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Terminator in acts

The classic science-fiction thriller The Terminator broken into acts to show the structure.

Introduction

The Terminator is a spectacular and memorable film. It remains the best written work of James Cameron, the best direction he ever did as well. It is the definitive role on film for several major actors including the superb Arnold Schwarzenegger and it is inventive, clever, perfectly made and utterly gripping.

As a finished film it is littered with the cultural and cinematographic tropes of the 80s, shot like a dark crime story with tracking shots through offices and emotive darkness contrasted with light normality. In fact it looks very much like All the President's Men, apart from the killer time-travelling cyborgs.

On this site we also have the shooting-script and James Cameron's astonishingly detailed original treatment:

The Terminator Screenplay.

The 'James Cameron' Treatment of The Terminator.

Act 1

A naked Terminator appears in a spectacular sphere of light. He attacks a small group of street-toughs, stealing their clothes. Separately, a naked man appears in a similar way, taking a coat from a homeless drunk to cover his own nudity. The man flees the police and disappears into the night. The terminator visits a gun-shop and arms himself before visiting a telephone booth and tearing a page from the phone book, a page containing a list of people called Sarah Connor.

We meet Sarah Connor and her roommate Ginger. Sarah is a waitress and has a dull life. The terminator kills a woman called Sarah Connor, but it's not the one we've met. During her day at work a second woman called Sarah Connor is also murdered and she begins to fear for her safety as it becomes clear that the women are being killed in the order they appear in the phone book. Our Sarah is the next on the list. She calls the police from a nightclub and they tell her to stay where she is, she calls her flat to warn her roommate, but it's too late, Ginger and her boyfriend have already been murdered. The Terminator hears the message and learning Sarah's location, dets off to intercept.

At the nightclub, the Terminator attacks Sarah, but her life is saved by the man, who we learn is Kyle Reese. He has been following her because he has a piece of information the Terminator lacks, a rather old picture of her, though in the picture she looks much as she does now.

They escape in a car. Terminator steals a police car and pursues, leading to a car-chase. Reese explains that he is from the future, sent back by Sarah's future son, John Connor, a leader in the resistance in a future where the machines are trying to wipe out humanity. The Terminator has been sent back by the artificial intelligence Skynet to kill Sarah before she can give birth to the future resistance leader. Reese has been sent to protect her. Skynet is, allegedly, losing the war finally. This time travelling trick is the last effort to stop the humans.

Act 2

The Terminator attacks again, another car-chase. The cars crash and The Terminator escapes as the police descend, but Sarah and Kyle are taken to the police station.

Kyle is interrogated by a psychologist, who declares him delusional and paranoid. Sarah tells her tale to the police who try to explain things in very mundane terms, to convince her Kyle is insane.

The Terminator attacks the police station, killing many officers, but Sarah helps Kyle escape and the two of them flee to a motel. While there they make some improvised weapons and Kyle admits to Sarah that he fell in love with her photo, long before he met her. She's similarly inclined and the pair make love.

The Terminator attacks again, Sarah and Kyle flee in a pickup. Another car-chase, during which Kyle is injured seriously but blows up The Terminator. It is barely injured but its flesh is stripped away leaving just the metal skeleton. It continues the pursuit. Sarah cajoles the injured Kyle into getting up and following her into a factory. The Terminator follows.


Act 3

The Terminator separates Sarah and Kyle. Kyle, badly hurt, puts a pipe-bomb in the structure of the Terminator. It blows off its legs, but kills Kyle.

The Terminator continues to pursue Sarah through the factory, dragging itself along the ground. Sarah leads it through a metal press, just getting out of the other side in time to slam the gate and activate the press, which crushes the Terminator flat, killing it.

Months later a pregnant Sarah is driving through Mexico, recording audio tapes for her son. She debates whether she should tell him Kyle is his father, wondering if that will stop him sending him back to help her. A young boy takes a polaroid of her and hustles her for some cash for it. She agrees to a price and takes the picture. We've seen it before, it's the one that eventually her son will give Kyle. As she drives off, a storm brews.

Explanation

The Terminator is not a great example of structure. Yes, it meets all the basic requirements, but the complex plot stretches the first act, the increasing complexities of act 2 are essentially just 'here's the Terminator again' and the fact is that Sarah doesn't really act decisively until we're into act 3. However, there is one moment in act 2 that clearly reminds us of Sarah's journey. She patches up Kyle's injuries, inquires of his future and is the instigator of their sex. In essence, in one scene, she sums up the entire second act. This is a good thing, given that the rest of act 2 is fundamentally running and screaming.

Act 3 is short, but still contains all of the needed elements and ties them to a satisfying emotional journey full of action and potential. James Cameron has given us a very fine conclusion to the tale and as for length, the entire film comes at you like an express train after the set up in act 1. A number of sequels have followed, or, as The Terminator puts it...


"The whole thing is in the preparation. I like to work three months or more on a script and come to the floor with it finished to the letter."

Carol Reed