story progresses, the Terminator's character doesn't develop in any meaningful way. There's no scene in which the Terminator reflects on its reason for being or regrets the youthful choices that have prevented it from opening the flower boutique of its dreams. None of that noise. Sarah just needs to die.

The closest thing to a characteristic we get from the Terminator is the single-mindedness in which it pursues this objective. Kyle Reese nicely summarizes this characteristic of the Terminator: "Listen and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop—ever!—until you are dead."

The Terminator is relentless, unimpaired by questions of self-preservation or questions of morality. We see this in the Terminator's willingness to damage itself in the pursuit of Sarah. As for its lack of morality, well, that seems pretty obvious. To select one of many, many examples, how about we go with the time it murders every police officer in a precinct just to get at Sarah? Harsh.

But even these characteristics don't come from the Terminator's personal choices. It performs these actions because it's been programmed to be relentless and remorseless. It's less "I think; therefore, I am" and more "I am programmed; therefore, I do."

So, yeah, the Terminator may be a one-dimensional character. But it's the Terminator's very one-dimensionalness that makes the thing so terrifying.

Kill All Humans

As you can imagine, the Terminator is less of a dynamic character and more a stock character. Specifically, he's a fusion of two famous stock types: the evil cyborg and the slasher-movie killer.

The evil cyborg part is easy to spot. Like alternate versions of Microsoft Windows, cinematic robots mostly fall into two camps: those that help humanity and those that harm us. We are, of course, excluding robo-frenemies such as Bender and Marvin the Paranoid Android. We love them because they make life more trying.

J. P. Telotte noted that the fear associated with the evil cyborg (and with robots and androids, too) stems from the fact that they are our "creations, emblems of our very power, [yet] might well overpower us" (source).

Reese's future history lesson fills us in on how the machines have overpowered humanity: "Most of us were rounded up [by the machines], put in camps for orderly disposal. [He shows her a barcode scarred into his arm.] This was burned in by laser scanner. Some of us were kept alive. To work. Loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever." Although we created the machines to serve us, to improve our lives, they have turned on us and brought us to the edge of extinction.

The imagery of Reese's future draws from the Jewish Holocaust and the atrocities performed in concentration camps like Auschwitz, one of the 20th century's most horrifying instances of mass murder. One of the reasons the Nazis were so efficient in butchering their victims was that they mechanized the killing process with factory-like efficiency.

These parallels are relevant to the film's characterization of the Terminator. In the future, industrial machines are still performing acts of mass murder. Yet they have shrugged off their masters, overpowering not just one particular group but all of humanity.

The Terminator is a part of this mechanized genocide, and we see this in its actions in the present, too.

Evil cyborg? Check.

Something Wicked This Way Shoots

The Terminator is also a lot like a serial killer from a slasher film. Don't believe us? Well, TV Tropes defines a slasher movie as one that has "near-indestructible serial killers stalking attractive young girls, a combination that allows for buckets of gore and enough flesh to titillate" (source). Sound familiar?

The slasher portion of the Terminator's character isn't seen so much in its history or motives. Instead, it pops up in the way Cameron chose to shoot the Terminator's actions.

A great example is when the Terminator kills the first Sarah Connor. The scene takes place in a suburban neighborhood. The Terminator determinedly strolls up to the door. Mrs. Connor opens it slowly. Then there's the building of tension and dread as she realizes things are amiss. Next, tension is broken as the cyborg smashes in the door, killing Mrs. Connor in cold blood. Everything about this scene, from the build-up to the suburban neighborhood to the kill, is reminiscent John Carpenter's Halloween, the prototypical slasher film.

Another example is the way the Terminator sneaks into Sarah's apartment to kill Matt and Ginger right after they've had sex. Well, "sneaking" might be too subtle a word for the Terminator's approach, but whatever. The film also contains shots from the killer's point of view, and it's totally got the Final Girl archetype, both staples of the slasher genre.

But it's not all copy-and-paste on Cameron's part. The film adds some fun twists to the type, too. Most slasher killers have disturbing, inhuman quirks to them. Going back to Halloween, Mike Myers is the master of the creeper stare. The Terminator has quirks, too, but they are subtly mechanized. When the Terminator is searching for Sarah and Reese in the police car, for example, its eyes move back and forth, and then its head moves to follow, a motion "like a surveillance camera" (source).

Another fun twist is the face reveal. Typical of the slasher film genre, the killer wears a mask, and when that mask is removed, he is revealed to have a hideous, deformed face. Jason Voorhees, we're looking at you, kid. The Terminator turns that around: his human face is the mask. At the end of the film, this human mask is burned away, and its true face revealed: a Grim Reaper skull complete with robotic upgrade.

Like Jason Voorhees and Mike Myers, the Terminator is an inhuman, practically immortal killer who cannot be deterred. Of course, our heroes do prevail and destroy it—it only takes (deep breaths now): shooting it with countless bullets, hitting it with a semi-truck, blowing it up in a semi-truck, a couple whacks with a piece of rebar, blowing it up again with dynamite, and crushing it in a hydraulic press.

Of course, like any good slasher serial killer, the Terminator will be back in many, many sequels to come. But that's (quite literately) another story.

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