This week in Sci-Fi Time Capsule, another take on time travel. Lost in the Hollywood blockbuster horror is the fact that The Terminator is, at its heart, a classic time travel story.
(WARNING: Spoilers begin below link)
In 1997, AI starts a war with mankind. Skynet identifies humanity as a threat, launches a nuclear war, then builds a cybernetic army to wipe out the survivors. When humanity threatens to win that war, the machines send an assassin back in time to kill off the mother of the resistance’s leader, so that their greatest threat is never born. In response, that leader sends back a protector to defend his mother from The Terminator.
A happy-go-lucky young 80’s woman gets caught in the crossfire. As the terminator blunders around trying to find Sarah Connor, her rescuer Kyle Reese knows exactly who she is and gets to her just in time to save her. As the relentless terminator pursues, Reese continues fighting it off and bemoaning the current era’s lack of weapons to hurt it. In the heat of stressful conditions, John Connor, hero of humanity, is conceived (yeah, he had to send his own father back in time to have sex with his mother).
Eventually, Reese dies trying to save Sarah, and she had to fend it off herself, finally fleeing into a factory, where she manages to kill it in a hydraulic press.
Why Is This a Classic?
I think there are three subtleties that set this movie apart from its action-flick trappings.
- Competitive time travel – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure will explore this trope in more comedic detail, but the idea that whoever wins gets to time travel last. It’s an interesting exploration of paradox, since the future (present?) could have updated the instant the machines send the terminator back. But instead, the resistance captured the time machine, and the movie ensued.
- Fatherhood loop – One of the two great paradoxes in the movie. How could Kyle Reese have been John Connor’s father in the first place. It requires a complete time continuum to conceive of that conception (I’m vaguely sorry for that pun). There is no linear-time way for that event to have taken place.
- Origin of the machines – The second of the paradoxes isn’t apparent until you see Terminator 2: Judgement Day. That reaching hand that stuck out of the hydraulic press for Sarah Connor’s throat at the end was the seed for Cyberdyne to develop the technology to make the terminators. Without that, humanity would have been decades longer in inventing their own destruction.
I’ll be back.
(This is the origin of that classic Schwarzenegger quote)
Reese: 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.
Reese: Come with me if you want to live.
(This quote is mirrored in the sequel, said by the Terminator)
How it Holds Up
It’s still a decent action flick on the surface, and the deeper issues beneath the veneer of Hollywood are still thought-provoking. But in the middle is a mush of dated special effects (in a movie that leans on them quite a bit) and campy acting. Amusingly, Schwarzenegger’s wooden delivery is perfect for this role. Any smoothness or emotional range would have broken character. Still, this is one that’s better for nostalgia and an intro to the more polished sequel than it is on its own merits anymore.