'Terminator' 1 & 2 Save Their Reveals for the Right Time
And Other Thoughts on James Cameron's Classic Sci-fi Duology
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Naturally, this has led to some renewed discussion of both that film, its sequels, and its predecessor, The Terminator (1984), which famously starred Arnold Schwarzennegger as a villainous killer robot from the future.
Having rewatched both movies recently, I’ve decided to post some thoughts, primarily in regard to how the films both know when to reveal and when to hold back narrative information in order to maximize its impact on the viewer.
Table of Contents: 1. 'Terminator' Really is a Horror Movie 2. T1 Gradually Builds to its ‘Big Reveals’ 3. T2 Upends Our Expectations 4. 'Terminator' Variation Notes
‘Terminator’ Really Is a Horror Movie
The first thing that stood out to me as I revisited James Cameron’s amazing debut picture is that it belongs to the horror genre, which was very popular in mid-80s American cinema. To be more specific, it can be considered a slasher film.
Arnold plays an unstoppable stalker akin to Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. He is a strong, deadly, and often silent serial killer that can be repeatedly knocked down and ‘killed,’ only to get back up and keep pursuing his prey. Sarah Connor is the Terminator’s ‘Final Girl’ – a lone female survivor that ultimately defeats the stalker in the final act (though, contrary to convention, Sarah does not remain a virgin by the end of the movie.) Meanwhile, her friends Matt and Ginger are the stock victims that are brutally murdered for committing sexual transgressions.*
*This is underlined by the fact that Matt and Ginger are so busy having intercourse that they miss all the phone calls from Sarah and the cops intended to warn them of danger. Sex, in other words, literally makes them too ignorant to live.
This ties into the second stand-out element: the portrayal of its titular villain as a mysterious, dehumanized, almost-supernatural being. It might be hard to recall, given how much we’ve been exposed to Terminators in the past 18 years alone, but in the first movie the T-800 is not a character. He is more of an archetype, a force, an other. He has minimal dialogue, repeatedly rises from the dead, inexplicably vanishes into thin air, and becomes more and more monstrous-looking as the story progresses.
Even when the audience gets to spend time with the Terminator outside of the main characters’ perspective, the film depicts him at a remove. There’s a clinical, emotionless, detached feel in his scenes and no indication of any real character development. And every single scene we see with him serves to give credence to Kyle Reese’s claim that
“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.”
Altogether, this makes Terminator legitimately scary. And in hindsight, it’s a little sad how the various sequels would humanize and demystify the Terminators. T2 did a great job of keeping the T-s scary even as it made Arnold’s T-800 into a legitimate character with whom we could empathize, but the movies after would forsake the ability of the cyborgs to terrify the audience in favor of more action and PG-13 fun.
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T1 Gradually Builds to its ‘Big Reveals’
Finally, I must commend James Cameron for the sheer amount of restraint he shows in his storytelling. Rather than immediately establish who or what Arnie’s character is, he wisely holds back crucial information from the audience, revealing it at specific points to maximize their impact.
The first time Terminator appears, we get no explicit indication that he is actually a cyborg. We don’t see a computer screen that shows him analyzing his environment.* All we really know at the outset is that he is an enigmatic, superstrong killer that popped up naked in the middle of some unexplained electrical phenomenon and has for unknown reasons started murdering women named “Sarah Connor.”
(Perhaps due to budget reasons or FX issues, we don’t actually even see an energy bubble, occluding the nature of his arrival.)
*Admittedly, the opening scene set in the dystopian future, with its prologue text discussing the rise of the machines “from the ashes of the nuclear fire” and the “final battle” that would be fought in the present somewhat works against the mystery here. Indeed, I wonder how the film would play without this little prologue at all.
It is not until Terminator rises after getting shot by Kyle Reese at point blank range with a shotgun (over 30 minutes into the running time) that it is revealed that he isn’t really human. And it is only once Arnie begins chasing Sarah and Kyle that we get our first glimpse of his now familiar red-colored HUD.
Arguably though, the best visual reveal in the movie occurs near the end, and it’s one the entire picture had been gradually building to.
As Arnold’s initially healthy human body progressively deteriorates, he begins to resemble a walking corpse. By the end of the movie, after seemingly perishing in a massive explosion, the Terminator rises from the ashes and reveals his true endoskeleton form in all of its glory. At this point, any trace of his human appearance vanishes and he essentially becomes a personification of death.
The breathtaking factory sequence that ensues brings the film’s horror elements to the forefront, as Sarah and Kyle are left virtually powerless against the monster. Had the endoskeleton appeared onscreen previously, such as during Kyle’s flashbacks, it would have nowhere near the same impact.
Cameron’s decision to gradually and very deliberately parse things out in the manner that he does distinguishes Terminator from the majority of Hollywood fantasy and sci-fi films, which seem to be afraid of mystery and so provide viewers with a lot of narrative information upfront. Terminator allows viewers to have a legitimate sense of discovery while watching the movie, to learn crucial plot details largely as Sarah learns them, which makes for very efficient storytelling.
So, I’d recommend that if you ever plan on introducing someone to the Terminator films, be sure to start with the first film and say nothing about its premise. Let the newbie experience the picture fresh, without knowing anything ahead of time. (Maybe even skip the brief introductory prologue.)
Because this film is best experienced without foreknowledge. It takes its time and reveals itself to you. And you can only really experience its reveals once.
T2 Upends Our Expectations
The Terminator really surprised me with just how well it knew when to hold back and when to reveal key story information to maximize its impact. What Arnold was in that movie was very much a mystery, one that Cameron sought to preserve until the very end. What’s really amazing about Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2), Cameron’s bigger-budget and more action-heavy sequel is how it cleverly plays on what we know, having seen the first movie, and in turn what we expect to happen in a sequel.
It very much assumes that we’ve seen The Terminator, that we know going in that Arnold is a robot, and what the T-800 really looks like underneath its human skin. In other words, as Cameron knows that you can only pull of the “Arnie-is-a-robot” reveal only once, T2 makes no effort to hide this fact from the viewer. At all.
This is evident from the opening of T2. We get a prologue sequence that depicts the future war, a title sequence, and then jump into the present, with Arnold arriving naked before setting off to find some clothes. But while this opening is structurally reminiscent of the first film, it contains crucial differences in the narrative details.
In contrast to Terminator, we see the monster in all its metal glory just a few minutes into T2, beginning with a now iconic moment where it tellingly crushes a human skull. Moreover, where we previously saw only one such Terminator in the entire movie, now we get a whole bunch of them at once out in the open. And then, once the future prologue is done and Arnold arrives in the present, the pic immediately cuts to his red computer HUD screen, underlining the fact that, yes, he is playing a robot.
In the process, these sequences acknowledge our familiarity with the first movie, re-establishing what we should already know. But at the same time, they also serve to misdirect viewers and so set up T2’s own big reveal about Arnold’s true nature.
See, if you’ve only seen the first movie prior to this - and somehow managed to avoid spoilers - your natural inclination would be to believe that Arnold is again the villain, which in turn should mean that the other time traveler is the hero. Everything we see in the scenes depicting Arnold’s arrival appears to corroborate these assumptions.* So, when Robert Patrick’s T-1000 arrives on the scene, the structural repetitions position him as the T2 analog of Kyle Reese. As in, we are led to believe that he is another human rebel fighter sent to protect Sarah and/or John Connor.
*Though you might notice that Arnold now never actually kills any humans while trying to procure his clothes, in contrast to his T1 counterpart.
Being so open about Arnold’s status as a robot thus aids the film in concealing the actual nature and identity of T-1000.
Note how coy at this point the film is with T-1000, how very careful it is in terms of what it reveals about him and when. When he shows up, we don’t know he’s another Terminator. We don’t see him use any of his shapeshifting abilities. We see him take down a cop (though don’t get any confirmation that the cop is dead) and then we are led to assume that he has taken the cop’s clothes when the movie cuts to him walking in a police uniform in the next shot. When we see him talking to John’s foster parents later, we witness him being a lot more friendly and behaving in a manner that seems far more human than we’ve ever seen from T1 Arnold.
It’s not until that confrontation in the galleria, when Arnold shoots T-1000 with a shotgun (mirroring Kyle Reese shooting Terminator in the first movie) that the truth about both characters is revealed. It turns out that Robert Patrick is, in fact, playing a Terminator, rather than a human. Not only that, he’s the evil Terminator, while Arnold is the good one! All this time we were meant to think Arnold was there to kill John Connor, but in reality he’s there to protect him.
It’s really quite a brilliant reversal that upends viewer expectations. And again, it is the sort of thing you can only experience once.*
*Sadly, that’s not how I experienced it. There was plenty of talk among members of my family about how Arnold was the good guy in the second movie and the marketing campaign clearly gave it away.
Quite simply, Cameron here directly plays on the assumption that we know, having seen the first movie, where the sequel is going. He wants us to think that the sequel we are watching is a rehash of its predecessor, only to then surprise us by going into a different direction.
And indeed, as the movie progresses, the contrast between the portrayals of the two Terminator characters (one familiar and one unfamiliar) becomes key to its storytelling. It delves more into how Arnold functions, reveals more of the nuts and bolts that were previously occluded, in the process demystifying him. Thus, where T1 Arnold was an emotionless, inhuman cipher and a personification of death, the T2 Arnold becomes an actual empathetic and relatable character.
By contrast, we never really become all that privy to the inner workings of the T-1000. We don’t see his computer screen, nor exactly get a real behind-the-scenes look at how he functions. T-1000 is now the one shown at a remove, the Terminator that is dehumanized. He has very little dialogue and though there are hints of some emotion, he is for the most part stoic, cold and unfeeling. T2’s horror elements are correspondingly shifted from the Terminator to the T-1000, who undergoes various horrific bodily contortions and transformations that emphasize his inhuman nature.
In that sense, the portrayal of The Terminator in T2 feels like a logical extension of what we saw in T1. Now that the Terminator has been revealed, now that he has stepped into the light, he is no longer all that scary or unfamiliar. And this, in turn, amplifies the scariness of the new Terminator, who is monstrous and unknowable.
Rather than simply rinse and repeat what we saw in The Terminator then, T2 cleverly builds on its predecessor, always keeping in mind what the audience does and doesn’t know in every scene. It knows when it’s best to hold back, allowing audiences to discover things with the characters. This, imo, is one reason it’s a great sequel.
“Terminator” Variation Notes:
Unlike its sequel, The Terminator, to my knowledge, has never received an official alternate version on home video, making it the rare James Cameron movie to not get a “special edition.” Nonetheless, there exist some interesting technical and other differences between the various video versions that are worth mentioning here.
When I revisited the film on Amazon a year or two ago, I realized I was watching a remastered HD version, which featured a more contemporary color grade, generally referred to as “teal-and-orange.” The bluish look of the theatrical release, which was reproduced in previous video versions, gave way to an overly greenish look that was common on HD transfers of 80s pictures. (Cameron had done something similar to the Aliens blu-ray. See this post from NotonBluray for more information on the HD recoloring.)
Subsequently, I rewatched the movie again on a Region 2 DVD I had purchased about 20 years ago. This release had the classic color grade, but turned out to be missing the opening title card that appears superimposed over the images of the machines in the post-apocalyptic future, though the text of the title card appeared in the subtitles (as long as you turned them on.) I don’t know if this applies to the Region 1 DVD equivalent. It’s an interesting way to watch the movie, I think, given that it removes the context and narrative information from the opening, leaving things more ambiguous.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 15, 2022: An archival interview with frequent Cameron collaborator and DVD producer Van Ling sheds some light on the Region 2 Special Edition DVD’s title card absence, which does not apply to the Region 1 release.. For various reasons, the R1 Special Edition DVD of The Terminator got delayed by a year from October 2000. As Ling puts it: “I was thrilled at the delay, because I felt pretty rushed and I couldn't schedule Jim Cameron to do an interview in time for the doc. However, MGM Europe really wanted to get the DVD out sooner, so they opted to take what I call "Version 1.0" of the DVD and release it. I haven't done a blow-by-blow comparison, but they did some things like leave off the mono track and use DVD subtitles to do the opening exposition cards. I had no knowledge of any of that, so I was surprised to read the European reviews that mentioned these things. So I was able to make sure that we did it differently for Region 1.”
The current Itunes/Apple release of the picture has a remastered high-definition transfer and what seems to be a relatively more proper bluish color scheme. However, I am not sure if this version indeed has the original color grade or yet another regrade that looks closer to the older look. The release also sadly lacks the full spectrum of special features that were available on the 2001 release, including script drafts and an hour-long documentary.
Nonetheless, I’d say that if you want to see the film in HD quality, yet closer to how it appeared theatrically, then Itunes is a good source.
If you like this piece and are interested in the Terminator franchise, please consider reading the following sub-article about why Cameron dropped out of making Terminator 3 in 1997.
Note that both the T-800 and Halloween's Michael Myers were directly inspired by another robot in human guise, the Gunslinger from Michael Crichton's original, 1973 Westworld film. Schwarzenegger apparently acknowledged that his T-800 performance was based on Yul Brynner's original turn as the Gunslinger. (One might draw comparisons to Robert Patrick's physical appearance and his performance as the T-1000 in T2 as well.) Terminator-vision comes pretty straight from Westworld, and [mild Westworld spoiler] The Terminator's slasher-movie last act is obviously based rather closely on Westworld's. (See eg. https://www.theterminatorfans.com/the-terminator-westworld-connection-6-degrees-of-termination/ for The Terminator and https://winteriscoming.net/2018/10/13/westworld-inspired-halloween/ for Halloween.)
Nice writeup. +1 to the horror tropes. It also implies its happening while the moviegoer is in the theater :-). BTW, Not only does T1 conceal that Arnold is a cyborg at first, it also doesn't clarify whether Kyle isn't *also* coming after Sarah until the scene in Tech Noir, it's a great twist that's hard to see so many years later.