Determining the Terminator Part 2: The Unity of Action

Alas, poor Yorick!

In my previous piece on Cameron I briefly analyzed his lapidary style, and his economy of cinematic language vis-à-vis The Terminator. In this next piece I will argue that Cameron’s innate skill as a storyteller extends beyond this solid grasp of plot and structure. Not only are the events in his films arranged in a sequence which amplifies and heightens dramatic tension and structural unity, but the events possess elements which necessitate their inclusion in the plot and which furthermore suggest no possible refinement to their structure. Cameron’s films ‘flow’, as it were, precisely because the content of each scene dictates the overall structure of the scenes. In other words, events unfold precisely as they do, for were it any other order the elaborate unity of his plots would be undone. Like the grand maestros Beethoven and Mozart long before, nary is a note out of place in Cameron’s pictures, but rather all flow melodically in their structural perfection. It’s a subtle and potent blend of content and structure–the one reinforcing and dictating the other and vice versa. Unlike, say, the inchoate musings of Terrence Malick, for which the director spends months arranging into a sufficient narrative structure, the scenes in Cameron’s films occur precisely in the order which the content dictates. There’s no shuffling allowed.

Part of this tightly ordered structured can be attributed to Cameron’s emphasis on the unity of action. With almost Aristotelian precision, Cameron’s plots often take place over a confined period of time, particularly in the final acts. Both the Abyss and Aliens occur over the span of a few days, and in both the last half of the picture takes place within the space of a few hours (necessitated by those ticking bombs). Titanic, The Terminator and even Terminator 2, interestingly, all occur over the span of three days (discounting the frame narrative of Titanic, which in itself, it must be noted, occurs within the span of a single day). In a sense, Cameron forces an economy of action upon his characters, and doesn’t allow his plots any chance to stop. In all cases they are driven by a time-sensitive main arc: we know the Titanic will sink anon, we know Sarah Connor will eventually have to confront the Terminator, and that atmospheric processor, we know, is not long for that alien world.

But this is not unique to Cameron. Numerous action films have followed this same pattern, from Die Hard to Speed, and even more recently in lackadaisical action retreads like Olympus Down and White House Has Fallen (or have I gotten those two mixed up?) , themselves recalling the tried and true Die Hard formula of dramatic unity (although The Terminator came before all this, but then Three Days of the Condor came even before that, and King Kong nearly half a century before that). Not for this reason alone then does Cameron excel, but then perhaps for this and the supreme virtue of his scenes’ content and their structure. In order to constrain my focus to a manageable degree I will contain my work to a single film, and consider the ways in which Cameron’s scenes typify this notion of perfect form, or at least, a form perfectly sufficient to the intent of the scene.  Since it was so productive in my previous analysis, I see no reason to look any further than The Terminator. As they say, If it ain’t broke…

When faced with the prospect of 80s fashion, Arnold made the sensible choice

After introducing all three main characters, Cameron is aware he must subtly explain and stress why these three characters of all characters in a potential cinematic universe. Why not, for example, focus on the detective? It may sound like a insane bit of stupidity, but consider the narrative success of a film like Amadeus which dared to confront this seemingly axiomatic principle of character focus. Why not anybody else? The answer cannot be taken without some explication. Cameron explains the terminator’s inclusion in the plot with a perfunctory execution scene (as if he even needed to bother stressing the threat of Arnold Schwarzenegger). And Sarah we come to realize because she’s the mother of the resistance leader. But we still need to understand why the hero would be chosen, not the least of which because he’s such a lean and wiry figure, so Cameron gives us a brutal flashback (or would it be flashforward?) to that end. During this battle scene you’d be forgiven for suspecting Kyle was a one-man army, his fortitude is necessary to indicate to the audience the full extent of his abilities (especially against a machine with so much bulk and force). After watching him almost single-handedly destroy a tank and navigate a beat-up truck over some hostile terrain with a terrifying HK in pursuit, we understand perfectly why John Connor would send this poor bastard back to single-handedly fight a literally unstoppable killing machine.

And Cameron spends a great deal of time in his film to suggest the terminator is just that—unstoppable. The strength of Cameron’s villain does not rely solely on Kyle’s worrying pronouncement of the terminator’s strength. Though there are several moments of dire pronouncements, Cameron makes certain to shore up these claims with some tangible evidence. He may tell us the terminator is the bad guy, but he also makes sure to demonstrate just how bad he can be. One of the ways he manages this is by showing a burly man fight a losing battle against this machine. The scene where the terminator kills the boyfriend may seem trivial and overly violent, but Cameron justifies its inclusion through several means. First there is the narrative conceit: the plot requires a roommate. Consider the alternative: the terminator goes to Sarah’s home address, and failing to find her there would have no clue where to go next. The script would have reached a narrative dead-end. Granted, Cameron had several alternatives to get himself out of this narrative corner, but having Sarah call home to alert her roommate and provide her location is a simple and logical solution. There are already enough complications in the plot, no need to confound the audience more. So logically the story necessitates there be a roommate.

With that established, Cameron still needs to justify the roommate being murdered. After all, the roommate didn’t need to be home for Sarah’s call (indeed, she doesn’t even answer the phone because she’s already dead). She could have been at her boyfriend’s, thus sparing the audience her grisly murder, but Cameron seems no doubt aware of this and uses this scene to both emphasize the threat of the terminator and tie off the narrative strand of the roommate (as a trivial comparison I direct the reader to the reams of fan-fiction speculating the fate of Ripley’s cat in Aliens, a character left unaddressed by Cameron’s script). The roommate is home so that the boyfriend will be there. And the boyfriend, we soon learn, is present only a cannon fodder, a throwaway figure intended to stress the severity of the threat. The scene would have been sufficient, if perfunctory, so Cameron increases the importance of including this scene. The figure of the boyfriend is as important a statement as the death of this figure. Cameron’s emphasis here bears further scrutiny for the admirable fashion in which he juxtaposes the relative sizes of these male characters. The audience has already seen the terminator’s intimidating physical physique, as have they seen Kyle’s rather minuscule (by comparison at least) frame. Cameron no doubt chose this man to raise the stakes of the terminator’s threat, for if a man with the build of an Olympic wrestler can be tossed around like that by the terminator, what hope is there for the more diminutive would-be protector? (Well, as it happens, we soon learn he’s both leaner and meaner.)

Any brief consideration of the wardrobe choices in this scene bare out the obvious fact that the physical stature of this victim is not accidental, nor is his figure left unintentionally unclothed. Consider, by way of contrast, how easily Cameron could have depicted the woman in a greater state of undress (as was typical in that era of gratuitous boob shots). Camera keeps the somatic focus of his scene securely on the figure of this male. His body is the only inordinate amount of flesh we get, precisely because it is the man’s body in comparison to Arnold’s that Cameron wishes us to consider (and so that introductory scene where the terminator appears to us in a state of total undress is understood as functioning beyond mere homoerotic sex appeal and overt machismo). With the brutal death of the physically fit man, Cameron assures the audience that physical brawn cannot stop the terminator, showing us quickly and visibly the futility (and the price) for even trying.

The Terminator is not a big fan of cats.

When required to provide some much needed exposition on the terminator’s precise nature, Cameron relies on his tactic of combining seemingly discordant scene goals. Like the chase through the shopping mall to pick up some clothes, Cameron turns what could have conceivably been two characters sitting at a table talking over coffee and pie into a chaotic chase through downtown LA. Notice, however, Cameron does stop the chase when Kyle must deliver some troubling bit of news to Sarah. Or, more to the point, he postpones this dialogue until he finishes the chase scene. If you think about it, the mortifying profundity of a line like “It will not stop ever until you are dead,” is arguably diminished by inserting it into a chase scene. You can’t adequately focus on the prospect of your life being in mortal peril when it’s currently in that very place. Moreover, it complicates the tension. We can’t engage with the action on a visceral level because our minds would be distracting us with the logical requirements of processing the information. So Cameron has to stop the chase before he can get on with the exposition. That restraint is impressive enough, but where Cameron truly shows his skill is by announcing the upcoming scene. We know after this chase we’re going to be treated to some exposition because Kyle has announced he’s going to do just that. While Kyle and Sarah begin their expository banter during the chase, giving only just enough information to keep the audience from tuning out of the plot, Kyle announces the conversation is going to be put on hold for a moment. “Hold on!” he says, the phrase carrying two ostensible meanings. Hold on for safety, and hold on to that thought because he’s going to return to it in a moment.

That Cameron has enough sense of structure to manage that is one point favour, but that he has successfully managed to hold off any significant sort of exposition until his second act is all the more impressive. From a narrative standpoint the exposition is necessary at this point, and from a logical standpoint it’s incredible to realize he hasn’t needed it sooner. By giving his audience such a rousing opening that informed the viewer only just enough to keep the story going without bogging its progress down in heavy-handed exposition, Cameron has merited the opportunity to stop the plot and deliver exposition. The audience is willing at this point to sit through it because the story has progressed in a manner that allows them to invest themselves in the story (accomplished by making them guess what’s going on) without demanding the audience be invested. (For a similar example of this tactic, imagine how the structure of The Matrix would have suffered had the film began with that scene where Morpheus explains the matrix to Neo. Or, for another more recent example, imagine had Inception begun with a lengthy primer about how the dream technology works.)

And in case by the half way point you weren’t entirely sure what was going on in the plot, Cameron recounts the “elaborate scheme” through the glib Dr. Silberman (a fully-formed character whom Cameron would wisely import into his sequel). The scene accomplishes two main functions. Cameron filters the plot through the smarmy Dr. Silberman so that the audience may laugh (if only inwardly) at the absurdity of this plot involving a time-travelling cyborg. By acknowledging its implausibility, Cameron effectively lets himself and his plot off the hook. “Yes I know it sounds crazy,” he more or less admits through Kyle, “but you need to believe it if this movie is to survive”. Ironically, the film seems more real for acknowledging its unreal quality (nevermind the absurdity of Mr. Universe running around trying to kill a ditzy blonde). Cameron invites his audience, in effect, to suspend their disbelief, and he gets away with it, it must be added, not only because Dr. Silberman recounts the details with the same incredulity we ourselves would hold hearing this story in real life, but because of the extreme brilliance of Cameron’s plot. Cameron seems well aware of this latter point, and even puts the words into Silberman’s mouth: “Most paranoid delusions are intricate but this is brilliant!” No small wonder then that Silberman suspects “[he] could make [his] career with this,” and smaller wonder still that Cameron succeeding in doing just that with this movie.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

In the meantime, support my work and the film:

The Terminator (Remastered)

And if you like where these words are going follow them on Twitter @binarybastard

Don’t forget to continue on to Part Three: “Upping the Ante”

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4 thoughts on “Determining the Terminator Part 2: The Unity of Action

  1. I always thought that Cameron saw his films as mathematical problems and they’re solved as the audience watch. The flow you speak of is Cameron putting each part of the mathematical problem into their rightful place that ultimately leads to the final answer which is the ending of the film.

    Say what you will about whether Cameron is a true gifted storyteller or just one who happens to recycle other stories in the cloak of newness, one never feels like they’re being cheated or lost within a convoluted and nonsensical narrative. His film’s stories tend to be very simple which just goes to show that one doesn’t need to tell a complicated and convoluted story to make a memorable film.

    It’s something that this pas summer’s Pacific Rimt right. What people saw as that film’s weakness being its simple story and characters turned out to be one of its strengths and appeal. It’s a shame that audiences — some of them being film aficionados — have been fooled into thinking that simple means dumb when that’s so far from the truth when in the hands of a master storyteller.

    • Damn, you stole my thunder for my upcoming conclusion! (Though I’m somewhat glad, means I’m not alone in my estimation of Cameron.)

      Cameron has frequently described Titanic (the wreck) as a fractal, and I’m not surprised if he imported that thinking into his conception of his films.

  2. Pingback: Determining the Terminator Part 3: Upping the Ante | digital didascalia

  3. Pingback: Determining The Terminator: James Cameron’s Masterpiece Revisited | digital didascalia

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