ANALYSIS: Look At Him If You Want To Live: Shifting Gazes in THE TERMINATOR (1984)

The art of looking has long been the subject of horror criticism. Here Vincent M. Gaine zeroes in on the various gazes in James Cameron’s classic robo-slasher…

The male gaze is one of the most prevalent theories in academic and journalistic critiques of cinema. Originally published by Laura Mulvey in 1975, the notion of cinema possessing the look of men – and women being the object of scrutiny – has persisted for decades, despite responses, critiques and even a revision of the theory by Mulvey herself. Many podcasts, blog pieces and articles discuss the male gaze, especially in horror cinema where a key part of the victimisation of women is the way that they are filmed, dominated by the camera just as they are by aggressive men. However, there are other ways of interpreting the cinematic gaze, or indeed gazes, particularly in relation to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984)

All films involve different forms of seeing that shift between different cameras, lenses, focal lengths and shot durations. This shifting constitutes multiple gazes upon films’ objects and subjects. In the case of horror, the objectifying gaze of the camera can be productively compared to the predatory gaze of the killer. Think of Norman Bates spying on Marion Crane through a hole in the wall in Psycho; the shark in Jaws as it spies its victims; the justly celebrated tracking POV shots throughout John Carpenter’s Halloween, most overtly in the opening sequence. Yet along the way, other gazes interact with those of the killer, an interaction that becomes all the more apparent when the gaze is overtly inflected. 

In The Terminator, we are treated to the gaze of the titular cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a killer arguably even more relentless than Michael Myers. Early in the film, other figures such as the first Sarah Connor are subjected to this cybernetic assassin’s POV as he dispatches them. At the first encounter between the Terminator and the central Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the film cuts between several shots, one of which is mediated by the laser sighting of the Terminator’s automatic pistol. Sarah sees nothing but red as the pistol is pointed at her. Arguably, she is objectified and rendered helpless by the gaze and sighting device of the Terminator until Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) interrupts the fatal looking. Thus, the woman is the object of the gaze, indeed a hyper-masculine gaze with the Terminator as played by Schwarzenegger representing something of an übermensch. 

However, the frame filled with the red light of the laser sighting is a point-of view shot emphatically from the perspective of Sarah, the victimised woman, but also a figure of identification. The position of the victim is central to horror cinema, since – as argued by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws – audiences can identify with horror film characters, especially women, because viewers are placed in the victim’s position. In The Terminator, placed in the position of the victim, the viewer can feel the threat of this huge man with an equally huge gun pointing at us. The slow motion in the sequence at this moment, as well as the ominous music, further expresses the threat to the female character that the viewer can share in. The gaze shifts back to the killer as, subsequently, we see Kyle and Sarah further objectified within the first instance of terminator-vision. A POV shot captures the two fleeing figures but with a red hue and a target searching for Sarah, thus linking the Terminator with the pistol, something that sees only to kill. 

The red POV appears several more times in the film, such as when the Terminator mows his way through the police station, searches through Sarah’s address book and when delivering the hilarious line ‘FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE’ to a landlord approaching his motel room, as well as in the final chase sequence as he takes control of a truck. But it is in the film’s finale that the gaze is destabilised most significantly. 

After Kyle’s death, as the badly damaged machine crawls after the injured Sarah, we see multiple shots from Sarah’s perspective. As she crawls under the hydraulic press, Sarah glances behind her and an eyeline match presents the Terminator from her POV. Cut to a front shot of Sarah as she crawls further, glances behind her again and the camera pans to the left to capture the Terminator within the shot as it reaches for her. As Sarah fully emerges from the space under the press, we cut back to her POV of the Terminator as it inches closer. The Terminator reaches for her between the bars of a grille, we get Sarah’s POV of the metal hand in extreme close-up, claustrophobically placing the viewer in Sarah’s position. In a swiftly edited series of shots, we see the hand reaching for Sarah, the Terminator straining through the grille, Sarah finding the control button for the press. We are then treated to several shots of the Terminator’s destruction from Sarah’s POV, seeing the Terminator through the grille as its parts are crushed and the red light in its eyes finally goes out. 

Throughout this sequence, the viewer shares the perspective of the victim, especially at the moment where she takes command and activates the hydraulic press. Compare this termination to that of the good Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when we are treated to his final sights as he ‘dies’. In Cameron’s original the gaze shifts between that of Sarah and the Terminator, with the gaze of Sarah ultimately winning out. She takes command of the gaze as she pushes the control button, the power of the gaze enabling Sarah to transition from victim to hero, both of which are points of identification for the viewer. 

The gaze of cinema has long been and will continue to be contested, as multiple types of gazes struggle for dominance. In the case of The Terminator the male gaze of masculinised machinery, rendered all the more oppressive through red colouring and technical readouts, is ultimately overcome by the female gaze that entraps it just as a manually controlled device destroys an autonomous machine. 

© Vincent M. Gaine 

For more of Vincent’s thoughts on James Cameron, see ‘The Emergence of Feminine Humanity from a Technologised Masculinity in the Films of James Cameron’ in the Journal of Technology, Theology and Religion. You can also check out our recent podcast episode on The Terminator here.

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