If you’re excited to see Terminator: Dark Fate this week, chances are you’ve seen the first two films starring Sarah Connor. And chances are, when given a say, you prefer to watch T2: Judgement Day over its progenitor. Which is a shame, really. Because The Terminator is a rare film, particularly where its protagonist is concerned. Sure, it has its very cheesy moments, and isn’t quite as exciting as Terminator 2. But it’s special because it allows Sarah Connor something that male heroes are typically always given and female heroes are nearly always denied: An origin story.
Not in the “how did they become super/an action hero/reincarnated god” sense, though. What I’m talking about is that very first step when the hero is fresh and green and not too bright. When they’re haven’t been trained into competency via years of war and suffering, before they get the Chosen One rant, back when their lives are relatively normal and pretty boring. Sarah Connor gets that chance. And because she gets that chance, we actually get to watch her complete the journey as she morphs from Normal Person to Badassery Personified. That’s always more fun than meeting a character after they’ve already leveled up.
In most narratives, when a woman is allowed to be incredibly naive it’s because she’s serving as cannon fodder in a horror setup—the girl the audience yells at because she’s running down the hall toward a killer when she should know better. Her mistakes are frustrating, or they’re nearly laughable. But Sarah Connor isn’t laughable. She’s just some woman who has no reason to suspect that a killer robot from the future has arrived to murder her. She has a terrible job and a fun roommate and needs to pay electric bills, and then one day Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up and kills everyone she knows because he’s trying to track her down. And Sarah Connor freaks out because… that’s a totally reasonable response to being hunted by a super-bot.
A lot of first adventures or origin stories show us the hero’s transformation right before our eyes. Training programs and failed experiments and suiting up in armor or spandex, we watch as they struggle to get it right over and over. It can be fun—who doesn’t love a good montage?—but also results in most of these movies being awkwardly similar. Sarah Connor doesn’t get it together over the course of some jump cuts at the gym. She’s permitted space to be inexperienced and to feel human emotions about how impossible her situation seems. When she makes a mistake (like contacting her mother and accidentally letting the T-800 know exactly where she is) you feel for her because she doesn’t know the rules of this game. This entire premise is unfair, and film doesn’t pretend otherwise.
Sarah Connor’s origin feels real and grounded in a way that most (super)hero stories never manage. She doesn’t have wealth or fame. She doesn’t get dosed with super juice. She doesn’t find out that she’s an alien, or a princess, or a shapeshifting dragon. Sarah Connor rents a home in Los Angeles with her pal Ginger, has an inadvisable haircut, is trying to get through college, and sucks at waitressing. She can’t find a date who isn’t a creep. She stays at home when other people go out because her life is just kinda meh. Not horrible, not full of lessons made to inform her destiny, just… what happens when you’re a college kid who isn’t expecting much from life. As it goes, she’s easier to relate to than even Luke Skywalker’s humble beginnings—the kid may be a farmboy, but he takes to using the Force without much surprise or difficulty. Sarah Connor learns how to build a pipe bomb, and that’s about it.
One aspect of The Terminator that is genuinely ridiculous is the love story between Sarah and Kyle Reese, the guy sent back in time by the human Resistance of 2029 to keep her safe from Skynet and their AI operatives. Reese has an obsessive crush on Sarah due to a picture that John Connor—Sarah’s son, the leader of the Resistance—gave to him. They don’t know each other at all, but Sarah is forced to rely on Reese for the sake of her survival, and that leads to some flirting and eventually to sleeping together, which leads to Sarah realizing that Reese was meant to be John’s father. For all that the love story is underwhelming, it actually makes sense within the context of the film; Reese has never known a world that allowed time for dating or relationships, so he’s not great at them. Sarah is in fear for her life, and is desperate to cling to anyone who can be deemed trustworthy. The narrative is completely aware that the romance is a means to an end, and treats it that way.
But it’s in her exchanges with Reese that Sarah is allowed to be honest about how unprepared she feels for the sudden responsibility of being a world savior. We get moments of vulnerability from her that aren’t bound up in big picture thinking. When she tells Reese that she’s pretty sure he has the wrong person, she cites the fact that she can’t balance a checkbook, that she’s not tough or organized. And when he compliments her field-dressing of his wound, she summons a sad smile and replies “You like it? It’s my first.” She’s accepting that this will be the first of many first-aid emergencies in her future, but she’s not happy with it. Sarah’s not guileless, but her tendency to focus on smaller things that are right in front of her lets the audience know what she’s grappling with. Making decisions that effect the future of humankind isn’t something that she’s capable of reckoning with yet.
But the film has to end on one essential thought. Sarah Connor has to take up that mantle, and she has to commit to it with ever fiber of her being. She has to let go of every glimmer of a normal life and work toward this goal of training and parenting the kid who might stop the monsters. So Reese doesn’t last long, and then it’s just Sarah Connor, in a Cyberdyne factory, forced to outrun her worst nightmare all alone. She doesn’t have anyone left—not family, not friends, not Reese—and if she loses out now, her entire species is probably toast.
The end of The Terminator is maybe more entrancing than any other finale in the franchise for that reason. It has more in common with a horror film than a sci-fi action flick. Sarah Connor, the final girl who has to make it through for so much more than the sake of her own life, crawling away from two glaring red eyes. Her leg is broken, she’s barely fast enough, but she pulls it all together to crush the T-800 into scrap parts. You can see the moment where the unflinching hero of Judgement Day is born, and it’s right when she says “You’re terminated, fucker.” It only took a span of days to rip her normal, unremarkable life apart, but we get the chance to take the entire journey with her, to sit in her emotions and think about how it would feel. It’s just as fast as most “Chosen One” narratives tend to be, but it doesn’t feel rushed because we are with her for every terrifying second of that ride.
There are a few more heroes who get this treatment, but they are rarely women. Black Widow has a few muddled flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain Marvel gets flickers of her past in formative moments. Wonder Woman gives us a brief introduction to Diana’s home and the women who raised her. Rey doesn’t get much time to wrestle with her budding Jedi abilities before heading off for training. We get brief hints of where these women came from, of how it feels to take everything onto their shoulders. But Sarah Connor gets to muddle through it. She gets to wear weird tie-dyed t-shirts and shiver when she’s cold and decide whether or not she can accept the idea of time travel and unborn sons and machines that will always find her no matter where she hides. She gets to present herself as wholly unqualified, and she gets to screw it up, and she still makes it out the other side to fight another day.
We need more heroes who start from Square One. More stories about women like Sarah Connor. Without The Terminator, T2 has no resonance. It’s just a story about a very cool, very capable woman who comes out of nowhere. The fact that we can see how she arrived at that point ten years later (and beyond) is why she matters.