Plot vs Character: Terminator

Sorry for the late arrival of this post, I meant to try and get this up by Saturday but last Friday I launched my new website. I was then immediately inundated with a thousand different scammers all telling me to use their service, guaranteeing me wealth and women for the rest of my days. Of course there was also a few legitimate offers in there as well, so I had to go through it all with a fine tooth comb to pick out the real from the fake.

Which is kind of like trying to find a real hair on Donald Trump’s head.

Better late then never though, right?

So after a few weeks of wrestling with various books, movies and games, ranging from Gone with the Wind and Tom Sawyer to Gladiator and Dragon Age, I realized that diving right into the deep end of the pool might not be the best idea. So let’s kiss, shall we?

Awwww yeeaaahhhh

I mean keep it simple of course. When it comes to illustrating the differences between plot and character driven stories, it doesn’t get much simpler than the Terminator series. Okay, the actual plot of these movies involves time travel and paradoxes on such a massive scale that canon’s overarching plot is kind of a clusterfuck to navigate, but the plot of each individual movie taken on it’s own merits is rather simple: escape the giant, possibly Austrian, Kill-Bot.

The characters are all rather simple as well, though as you’ll see, some are more compelling than others. Terminator is, if I know my audience, a movie we’ve all probably seen. It’s also a series noted for the massive chasm separating the most excellent Terminator and Terminator 2 from the atrocious sequels of Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation. The chasm that separates them represents a lot of things; directing and acting talent, special effects quality and usage, etc. However, a huge part of the chasm is the steep dip in writing quality for the latest two movies as opposed to the originals. You see, on one side of the chasm are the Character-Driven stories: Terminators 1 and 2. On the other, Plot-Driven stories: T3 and TS.

Character Driven: Terminator

Terminator is an excellent example of a character-driven narrative. Sure it’s not exactly Shakespeare, but its nonetheless  a well written story.

So we start off with two naked men, which usually means I’ve made a wrong turn in my porn surfing, but in this case we’re seeing the call to arms or inciting incident. This is out of the main character’s, Sarah Connor’s, control. After this, however, every turn the story takes will come as a direct result of Sarah Connor’s actions, which in turn are an extension of her character and represent the evolution of her character.

So assuming you all know how this story goes, I’m going to dive right into it.

So after some excellent desperate housewife murdering on the part of Governor Kill-Bot, we finally find Kyle Reese just barely managing to save Sarah Connor from the hot, steely embrace of 150 rounds per second.

Though if I were in a filthy 80’s nightclub, the bullets might be preferable.

This takes us to our first story point. [In this case I’m using term to refer to a point where the story is being moved forward, either by the plot itself or a character’s actions]

Story Point 1: Go with Kyle or Not?

Okay, easy choice here for Sarah Connor. Go with Kyle or end up as a white-chalk outline on the pavement. Now obviously this isn’t much a choice, but it is still a choice. If Terminator 1 were plot driven, Kyle would either just stuff Sarah into the back of a car or the two would end up in the same building by pure coincidence.

Story Point 2: He Be Crazy

So after finally escaping the clutches of the Terminator, Kyle Reese tells Sarah his story. In a less well written story, we’d probably get the much hated line “I don’t know why, but I believe you” or even worse the “I’m an inferior female and I immediately trust your big manly manself”. Luckily this wasn’t made in the 1950s, and Sarah acts like Kyle Reese is a deranged psychopath, like any other normal human being would. The audience knows Kyle’s telling the truth because we’re seeing the whole picture, but from Sarah’s point of view, all she knows is someone is trying to kill her and Kyle’s story makes him sound like an escaped lunatic.

So Sarah makes her choice and flings herself into the arms of police the minute she gets the chance. That’s believable, plausible and completely in keeping with her character. She made a choice and the story moves forward.

Story Point 3: Making a Savior

So after watching an entire police precinct get slaughtered, Sarah is understandably a bit more receptive to Kyle’s story. Even better, we get to know Kyle a bit as he describes his love for Sarah, showing us that inside the grizzled war veteran is basically a love-struck teenager. The two take one for the collective team and have hot, steamy sex in order to create John Connor and save humanity. (I’ll have to try that excuse on my next date)

The whole scene in the motel is quite well done in terms of character building, it lets us get to know the characters better without going so deep as to bore us to death. Enter: Terminator.

Story Point 4: You’re Terminated

So Kyle is mortally wounded, but manages to blow the terminator in half…but that doesn’t stop it. So now Sarah is left with one last choice. The Terminator can only move as fast as it can crawl, which isn’t fast at all. A lesser action movie would probably just show Sarah dash outside where police miraculously appear and are finally able to kill the Terminator, followed by a tragic scene of Kyle’s body being taken away. Luckily for us Terminator isn’t a lesser action movie, and Sarah takes option 2:

She goes full badass.

See, now that’s an excellent final act for the movie because it completes Sarah’s character arc. She started out as a frazzled waitress too frightened to do anything but let others protect her, but by the end of the film she finds the courage within herself to crush the Terminator like a tin can. Sarah changed and evolved during the movie, and that’s what made it good.

Plot Driven: Terminator 3

Oh boy, here we go. Okay, let’s just get this over with.

Right off the bat we know we have a problem when our character manages to severely injure himself on a motorcycle. Why is this a problem? Because it’s such a clumsy and artificial way to get John Connor to the Veterinary Hospital. If anything they should have just made John Connor suffer from a crippling opiate addiction, because at least then we a plausible reason for why he’s there. A reason directly related to the character itself. I mean, as it stands now, you remove the deer from the equation and suddenly the whole plot of the movie is gone: no deer, no crash, no crash no going to the vet clinic. No vet clinic, he’s not there when Fembot and Kill-Bot show up. Bam, we spend the rest of the movie watching John go from one construction job to another. If your entire story hinges upon a deer in the road, you need to rewrite the script.

Ugh…moving on.

Story Point 1: The Weapon’s Cache

So after a half hour of steamrolling action scenes, we finally arrive at a meaningful choice for John Connor and Kate from the vet hospital. The Terminator has taken them to a mausoleum where Sarah Connor stored a weapon cache inside a coffin.

Totally how I want my funeral to look.

So both John and Kate have the option here of bailing out and running. They also have the option of staying, perhaps a scene of John trying to convince Kate of the importance of staying with them, or maybe even make John the one who wants to bolt. After all, he says he doesn’t want to be a hero.

Oops, too late. Apparently the LAPD, despite a complete collapse of the virtual information network our society relies on, manages to track Kate to this remote cemetery. Oh, and apparently its standard operating procedure for police detectives to drive the family members of hostages to the actual crime scene where a violent gun battle could erupt at any moment. You learn something new everyday.

This is a result of the plot moving the story forward; an event totally out of the character’s control occurs and forces the characters to remain on a single static path. They’re on a roller coaster and the track doesn’t change.

Story Point 2: Saving the General

So after escaping the hot, sexy T-X, our characters decide to move on to saving Kate’s dad from imminent death.

Of course on the eve of nuclear holocaust, imminent death is a relative term.

Now I want to take a moment here to point out that putting Kate’s Dad on the hit-list is a terrible idea from Skynet’s perspective. As the movie shows us, Kate’s Dad is the guy holding Skynet’s leash here and its only by his actions that Skynet is able to fully assume control of the United States Military. So if the T-X hadn’t been delayed by trying to kill John Connor, the T-X might have arrived and killed Kate’s Dad before he had a chance to finally unleash Skynet. So basically, Skynet almost killed itself.

That aside though, this again, was another opportunity to have some kind of moral/ethical dilemma or even just some barebones characterizing. Kate and John could be desperately trying to dissuade her dad from launching Skynet, we could have some scientist point out the ethical difficulties of killing a newly sentient creature, and maybe even try to talk to Skynet. I mean, as I understand it, Skynet only launched the nuclear missiles at Russia because the USA was desperately trying to “unplug” (ie kill) Skynet. It was defending itself. Maybe if we just stop trying to kill it, it would simply leave us alone. Hell a highly intelligent and adaptive AI could actually advance mankind immensely. Skynet could build robotic probes to send into space, invent new nanotechnology to help us fight disease…all kinds of possibilities.

It would also fit thematically with Terminator 2, a story where a young boy and a giant machine built specifically to kill humans, learn from each other. As the ending quote of T2 says: “If a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can to.” If a machine designed by Skynet can do that, why not Skynet itself?

Character Driven: Terminator 2

Yeah, switched to this topic like a ninja. (If you’re like me, you probably know this movie like the back of your hand so I’m going to keep this brief)

Terminator 2 is my personal favorite in the series. Arnold Schwarznegger got to show off his acting chops this time around, instead of just his massive pecs, and seeing a Sarah Connor continue to be a badass brought a warm glow to my heart. As the horrific TV series showed us, not allowing Sarah Connor to remain the strong and independent woman she became at the end of the original movie is a terrible idea. Turning Sarah Connor from hardened, gun-toting badass into a mother-earth, Family Ties-esque caricature is what killed that show. That’s all I have to say about that.

Story Point 1: Save Sarah Connor

So after escaping the T-1000, John Connor and the Terminator are in the parking lot of a gas station arguing about what to do next. I just want to say that this whole scene is 10 different kinds of awesome. I was too young to have seen T2 when it first came out, but when I did finally watch it I wasn’t much younger than John Connor in the movie. I can tell you that if I had a giant killer robot taking orders from me, I would have done the exact same thing as John. Except to hell with that no killing crap.

Hey, snap to it! This murder-list isn’t getting any shorter…

Anyway, this is another example of a character’s choice driving the story. John Connor is like 12-13 years old at this point, so naturally his first instinct is to try and save his mother. He clearly has issues with her, you know with the whole “my mom lives in a psychiatric institution” situation hanging over him, but saving Sarah was in keeping with his character. Who wouldn’t want to save their mother in this situation? (Besides me I mean, I’d be having way too much fun with my own personal kill-bot)

Story Point 2: Killing Miles Dyson

Another excellent story point because it relies entirely on the character in order to resolve itself. We get to see how the long-term psychological effects of Sarah’s encounter in T1 affects her today, going from cold-blooded assassin trying to kill a computer engineer to a weeping psychotic breakdown when she realizes what she’s about to do: kill a man for something he hasn’t even done yet.

Story Point 3: Blowing up Cyberdyne

So once again we get a character driven decision to hit Cyberdyne Systems to prevent Skynet from ever being invented. This could easily have been a plot driven idea as well, simply by making it part of the Terminators reprogramming. It would have been totally believable that John Connor Future-version would send back the reprogrammed T2 with a plan to destroy Skynet. It would have been the easy way out though, and making this a natural extension of Sarah Connor’s character gave this movie a much stronger story.

Story Point 4: Thumb’s Up

Best. Ending. Ever.

Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but I still think the conclusion of this movie is one of the best I’ve seen. It represents the conclusion to everyone’s character arcs in a single, emotional scene. John Connor , who’s come to love the Terminator like a bigger, more murdery version of a St. Bernard, learns to let go. Sarah Connor, originally mistrustful of the Terminator, comes to trust and respect him. And the Terminator himself completes his journey from unemotional automaton to an emotionally aware entity on the road to becoming an individual, and makes a very human self-sacrifice to make sure that his kind is never seen again.

Hang on, I’ve got something in my eye again…

Plot Driven: Terminator Salvation

I didn’t think they could possibly screw up this sequel up anymore than they did in Terminator 3. I mean, this one had fucking batman in it. How bad could it be!?

Uh oh…

After Terminator 3, the bar was set so low that even a single-celled organism couldn’t fit under it, and somehow, inexplicably, Terminator Salvation managed to tunnel underneath the bar. I don’t even know how that happened. I mean it’s like dividing by zero.

So we start off with John Connor attacking an installation we know nothing about, with a bunch of people we don’t care about, and setting off a giant explosive for reasons we also don’t care about. Great job everybody, we’re off to a great start.

Moving right along, we end up on a nuclear submarine commander by Michael Ironside playing Michael Ironside (because that’s all he ever plays). So apparently the Resistance intercepts a “kill-list”, listing John Connor and Kyle Reese as top-priority targets. Why a giant computer program would need to “send out” a “kill-list” is never really discussed. I mean if you think about it, Skynet should already know that John Connor and Kyle Reese are dangerous people that should be eliminated, kill them should be standing order #1 in all of its units. Shouldn’t that be built right into operating systems of these units? A Kill-List makes me envision terminators looking at leaflets posted on a wall with John Connor’s face on it like some kind of Western.

After some long, boring exposition, John returns home to mourn the dead.

Yes, I’m sure we’re all broken up about the death of some…guy we never met who was the brother of another guy we haven’t met. Yeah…

See this is an issue: you can’t just show us a mournful face and a manly-man shoulder slap and expect us to feel sympathy for someone we don’t know. That’s why we need characters, so we can relate with them and sympathize. These aren’t characters, they’re all rugged pieces of gun-toting meat with five o’clock shadows. But whatever, go ahead and do your bro-hugs…we’ll just stand here….waiting for an actual story to start…

Anytime now…

Even the characters are waiting for it to start.

Story Point 1: Kyle Reese, Star and the great Frisbee Disc of Death

It’s a bad sign when the first meaningful event for your characters occurs half-way through the damn story. Up until this point, this story has progressed with absolutely zero input from the characters. They’re just along for the ride. We might as well be watching Scooby-Doo and the gang fighting terminators since we’ve had no meaningful characterization at all during this movie. (Now that I think about it, that’s an awesome idea. I’m calling dibs to that idea right now, Scooby-Doo: Judgement Doo. Coming soon.)

So okay, Sam Worthington is looking to take a truck and leave LA. Now, here’s a potential spot where our characters can interact in a meaningful way. Sam can reveal his personality by either abandoning two children to their deaths or taking them with him, potentially risking all three lives in the process. Let’s see how this plays out.

Oh wait, we can’t because a giant robot shaped like a Frisbee shows up and forces our characters to flee, depriving them of any choice.

Story Point 2: Gas Station Mob

So we find our heroes, and I use the term as loosely as possible, arriving at a gas station in the middle of no where. Inside we find a gang of humans that have clearly been hiding here, struggling to survive. Unwilling to share their supplies, the gang threatens to kill Sam and company. Finally, a chance for some characterization. What will Sam Worthington do? Will he disarm these thugs and kill them all? Try to talk his way out of it? Will the old lady come to his assistance?

I can’t wait to see what –

Oh for fuck’s sake:

Do you MIND!? We’re trying to tell a story down here!

Once again we see the choice, and any chance to expand these characters, ripped away in favor of a comically over-sized terminator. See the plot decided this story was getting boring, so it threw in another giant CGI robot to spice things up and force the characters to just run. If we never get to see the characters make choices or even be able to react to situations in anyway besides run and blow stuff up, we never get to know them. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s been a while since I last had to blow up a giant mechanical hunchback bent on destruction, so I can’t really sympathize with these people.

Story Point 3: Sam I am Machine

This is probably the worst missed opportunity in the whole movie. Sam and a downed fighter pilot whose actress has the most badass name ever (Moon Bloodgood), arrive back at Resistance Headquarters. Now, if this were a character driven story, we might have some interesting opportunities here.  Sam’s internal programming could get set off, receiving subliminal messages telling him to kill John Connor. Or perhaps Sam could play Devil’s advocate, showing John and the audience, Skynet’s point of view: a sentient creature just trying to survive. We might even –

Or blow him up, whatever. Tamatoe, Tamatoh.

Yup, once again the plot just keeps steamrolling forward, flattening all the character’s into two dimensional ciphers and robbing the entire movie of any kind of depth or complexity.

Story Point 4: Take my Heart


No, just shut up.

All of you.

Just shut the hell up.

Oh god, they’re really going to do this aren’t they?

Okay, ignoring for the moment the patently ridiculous idea that something as complex as heart transplant surgery could be successfully performed by a former veterinary technician in a field hospital lacking any of the proper equipment and support staff, this whole section is just stupid. Really. I mean…really? Do I even need to go over this? Sam Worthington was on screen with John Connor for all of ten minutes, why would he just give up his heart to him? I mean I’m quite attached to my heart. Last time these two met, John Connor was about to kill Sam. You know what, I give up.

You guys want a new terminator movie that is actually good? Petition them to hire me to write the script next time.

And I’ll make sure there are some god damn lasers this time.


  1. Pew Pew! Seriously, it seems that action movies have been dumb down to fancy CGI and explosions with overused plots, no character development and women who are always willing to jump out of their clothes for the “hero” either during the movie or at the end. One of the reasons I don’t like to watch movies.

    1. 90% are pretty much crap, but there are a lot of good stories in movies. Maybe I’ll dedicate a future post to some of my favorite stories in movies.

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