For years when anyone asked me what I thought the most romantic movie was I would respond The Terminator. A quick search of the internet reveals that I am no longer alone in this view, but at the time I got many strange looks, or people thought I was joking. Though it has been surpassed and now holds the second place position on my list of most romantic films, I stand by my claim that The Terminator is and always has been a romantic movie. Unlike most action movies with a romantic element the romance here is not a minor plot; it is not a subplot; it is THE plot around which the action revolves. It is the love story that is the ultimate catalyst for everything that happens. The action is merely a tool to create the tension needed to bring the couple together.
The story begins (following the chronology of the movie; we will not be tackling temporal paradox in this post) with Skynet sending the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back through time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before the birth of her son John, future leader of the human resistance. At the same time the resistance sends a soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect her. Just as the Terminator finds, and is about to kill, Sarah, Kyle intervenes. Initially, Sarah distrusts Kyle; while he may have saved her life, the story he tells her of cyborgs from the future coming to kill her seems ludicrous. When the Terminator attacks at a police station and kills everyone there, she is finally convinced. For the rest of the film they are together, trying to escape the Terminator. Along the way their relationship blossoms, culminating in Kyle revealing that he volunteered for the mission so he could meet her. He also tells her that John gave him a picture of her, which the audience sees him holding in one of his nightmares. He says he didn’t know at the time why John gave it to him, but that she looked sad, and he always wondered what she was thinking. The irony of that statement will be revealed at the end of the film. Eventually, Kyle confesses his feelings, “I came across time for you Sarah; I love you; I always have.” This is one of the most romantic gestures of all time. This guy left everything and everyone he knew, knowing he could never go back. Granted, the world he leaves is a horrible one, but it is familiar, and he has friends and possibly family; he has John. He travels to a world he knows almost nothing about, where he will be fighting alone, all to save the woman he loves.
While most plot summaries and synopses focus on the action scenes, it should be noted that the Terminator is actually in less than half of the movie. The rest of the film is spent largely introducing the characters Sarah and Kyle and their growing relationship, interspersed with glimpses of the future and explanations as to why the Terminator has targeted Sarah. This focus on the action might derive from the (rather cheesy) trailer, which centered entirely around the Terminator plot and gave Schwarzenegger top billing, though his only other starring role at the time was for Conan the Barbarian. In fact, The Terminator was basically a low budget B movie. Director James Cameron’s only other credit at this point was Piranha Part II, which he only spent two weeks on before he was fired. Both Biehn and Hamilton had done mostly tv appearances and smaller movie roles. What made this movie something more was that at its heart it was more than advertised. The audience might have been drawn to the theater by the killer robot, but what has kept this film alive for more than 30 years is the story. The true genius of The Terminator is that, like Indian Jones and Star Wars, it combines sci-fi action and cutting edge special effects with a mythic, knight’s quest narrative. What sets it apart from those other movies is that it offers a darker, more realistic perspective. While there is some hope in that John Connor’s birth is secured, there is no happy ending. Kyle is gone, and she is alone, the only one who knows what’s coming. The bleak future we see in Reese’s nightmares will likely still come to pass. Yet, the ending has resolution; it feels complete. Whether or not one likes the sequels, they did not need to be made. Ultimately, the sequels reveal what we already knew - Sarah cannot stop Skynet from starting the war anymore than Skynet can stop John from becoming the leader of the resistance. Anyone who has seen The Time Machine knows that one cannot change the event that caused them to time travel in the first place. They can alter aspects of it, but the event itself will always occur. The hope is in these two people who come together and create the one man who will fight back, the one man who brings hope to the people in the future.
The final scene of the movie is one of the most important. First, we see the evolution of Sarah. We have watched as she and Kyle’s roles reversed, from her taking Kyle’s hand as he offers, “come with me if you want to live” to pulling Kyle up exclaiming “on your feet soldier, on your feet.” In this last scene we see her alone and pregnant with a gun in her lap and a dog at her side. Perhaps some of the resolution to the film comes from Sarah, as she is resolved in what she must do. In addition, the scene makes connections to prior moments of the film. As she sits in her jeep waiting for the gas to be pumped, she records her thoughts for her unborn child. She questions whether or not she should tell him about Kyle, not knowing how that will affect his decision. She then utters one of the most romantic lines of all time, “I suppose I will tell you; I owe him that. Maybe it will help you to know that in the few hours we were together, we loved a lifetimes worth.” As she sits mourning the love she has lost, a young boy takes her picture, the very picture we saw Kyle looking at in the future, the one given to him by John. And in a terrific ironic twist: Kyle had said of the picture that she looked sad, and he wondered what she was thinking about. Now we know she was thinking about him. Anyone else reaching for a tissue? And then comes that final point of her evolution. The boy tells her a storm is coming, and she responds, “I know.” She puts aside her grief and goes forward, ready to do what must be done to save humanity.