How does The Terminator follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages in simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the James Cameron classic The Terminator.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
The Ordinary World
The film opens the future war, followed by the “present-day” appearance of the Terminator and Kyle Reese. We learn that each of them is looking for someone named Sarah Connor.
Sarah is actually the hero of The Terminator — so we then open to her ordinary world within present-day Los Angeles. She’s a waitress putting herself through college, dealing with the normal hustle and bustle of waiting tables.
Sarah comes home. She’s supposed to go on a double-date with her roommate, but her date cancels. She opts to go out to a movie by herself.
Call to Adventure
The Terminator is going through the list of Sarah Connors that it retrieved from a telephone book — executing each one that it comes across.
As the murders mount, the police are brought in.
Sarah learns that women with her name are being targeted so she calls the police. They tell her to wait where she is. As she’s waiting in a club, the Terminator shows up, having been tipped from a message Sarah left.
Kyle Reese is at the club as well, clearly following Sarah. She thinks that he’s the one she should be worried about until the Terminator shows up and is ready to execute her. Kyle acts quickly and shoots the Terminator with seemingly endless rounds from a shotgun.
Sarah looks up to see the Terminator rise up, alive. It begins to attack Kyle and make its way to Sarah until Kyle shoots it with additional rounds.
Kyle leans down and utters the iconic franchise line, “Come with me if you want to live.” Sarah isn’t sure what to do. She’s in shock. But then she watches as the Terminator, once again, rises from the dead. She reluctantly goes with Kyle as the Terminator pursues them.
Refusal of the Call
After they escape the initial pursuit of the Terminator in a car, Kyle tells Sarah what the Terminator is. He goes on to say that both he and the machine are from a possible future.
When Kyle pulls the car over in a parking garage to explain more, Sarah can’t believe what he’s saying. She waits for an opportunity to flee, only to have Kyle grab her just before she escapes the car. She bites his hand, but he resists the pain and goes on to calmly attempt to explain more to her.
As he does, police cars are searching for their vehicle. They search for another car, find one, and he tells her even more. She’s slowly buying into the story.
Meeting the Mentor
Kyle instantly becomes Sarah’s mentor as he informs her of the future war and the Terminator.
Crossing the Threshold
As Kyle tells her more, she begins to believe the story and ask questions. She’s buying into the world, especially when Kyle mentions that the person who sent him is her unborn son, John Connor.
This is where Sarah travels from her ordinary world to the journey of surviving. She’s met her mentor in the guise of Kyle as he teaches her about the Terminator, her possible future, and how to fight.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Kyle and Sarah are found by the police and brought into custody.
Sarah watches the tape of Kyle being interrogated as detectives watch with her — as well as the local police psychologist who calls Kyle a loon.
The detectives attempt to explain that the killer must have had a bulletproof vest on. Sarah’s not buying it. She now believes in the tale that Kyle has told her.
When the Terminator infiltrates the police station, she survives long enough for Kyle to escape and find her. Her final test of believing in his story occurs when he screams her name as he searches for her amidst the Terminator’s attack. She’s hidden — and could stay hidden — but decides to go with him.
This leads to a harrowing chase sequence where Sarah is put to the test to survive alongside Kyle.
As they hide out in a motel, we learn that Sarah has made the mistake of calling her mother at their cabin up north. She tells her mother where she is. However, it’s revealed that the Terminator has replicated her mother’s voice and now knows where they are — but Sarah is unaware of this.
With the biggest threat mounting, Kyle teaches Sarah how to make pipe bombs that can help them confront the Terminator.
The two of them later make love, thus creating the future John Connor. Now they must survive.
The Terminator tracks them down, leading to the final chase sequence.
Kyle throws the pipe bombs at the pursuing Terminator, narrowly missing it every time until Kyle is shot.
Sarah is now fully transformed into the hero with Kyle wounded. She takes out the Terminator with the truck until it overturns, sliding to a halt.
Sarah and Kyle are alive, but Sarah watches as the Terminator survives being hit a second time by a semi. The Terminator gets into the semi and heads for their overturned truck. Sarah takes the initiative and demands that Kyle muster the strength to get out of the truck in time.
They survive the collision, but the pursuit continues. As the Terminator chases Sarah down, Kyle lights the fuse of the last pipe bomb and tosses it into the tailpipe of the semi. It explodes.
Sarah has survived. Kyle is hurting, but still alive. And the Terminator is gone.
The Road Back
It seems as though everything is fine. The Terminator is destroyed. There is no more threat to Sarah’s life.
However, the journey isn’t over yet. Sarah faces one final test as the Terminator rises up. Kyle and Sarah are chased into a machine factor. Kyle is killed after he sacrifices himself to save Sarah. But the Terminator is still alive.
Sarah is now resurrected as the sole person responsible for her own survival. Kyle can’t help her any longer. Her mentor is dead. Now she must face the Terminator alone.
At the end of the film, Sarah is truly resurrected as the savior of humanity — or at least the mother of the savior of humanity. She will go on to raise her son to be ready for the storm that is coming, taking her knowledge of the future into the unknown future that lies ahead.
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