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*Spoilers for The Terminator (1984). Proceed at your own discretion.*
Let’s play a game: approach a random person and ask them to name any character from the Terminator films. There’s about a 99% chance that they would name “Arnold Schwarzenegger” in a heartbeat – and I’d probably quibble with them, given that Ahhnold is the name of the actor, not the titular cyborg itself. But we’ll let it slide. Schwarzenegger’s performance in the films was iconic, and the reason that people will still be quipping “I’ll be back” until 2029 at the very least.
If asked to name a second character, I’d hope that a large number would say, “Sarah Connor.” After all, she’s the person that the whole first film centers around, and it’s amazing to watch her level up in toughness over the course of T1 and T2.
And then there’s John Connor, Sarah’s son, the guy who’s destined to save the world and all. I’d say he’s pretty important and memorable (even though he is, you know, a mere fetus in the original film).
These are the three characters I would have been able to name before seeing any of the films. After watching T1 (and T2) for the first time recently, I found that my favorite character wasn’t any of those three. (In fact, up until the point in the film when he introduced himself, I mistakenly assumed that he was John Connor. We’ll blame that other 1980s time travel movie Back to the Future for my confused predictions). But now let’s give the man his due. Let’s talk about Kyle Reese.
One of the pleasant surprises about Terminator is the fact that the two protagonists could have easily been one-note, stock characters, but instead they’re believable human beings with multiple facets. Sarah could have been written as a shrill damsel-in-distress, yet she’s likeable, sensible, and gets to be the one to save herself and her future child in the end. (Plus, she has a pet lizard, which I find to be a delightful quirk). Kyle’s also great because he gets to subvert the tropes of the generic macho action hero. He’s allowed to be a mixture of tough and vulnerable, determined and fearful. His parallels to the T800 provide for an interesting commentary on the nature of man and machine.
The T800 and Kyle both arrive in 1984 LA the same way: time travel in the nude. And does kind of make sense for Reasons of Plot. The T800 materializes in a crouch and rises slowly and menacingly. Due to Schwarzenegger’s body-building physique, this guy immediately exudes power and intimidation. One of his first actions is ripping someone’s heart out of his chest. It’s clear he’s an unstoppable force.
Shortly after, Kyle Reese, our underdog hero, arrives. He’s a mere human sent to protect Sarah Connor from this mechanical monstrosity. Upon his arrival, he hits the pavement curled up in a fetal position, wracked with pain. Kyle’s much smaller than the Terminator, with a thin, wiry build he developed as a soldier and as a starving kid growing up in a death camp. His numerous scars indicate vulnerability when compared to a machine, but also a persistent will to survive.
The stipulations of time travel in the movie mean that both the hero and villain arrive with nothing but their own bodies. They can’t bring any weapons or other items from the future to help them (or in Kyle’s case, try to prove he’s actually from the future). It would seem that the T800 has the automatic advantage, being a ruthless robot assassin. However, Kyle quickly proves his resourcefulness as he acquires weapons, clothes, and (awesome) shoes within mere minutes of his arrival. He definitely proves himself to be a competent action hero through car chases, shootouts, and a lot of pipe bomb making.
Although Kyle’s ability to feel pain is one thing that differentiates him from the Terminator, he’s had to become a bit machine-like himself to survive. At one point, poor Sarah is convinced that she’s been kidnapped by a lunatic and bites Kyle hard on the hand in an attempt to escape. Rather than get upset, Kyle reacts with deadly calm, quietly telling her, “Cyborgs don’t feel pain. I do. Don’t do that again.” Both in the future and the present, he has to press on despite multiple injuries. (Though in the end, the fatal wound he receives proves he is all too mortal.) “Pain can be controlled. You just disconnect it,” he tells Sarah as she traces one of his scars.
Despite this degree of stoicism, he’s far from fearless and unemotional. During many scenes he practically vibrates with intensity, to the point of seeming slightly unhinged. “What day is it? What year?!?” he snarls at a cop he’s holding at gunpoint shortly after his disorienting arrival. Kyle’s fear that the Terminator will succeed in killing Sarah is apparent when he loses his cool completely and goes into a shouting rant at a psychologist in the police station. He’s also frighteningly intense when trying to convince Sarah she’s in danger: “It absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” His sense of desperation about his mission to prevent the destruction of humanity only increases the movie’s tension for the audience.
Then there’s Kyle’s relationship with Sarah, which brings out a whole different side to him. After saving Sarah’s life, he gets one heck of an introductory line: “Come with me if you want to live.” However, initially Sarah’s pretty leery of trusting him. After all, she did get a scare when he was stalking her earlier (though it was obviously done with the best of intentions). His case is also not at all helped by the fact that he doesn’t exactly look like a knight in shining armor: he’s wearing a sketchy-looking trench coat and pants stolen off a homeless guy (though those Nike Vandals are pretty sweet). But it’s either leave with this strange man or stay and get terminated, so she doesn’t have much of a choice.
From this shaky beginning, the love story at the film’s core emerges, and Terminator proves that it subverts genre expectations as well as it does character archetypes. Terminator is a true blend of genres. The time travel element and Kyle’s flashbacks (or flashforwards?) to the future war easily categorize the film as science fiction. Additionally, the structure of the plot itself is that of a suspenseful horror movie, as the monster systematically kills everyone in its path as it tries to get to the heroine. And on top of all that, the film is a moving romance. In the majority of action movies, it’s inevitable that the male and female leads will fall in love no matter how implausible or extraneous that is to the plot. In Terminator, the love story feels organic because it is the plot. Kyle’s entire mission is to protect Sarah, and by extension John Connor. But if Kyle and Sarah did not fall in love, then John wouldn’t exist in the first place.
The romance is also key in that it allows some more dimensions of Kyle’s character to reveal themselves, bringing the human out of the soldier. Although Sarah questions whether he “feels nothing,” it becomes abundantly clear that Kyle feels a great deal – for her. While the Terminator intends to kill Sarah because that’s what it’s been programmed to do, Kyle takes a one-way trip back in time in large part because he loves her. This is a young man who’s never had a nice thing in his life. His whole existence has centered around fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by war. In a deleted scene, he’s even moved to tears at the sight of grass and trees, which he’s never seen before. It’s apparent that the terrible future that Kyle came from has affected him deeply. Sarah, however, provides a sense of hope for him. When he wearily returns from battle in one of his future flashbacks, Kyle gazes upon a picture of Sarah he keeps in his pocket, handling it with a sort of reverence. After a harrowing night in the present, Sarah sleeps in his arms as he gently brushes hair from her face.
Eventually, he confesses the truth: “I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I have always loved you.” That’s not a pick-up line you hear every day, and Sarah is floored by it. In the wake of this pivotal admission, however, Kyle becomes self-conscious and walks away. Here lies another difference between Kyle and your average action hero. Rather than exuding confidence and experience in matters romantic, he admits he’s never had a girlfriend and gets nervous after telling Sarah how he feels about her. Sarah, who had already revealed her interest in Kyle through her unsubtle questions about the women he knew in the future, gets to make the first move by going over to kiss him.
Unfortunately, Kyle’s usefulness to the plot pretty much expires once John Connor is conceived. His death in the finale is as abrupt as his arrival in the beginning of the movie. Sarah no sooner realizes that Kyle is dead than she realizes that the T800 is very much not dead. In the movie’s most horrifying scene, what’s left of it crawls over Kyle’s body to get to her, but mercifully, Sarah’s able to destroy it. The last we see of Kyle Reese is when he’s being zipped into a body bag with cold efficiency.
However, it’s significant that, in the end, the Terminator doesn’t kill Kyle. He puts himself between Sarah and the machine, buying time for her to get out of the way, then sets off a pipe bomb that severely damages the T800 and hits him with shrapnel. His final act is that of a protector, not a victim. No fate but what we make, indeed.
And what of the new Kyle Reese in Terminator: Genisys? As far as I’m concerned, the only things Genisys can do to improve Kyle Reese are 1) letting him survive this time around 2) not making him wear hobo pants the whole film.
The casting of Jai Courtney as Kyle has already generated a degree of animosity from longtime fans. Though I realize I should withhold my judgement until I see Courtney’s performance in the film, I can’t help but be dismayed that Michael Biehn’s wily, sympathetic Reese is being replaced by a generic, burly action star. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are attempting to appeal to the audience’s sense of nostalgia by incorporating aspects of the first film, like those iconic Nikes. But all the flashy shoes in the world don’t matter if you don’t have the right actor to fill them.