Study Guide

The Terminator Themes

  • Technology and Modernization

    Philip K. Dick once said that the ultimate in paranoia isn't the idea that your boss is out to get you—it's the idea that your boss' phone is. In The Terminator, your boss' phone isn't just out to get you: it's equipped with a machine gun to take you down.

    The film's particular brand of paranoia is called "technophobia," the fear of advanced technology. And who wouldn't be afraid of the Terminator? It's a machine designed for the sole purpose of killing all humans as quickly and brutally as possible.

    But the technophobia infects this story on more than just the surface level. The backstory tells of a world where humanity has lost control of the tools we created to make our world a safer, more vibrant place. Now, the machines have taken over, and infiltrator units can blend seamlessly into human society, making it difficult to tell the difference between the man and the machine.

    Yeah, we think the ultimate in paranoia might be unknowingly inviting your boss' phone out for a drink…

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. How do you see machines and technology harming or hindering people in the film? Provide specific examples. Is any of the other '80s tech in the movie bad?
    2. How do you see machines and technology helping people in the film?
    3. Given your answers to the above questions, would you say the film considers technology to be beneficial or destructive overall? Does the film distinguish between beneficial and destructive technologies? If so, how? If not, why not?
    4. Do you think the film's warnings about technology still hold up in our digital era? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The film's conclusion shows Sarah running from the technological wonderland of the modern city to the technology-free Mexican desert. Here, nature serves as a safe haven from the modern world.

    The film often shows the technology of the future as a dark reflection of our present-day tech. For example, the Hunter-Killers are connected to construction equipment, while the Terminator is connected to answering machines in its ability to assume a human voice.

  • Mortality

    News flash: we're all gonna die. But that doesn't mean we have to go at the hands of an indestructible cyborg sent from the future with the sole purpose of murdering us.

    Yet that's the exact situation faced by Sarah Connor in The Terminator. Borrowing liberally from the slasher horror genre, the Terminator's pursuit of Sarah leaves a trail of bodies in its wake. Nothing—not love, not the authorities, and not a backpack full of explosives—can prevent this thing from doling out the death.

    Is there any hope for Sarah?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. As Reese explains, the machines rose as the result of a defense network gaining consciousness. How does the machines' backstory fit into the theme of mortality?
    2. Sarah is the only character to survive the Terminator's rampage, making her an example of the Final Girl character type. How does the Final Girl relate to mortality?
    3. Would you say the film's message about humanity's future is ultimately positive? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In The Terminator, the only characters that kill are machines. No human character takes the life of another human.

    The only character we know to have survived the war with the machines is John Connor. Sarah dies before the year 2029, and Reese dies in the past.

  • Deception

    The Terminator is basically a film warning about online dating before online dating was a thing. You think your date is a bodybuilder with a chic street-fashion style, and you end up going out with a killer cyborg sent from the future to kill you.

    The dating scene is just the worst.

    Like online dating profiles, the Terminator is all about deception. It deceives people into thinking it's human when its goal is actually to eradicate humanity. The fact that the machine can pass as human allows it to perform its destructive goals with an ease it wouldn't have if people could see it for what it was.

    Yet deception works both ways in the film. Sarah believes herself to be nothing more than an average American woman. She certainly isn't the legendary mother of humanity's savior, right? But as Sarah undergoes her trails, she finds out exactly what she is capable of. By the end of the film, she's literally crushing it as humanity's savior.

    Questions About Deception

    1. Which character would you say is the most deceptive in the film? Why?
    2. Which character would you say is the least deceptive, and why?
    3. Now compare and contrast the two characters above. What does this tell you about the difference between them? How does this affect your understanding of the film?
    4. How do you see the technology of the 1980s relating to the theme of deception?

    Chew on This

    The Terminators use deception to fight the humans, but the humans also use deception to fight the Terminators.

    Sarah chooses to do away with deception at the film's conclusion.

  • Perseverance

    Winston Churchill once famously said, "If you are going through hell, keep going" (source). In The Terminator, that advice holds true—whether you're going through hell, or whether hell is coming after you in the form of a six-foot killer cyborg sporting a crazy big gun.

    Reese and Sarah show perseverance in their will to survive against incredible odds. Even the Terminator shows perseverance in its unwillingness to give up on its mission.

    The difference? The Terminator is programmed for a single objective. It couldn't deviate from its mission even if it wanted to. In fact, it can't want not to do it. For Sarah and Reese, on the other hand, giving up would be the easier option. But they don't give up. What pushes them on? Not dying seems a pretty powerful motivation. There's love, too. But the main thing is that they have a goal, and it's a whopper: they have to save humanity.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Where do you think Sarah's perseverance comes from?
    2. Do you see any human characters as lacking perseverance? If so, who? Why do you think so?
    3. Would you say the Terminator truly has perseverance? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The film suggests that perseverance is inherent within all people. Even secondary characters like Matt and Vukovich show it.

    Although we never meet him, John Connor's backstory suggests that his perseverance was key in humanity's victory over the machines.