Signified: A relentless killing machine that will stop at nothing to prevent John Connor from being born, because he is a man who would one day rise up to lead a resistance against mankind’s robot oppressors in the future.
A terminator is defined as a person or thing that brings something to an end/termination.
The T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a Terminator, is specifically designed to for the elimination of a target. In the film, The Terminator, it has been sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of John Connor. In the beginning of the film, the T-800 fumbles through the Los Angeles phonebook and guns down every woman with the name Sarah Connor hoping to complete his mission. The human resistance also sent a man named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in timeto protect, and conceive with, Sarah Connor. Kyle Reese explains to Sarah that the Terminator “can’t be reasoned with and will not stop until you [Sarah] are dead,” slightly implying that the machine will stop functioning once its mission is complete.
The Terminator draws from several influences. The world building that James Cameron provided about a machine uprising called Skynet, is clearly inspired from Carl Capek’s novel/play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but like with all science fiction, the influences are vast.
Time travel as a plot device dates back quite far. Even in 1895, when the famous H.G. Well’s Science Fiction novel The Time Machine was published, the literary use of time travel was not unique. The earliest known document of a time traveler from the future traveling to the past is "Memoirs of the Twentieth Century"(1733) , a story written through letters warning about a future were Catholics and Jesuits dominated the world.
Perhaps Terminator’s greatest historical influence is the Jewish myth of The Golem, a tale where a Clay Man was created by the highest order of Rabbis to protect the village of Prague. Some versions of the story say that the when the Rabbi forgot to remove the spell that brought the Golem to life, it went on a murderous rampage, only to be stopped by his creator.
Similarly, in the film, the story gives us a bleak future, where machines were created by the military in order to fight off enemies. When the machines were brought online they achieved singularity: a process where an artificial intelligence gains consciousness and the intelligence gained is no longer artificial. Following in the typical anti-tech fashion, the machines feel no need for the human race, so they launch all of the nukes on our planet. The surviving humans formed a resistance. The machines then designed their own machines to combat the resistance, known as the Terminators, an unstoppable robot force hell-bent on eliminating the last of humankind. After years of fighting, the machines devised a plan to kill the mother of the leader of the resistance by traveling back to a time before he was born, a time where humans wouldn’t have the technology to take their soldier down. To combat this, the humans also created a time machine to send a man back in time, Kyle Reese to protect Sarah Connor and to combat the Terminator, or at the very least conceive the man who would one day defeat the machines.
Created vs. Creator. The machines were created by the military, and rose to power using the tools that the military provided for them, and also creating new ones. The most notable of their creations, the metal skeletal army: Terminators.
The inevitable flaw of The Terminator is that they’ve created a time paradox. A time paradox, simply put is a plot device used by sci-fi writers to simply explain the rules for their use of time travel when contradictions could happen to alter the future. In the Terminator’s case, the paradox they’ve created is making John Conner’s father a man from his time who he sends back, not only to fight the Terminator, but to conceive him.
Women, not men are the backbone of our society. All the male characters in the film are either immobilized or killed. Sarah Connor must face the Terminator at the end of the film alone, but also must raise a child without a father, a child who would lead a resistance against the machines. While the child is male, it is his mother who would train him to be a savior.
Soon after the film’s release, James Cameron was sued for “plagiarism” by Harlan Ellison, the author of two of The Outer Limits episodes: Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier. He claimed striking similarities between his work and James Cameron’s 1984 Sci-Fi film. Both of the stories involved time travel, and Demon with a Glass Hand had a humanoid robot with amnesia traveling back in time.
The Terminator is a technophobic cautionary tale of what could happen if people developed a functioning artificial intelligence.
The Terminator is a mix of genres, which makes it a clear example of postmodernism. It borrows several elements from the horror genre, including a female protagonist running from a relentless killer. Also, said killer demonstrates a silent calm, similar to that of Michael Myers (Halloween) or Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), both of which proceeded The Terminator.
The Terminator also borrows heavily from the action film genre, and in the process, created an entirely new genre—the “non-stop action film.” However, this genre grew so rapidly that many viewers today might perceive The Terminator film as rather slow paced comparatively.
James Cameron varies greatly in his filmography, but a common theme seems to be a distrust for the military industrial complex. In The Terminator, Skynet is a network created by the military industrial complex which destroys the world as we know it, and in Avatar, the audience is led to desire the defeat of the human military, depicted as oppressors.
The Terminator suggests a harsh criticism for the military industrial complex; an productive force that puts cool gadgets, and killing toys above any life. Thus, the machines a subject to emulate the personality of their creators; cold, clinical, and efficient.