Determining the Terminator Part 3: Upping the Ante

Aside from his carefully structured exposition, Cameron’s script also demonstrates an incredible talent for systematically raising the stakes. To effectively raise the stakes, the initial premise must first be set. Too often films make the mistake of tacking on problems before sufficiently detailing the initial grounds. Prometheus, for example, devolves into an unending series of stakes being raised without fully addressing what each new level entails. (I’ve already written at length on the subject, and I won’t contribute many more words to the issue except to direct readers towards my previous remarks.) That Cameron is so adept at raising stakes is one point of his favour, but Cameron’s supreme skill, and which I suspect is a large factor in his success, comes from his notable manipulation of this structure. Notable in that Cameron uses them as a narrative device for staging the psychological growth of his main characters (often female heroines in patriarchal societies), and notable too that the feature is always responsible for this growth—a point which I will explain soon enough.

“back and to the left… back and to the left…back, and to the left”

Perhaps Cameron’s most famous instance of raising the stakes is introduced by that wonderfully effective and evocative line, “I’ll be back.” Cameron was initially surprised to learn the almost riotous reaction this line provoked in a theatre of first-time viewers. Ostensibly a line that only becomes effective after you know just how the terminator is going to be back, audiences nevertheless immediately picked up on its evocations and could themselves imagine this method of return. Through its acknowledgement of restriction, the line establishes a sense of boundary, of containment, of setting the perimeters of the action. The Terminator cannot pass on the sacred ground of the police station, the line acknowledges. The characters are safe for the moment. But of course he will return, and in grand fashion. When the terminator drives the car into the police station, Cameron sends the threat of his plot into overdrive. Whereas the Terminator was a scary proposition initially, Sarah still had the assurances that the police could save her. Indeed, when she does finally manage to get in contact with the police chief, who then offers her guidance and the promise of safety, Sarah feels safe in relying on the security of the police force. So when the terminator then systematically hunts down and executes every authority figure in this movie with casual indifference, the audience understands that Kyle and Sarah are now on their own; this machine will not stop unless they alone can defeat it. While Kyle was initially a potential threat (wonderfully hinted at in that nightclub scene where Sarah initially mistakes Kyle for her would-be killer), and even potentially exaggerating the level of threat, at this moment Sarah knows without question that Kyle is the only one who can save her now.

Once the princess is saved from the castle the story goes adrift in a new realm of possibilities. Since there are any number of directions the story could go, the stakes need to be remapped. Notice then how the film takes on this sort of meandering journey narrative. The characters don’t know where they’re going yet, all they know is that they must get away—from society, from authority, from everything that the terminator can use against them.

The mayhem in the police station is not just overkill, though there is a bit of that. Consider how the theme of humanity’s indomitable will to survive would have been undermined had Cameron (and his characters by extension) simply called in the military to do the job. And yet he can’t do away with authority completely or the film becomes a strange fantasy where real world rules do not apply. Cameron is no doubt aware that the absolute lack of an authoritative presence would strain credulity more than time-travelling paradoxes. Cameron would employ a similar tactic in his subsequent film Aliens, whereby establishing the crushing defeat of the traditional structures of authority Cameron is able to up the stakes and focus the action directly on his main characters, who resonate more strongly with the audience as a result. So he includes the authority figures not just because they are required for the sack of realism but because he can use these figures to set the scene and the boundaries of the threat and thereby increase the threat when he dispatches these figures. When the terminator mows down an entire police station, it may be ultra-violent, but the threat is increased exponentially.

As if not to be undone by himself, Cameron raises the stakes again in that moment towards the end of the film where Kyle, understandably and suitably exhausted, resolves to die on the floor. Sarah, herself understandably and suitably worried, rushes to his side to help him up. There is, of course, two reasons for this; the first unremarkable (and so will be left as such), the second more compelling: the princess needs her protector to rescue her from the fire-breathing dragon. If this wasn’t tense enough, Cameron has Sarah steal a glance at the door to see the terminator almost burst through. (By giving us her POV, by the way, Cameron transports the viewer to the scene; that’s our terminator coming to get us.) The sublime ability of Cameron’s screenwriting comes in that turn of the character, when Sarah takes on the mantle of protector, evolves as it were, and summons within herself a reserve of strength and courage to compel Kyle to his feet. No maudlin phrases, no gooey tokens of passion, only the stern order “On your feet soldier,” to which the soldier obeys. If your love can’t keep us alive, she reminds him, your sense of duty sure as hell will.

By this point, however, Kyle has served his function both in the narrative and in the symbolic structure of the film. He has only ever been a temporary force to bar the antagonist from its goal until the hero has reached maturity. Make no mistake, Sarah is the real hero of this film. Kyle’s role in the film is perfectly encapsulated by that visual of the explosion which rips both he and terminator apart. He was only ever a temporary figure, a flash of power to propel the hero into a new state of being (no small wonder then that in a burst of passion Kyle becomes father of the resistance he himself will later be a child within).

Sarah crushes the terminator in the hydraulic press

That boundary set, Cameron closes it off with the death of Kyle. The protector is removed from the plane of the diegesis. Sarah is on her own at last. There is no one else to protect her. Though Cameron could here be accused of overstaying his welcome and giving the audience one anticlimax too much by having the mangled skeleton of the terminator crawl its way towards Sarah (composer Brad Fiedel famously quipped when he first saw the film that “if that terminator gets up one more time I’m leaving”), the scene is necessary. This is Sarah’s ultimate test, when all protection has been stripped from her and she must prove her worth unaided by the other characters. She is, however, still allowed to use her magical armaments. In place of an enchanted shield and sword she has a metal grate and a power crusher—we work with what we’re given by the fates. Cameron would use this to brilliant effect again in the climax to Aliens, having Ripley carry Hicks (also and not so coincidentally played by Michael Biehn) out of the doomed compound and then trek headlong into the heart of the hive in search of Newt before she battles against the alien queen with that mechanical suit of armour, the power-loader. The child is saved in both cases, Newt in the latter and the unborn John Connor in the former.

Ripley holds the alien queen in the grip of her power loader claw. Despite the flip in composition, the content of both shots remains nearly identical

This idea of characters growing and maturing through the course of the plot is another instance in which Cameron excels. By contrast, consider how in the Star Wars prequels the plot of each episode does not correlate with any sense of growth for the characters. They are static entities that remain more or less unchanged from beginning to end. They may alter from episode to episode, but these alterations are never achieved in the episodes themselves. The opposite is true for Cameron’s scripts, and arguably as a direct result from his capacity for raising the stakes. Cameron excels at these moments where characters seem to have lost all reserves of strength, they’ve reached their metaphorical boundaries (walls, if you will) but must endure if they are to survive. The entire last act of Titanic is a prime example of this tactic. That Cameron repeats these plots throughout his work should not be taken as a sign of laziness, however. Instead, Cameron’s programmatic plots function as both a structure and an antagonist. It is the plots that drive his characters to mature and grow. By the end of The Terminator, Sarah is no longer the helpless victim, she’s assumed the mantle of protector, protector of her unborn child (which in this finale is currently maturing within her womb) and for the future of humanity. And it is precisely through the arrangement of the plot that this transformation is achieved. This returns to my contention that the order of Cameron’s plots are perfect constructions, they can’t be rearranged or else these transformations are impossible or, rather, don’t make sense. Sarah can’t become the hero until the temporary vestige of power, Kyle Reese, is done away with, but he can’t go until the threat of the terminator has been established, and the threat of the terminator cannot be established until Cameron establishes Sarah’s dependence on traditional power structures. They’re all linked, and they all form part of a cyclical pattern of establishing boundaries.

The script may be easy to understand, but it’s not stupid. Simple, not simplistic. Consider the simplicity of the character goals (and make no mistake: if a character serves no purpose it should not be in the film): the terminator wants to terminate Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese wants to make sure that doesn’t happen, while Connor herself both wants and (in the interest of humanity) needs to survive. This gesture towards all of humanity raises the stakes. This film turns around not just one woman’s life being in jeopardy in this film, but the whole future of humanity. Cameron seems well aware that an abstract concept such as “the whole future of humanity” can’t mean anything without a tangible correlative, and so he gives us Sarah Connor. (In the same way that you can’t have, for example, the spirit of youth, but you can embody it vis-à-vis Peter Pan.)

Cameron’s structure allows for the plot to play out piecemeal, almost as a mystery. Cameron invites the viewer to serve as an active storyteller, albeit unspoken within the film narrative. Though he may not be asking the spectator to engage with the film on any sort of significant cognitive level (and when it comes to time paradoxes most filmmakers pray you won’t), he does nonetheless invite the spectator to be engaged with the film on at least a visceral level.

Perhaps this impulse to engage the audience without resorting to intellectual discourse goes towards that point which began my first analysis of Cameron’s uneasy canonicity in the annals of cinema. Perhaps critics are at a loss to engage with his works precisely because their conventional apparatuses are ineffective. The film is in itself then a sort of Terminator, an unflinching machine that cannot be sufficiently penetrated either ideologically or artistically. Applying any sort of politics of discourse to the content of the film we find that Cameron’s only overriding statement with this film is to make an effective action picture. In that sense his intentions can be properly read through the statements he offers with his shots, scenes and story structure. Far from being impenetrable, Cameron’s work is simply not inured to the doxa of conventional criticism. It’s not that this Terminator cannot be taken apart, simply that critics just weren’t using the right tools to do so.

Things to consider:

Returning to that note of authority: notice how Cameron would import the paternal nature of Paul Winfield’s character Ed Traxler into his later characterization of Ellen Ripley in Aliens: the brusque manner, and the type of authority that derives not from barking orders but from experience alone. (Cameron would round out Ripley by haunting her with the knowledge of how doomed she is. By contrasting this with the gung-ho marines we immediately understand it’s the only thing that keeps her alive.) There is also in this film that brief moment where Traxler calmly lays Sarah down to sleep, an echo of Ripley’s maternal action with Newt in the medical bay, and a touching reminder of what humanity has going for it. The terminator must be stopped, if only so that we may pay each other these small kindnesses in the future.

Note on the medium: I watched this film vis-a-vis the newly remastered blu-ray Cameron discretely shipped out in February of this year. The digitally remastered version is an unqualified triumph over its previous incarnations, and though Cameron did undertake some digital colour correction, the refined metallic aesthetic of teal fits amiably with the material. Indeed, the pivotal scene where the Terminator removes his eye almost catches the viewer off-guard: the refined colour scheme compensates for the dour sheen of the material comprising the skin. Where on the VHS, for example, the abrupt shift in skin tone never let the audience forget they were watching nothing more than a wax-skinned robot, in the new remaster the separate pieces of footage blend together spectacularly. So too has Cameron altered the sounds of the guns and explosions it seems. I have my own views on the matter, but I’d be curious to learn your thoughts, so I submit this question to you: how do we feel about this kind of subtle directorial revisionism? Is Cameron within his rights to alter what is undoubtedly a classic, a selection in the National Film Registry no less? Is it the equivalent of a painter sneaking into the Louvre to touch up his work? Maybe we can get a proper discussion going on the matter.

If the somewhat pedantic approach in my writings about film can teach us anything, it is to mind your myths as you might your manners. That Cameron repeats these motifs throughout his works is his prerogative and our enjoyment, but what other mythic structures might we turn to for renewed approaches to narrative style? That, dear reader, is another question which I leave to you, and which I hope we might engage in an ongoing discussion about in the comments below.

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6 thoughts on “Determining the Terminator Part 3: Upping the Ante

  1. Pingback: Determining the Terminator Part 2: The Unity of Action | digital didascalia

  2. Interesting take on Cameron’s storytelling style of “upping the stakes”. I believe that this was formed from his time working in the Roger Corman studio system. While
    Corman dabbled in every kind of genre imaginable it would always be the horror scene where he’ll leave his legacy.

    Cameron learning under the mentorship of Corman to always have the audience wanting more could be see in many of Cameron’s films. Cameron having worked in a several Corman horror productions also shows that while The Terminator was a scoff action-thriller it also works effectively as a slasher-type horror film.

    You even have some of the slasher archetypes like the virginal heroine I Sarah Conner, the mysterious bad boy who may or may not be a danger to her in Kyle Reese right up to the ever-present boogeyman in the Terminator. We even have the promiscuous girlfriend who ends up being an early victim. The police and the authority they represent is also something that most slasher films have.

    It’s not surprising that some actually consider The Terminator as more a scifi-horror or action-horror rather than a thriller.

    • Growing up I always preferred the second film to the first largely because the latter was so terrifying to me. The moment that still unnerves to this day is the scene where Sarah calls her mother and all we see is the aftermath of the struggle. My brain was left to fill in all the horrifying details, and that it did with gusto.
      Interesting note about the Corman influence, I do wonder if the economy of the Corman productions may have also bled into Cameron’s script-writing sensibilities (only instead of “no wasted dollar” it became “no wasted moment”).

  3. An incredibly well written piece. I’ve never quite understood the submissiveness of critics towards directors such as Cameron. His movies have consistently entertained and moved me… and amazed me. Isn’t that want art is supposed to do? The liquid metal terminator in T2, the water creature in the Abyss, seeing the world of Avatar in 3D. Moments that took my breathe away. What I want from any book, movie, photograph or painting is to be awed by it in some way. Cameron has done that consistently from my childhood through my adulthood.

    • I agree, his movies have been as inspirational for me as I imagine Star Wars was inspirational for him. The difficulty he presents for critics then is the affective quality of his work. It’s terribly difficult to write about affect, and more difficult to say anything passing a logical statement about affect, even the words employed to describe it often require reams of explication. But affect is, as you suggest, what motivates us to watch Cameron, that way his work consistently undermines our attempts to describe it.

  4. Great analysis of what makes The Terminator tick. I enjoy your writing and would like to talk to you about a project I’m working on. If you are willing I would love to be in touch by email. Thanks.

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