The post The Terminator Created a New Kind of Hero With Kyle Reese appeared first on Consequence of Sound.
This editorial originally ran in October, 2014. Were re-publishing it for the films 35th anniversary.
John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didnt know why at the time. It was very old torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line, every curve. I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you; I always have. Kyle Reese
Ive longpreferred James Camerons unassuming 1984 sci-fi thriller, The Terminator, overits blockbuster juggernaut sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Which is weird because a.) T2 was the first R-rated filmI actually saw in theaters (as opposed to VHS or HBO) and b.) given the casting of Edward Furling, the endless merchandising, and widespread teenaged fanaticism of its sequel, youd think a curious seven-year-old would be hooked. Not the case: Even as a youngster, I couldnt shake off a character as troubledand honest and sympathetic as Michael Biehns Kyle Reese.
Thirty-five years ago, Cameron and writer/producer Gale Anne Hurd told the story of a lethal cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of a future leader of the human resistance. While billed as a science fiction action film, the nearly two-hour vehicle also served as a tragiclove story between its two leads: Biehns Reese and Linda Hamiltons victimized Sarah Connor. Come with me if you want to live are Reeses first wordsto Connor amidst a vicious shoot-out at a Los Angeles night club. He, too, is from the future: a resistance fighter withthe sole mission of protecting his commanders mother.
Everything about the films production has become legend: how the studio originally wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play thehero and O.J. Simpson the titular role; how FX guru Stan Winston wasnt Camerons first choice; how Hamilton sprained her ankle early in production and suffered throughout filming; how Schwarzenegger struggled with the iconic line,Ill be back; how the majority of filming across the city of Los Angeles took place at night guerilla-style; and how actor Lance Henriksen stormed into a meeting dressed as a Terminator to convince John Daly of Hemdale Pictures on the project.
Whats fascinating is trying to imagine Schwarzeneggeras Reese. While he would go on to surprise audiences by assuming thehero role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, hed remain a T-800 cyborg and wouldnt have to sell a love story. Well, thats not true. His paternal relationship with Furlongs young John Connor was certainly similar in nature, but even so, it was more Old Yeller than Romeo & Juliet. No, suffice to say, Schwarzenegger as anything but the Terminator would have changed the films fabric altogether, especially if he nabbed the part as Reese. He would have shattered the character.
Many almost did. As Hurd notes, Almost everyone else who came in from the audition was so tough that you just never believed that there was gonna be this human connection between [Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese]. They have very little time to fall in love. A lot of people came in and just could not pull it off.
Instead, Biehn delivered exactly what the filmneeded: humanity. On the surface, The Terminator tells a very simple story of man vs. machine. Think of it asJohn Carpenters Halloween with more muscle, metal, and homemade pipe bombs. What makes both films stalk accordingly is their willingness to relate to theiraudience. From inception, Sarah Connor was always going to be the more human character; shes a struggling, young waitress who we see day in and day out. What elevated the storywas making Biehn equally accessible.
Rather than tossing him a helmet, a gun, and some chewing tobacco, Biehns stripped of everything literally. Our first introduction to the character finds him helpless, confused, and naked as he confronts Los Angeles bleak underbelly with the citys finest patrolmen close behind. He smuggles clothes from a department store, yanks off pants from a vagrant, and has to lean on his limited resources to do the one thing hes supposed to do: protect. Yet that gritty sense of survivalism is what makes Reese such an enigmatic character.
Again, it goes back to the casting: Biehns a slim guy with understated muscle. A cursory glance has himpegged for the waves overany sort of militia. Hes unassuming with boyish looks and a nearly effeminate demeanor. When he finally catches a breathwith Hamilton, he assumes thesoldier archetype with a hint of playfulness: Cyborgs dont feel pain. I do. Dont do that again. Later, during an interrogation sequence at the police station, he gets theatrical playing the tough guy: You still dont get it, do you? Hell find her! Thats what he does! Thats ALL he does! You cant stop him! Hell wade through you, reach down her throat, and pull her fuckin heart out!
These little inferences speak to Reeses overall mindset and insist thathes just as terrified as Hamilton. The fear comes out in his facial expressions specifically, those young, manic eyes that highlighthistemperament ineach situation. Hes a vulnerable hero, ajuxtaposition toSchwarzeneggers unstoppable killing machine, and theres a level of uncertainty to his abilitiesthat creates an unnerving through-line to Connors own survival arc. In other words, despite his early heroics, theres absolutely no reason to believe Reese will be successful in protectingConnor.
That uncertainty separates The Terminator from its successors. Whileeach story has always pittedan underdog against a titan, whether its the T-800 vs. T-100 or the T-850 vs. T-X, the stakes have never been higherthanReese and Connors struggle for survival. (Cmon! With Schwarzenegger on your team, its hard to really feel any uncertainty, even if Robert Patricks eagle eyes are terrifying enough to fry a hard drive.) Yet Cameron and Hurd make it even more dire by introducing the aforementioned love story, giving audiences more reason to fear for the protagonists lives.
Their whole romance could have been a cheesy, one-dimensional relationship, but the chemistrybetween Reese and Connor is palpable. Throughout the film, the two depend on one another, whether its propping each other up, building homemade plastique, or offeringemotional support during moments ofrespite. On your feet, soldier, Connor pleads towards the end, and theres a sense of despair that strikes the heart. So, by the end, only heartless cynics would scoff at Sarah, when she says that in the few hours we had together, we loved a lifetimes worth.
terminator 1984 The Terminator Created a New Kind of Hero With Kyle Reese
Biehn would play a similar role in Camerons exceptional sequel to Ridley Scotts Alien as Corporal Dwayne Hicks. Like Reese, Hicks plays the soldier with a heart a literal locked one, no less who winds up relying on a female figure. By comparison, theyre about the same hero and archetype, though Hicks is easily swept aside by Sigourney Weavers Oscar-nominated Ellen Ripley, who takes charge in ways Hamilton wouldnt until Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Regardless, Reese and Hicks both highlight the human vulnerability that Biehn brought to the silver screen.
Personally, I still get choked up watching The Terminator. As a child, I would stop my VHS tape shortly before the T-800 rose from the flames, pretending that Connor and Reese were able to drive off and raise John together. Stupid, I know, but Reese was such a hero in my eyes that I couldnt stomach the thought that he died so tragically on those factory stairs. (You could imagine how I reacted in theaters when I saw Alien 3.) Part of it was attraction, sure, but I just couldnt stand to watch him die. He meant too much to me.
But Im not alone. In the summer of 2014, Biehn participated in Entertainment Weeklys oral history on the film, in which he discussed the influential nature of Kyle Reese. He said, I meet kids all the time who come up to me and say, My name is Kyle and my parents named me after you. But one of the bittersweet occurrences that happens is that guys come up to me on the street and say, I went into the military because of you. And usually theyre okay or they look okay but thats a heavy burden, especially if you know how I feel about war.
One might argue Biehns feelings on war helped shape and inform the Reese weve always known and cherished. Because while, yes, hes a soldier by design, its only because he has to be. This was the life he was given. He doesnt live for this shit, hes living in it.Thats why one of the more understated revelations of the film isnt just that hes the father to John Connor, but that he deliberately signed up for the time-traveling task out of love. As he admits, upon seeing that photo of Sarah Connor, he fell in love, a feeling that was strictly instinctual, and that notion speaks volumes.
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese
Its a notion that Cameron absolutely believes in. One hundred percent. No, ifs, ands, or buts about it. Weve seen it throughout the remainder of his career, be it Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, Avatar, hell, you could even toss in True Lies. Love conquers all in his stories; its the currency that binds his protagonists. But heres the thing about that: Love has to be earned. Its a divine feeling that you cant just paint, you have to construct. With Kyle Reese, Cameron carved out a universal archetype in the heartthrob hero, but he did it by tossing aside the callousness of an action star and keeping the formula simple.
Zero bravado, full heart, cant lose.
The Terminator Created a New Kind of Hero With Kyle ReeseMichael Roffman
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