Brothers in Harm: Common Threads in ‘The Terminator’ and the Myth of the Minotaur

By Andrew Wallace / March 5, 2018

While Terminator vs. Minotaur probably isn’t a viable franchise, I confess to an abiding love for these two myths, one classical and one modern. Each is horrific, almost repellent, yet also paradoxically fascinating and even erotic. As they’ve both been in my life for a long time, I’ve had the opportunity to notice similarities between the narratives and have identified several themes, images, and characteristics to show how an enduring piece of mythology and a groundbreaking sci-fi film inhabit the same deep, viscerally imaginative space.

The Labyrinth

Both stories take place in a maze. In the tale of the Minotaur, the artificer Daedalus constructs a labyrinth to house the monstrous offspring of the beautiful Queen Pasiphae, who has been tricked by Poseidon into falling in love with a bull. Pasiphae’s husband is King Minos of Crete, the son of Zeus and thus a demigod, an example of the dual identities that inform characters in both stories. Minos cannot bring himself to kill the Minotaur and instead commands the defeated Athenians to send seven young, virginal men and women every seven years to be sacrificed to the monster.

In The Terminator, 1984 Los Angeles is presented as an eerie, blue-lit grid with frequent dead-ends. It is harsh and unforgiving; the first inhabitants we meet are a homeless man and a gang of feral punks. Overlaying this physical complexity is the more abstract maze of time itself, which the characters are attempting to alter. Time travel narratives are notoriously hard to pull off, usually because the writers view alternative chronologies as mere settings rather than characters in themselves. The Terminator gets around this shortfall by embedding the story’s contradictions in the emotional makeup of its ferociously determined characters. Both the Terminator and the Minotaur are trapped in their respective prisons, through hardwired obedience and brute stupidity, respectively.

Sacrifice of the Innocents

A lot of blameless people die horribly in both stories. The Athenians, like the humans in The Terminator, are losers in a war they brought about, and as punishment must send their young people to the lethal maze on Crete. Picture these teenagers entering the gloomy, stinking maze to be eaten alive by a raging, bull-headed monster, and you can see why this story has stayed with me.

Meanwhile, the Terminator kills several Sarah Connors before finding the right one, murders everyone who gets in his way at a nightclub, then wipes out an entire police station. Sarah herself is a naive, rather hopeless girl with awful hair who can’t even handle working as a waitress. The Terminator isn’t even after Sarah for her own sake, but for her role as mother to the messianic John Connor. The real target is therefore a child who has not even been conceived. Similarly, the creators of Skynet and their backers do not just inadvertently destroy themselves, but also sacrifice humanity’s future. The lost potential involved in that tragic scenario is one of the film’s major themes.

Both stories consider the hubris of the powerful and its unexpected nightmare outcomes, with the harshest price paid by the young and vulnerable. Those with the most resources in ancient Greece and near-future America use them in an arrogant, even vain manner. This mindset either directly enrages a god, such as when Minos decides he is a worthier recipient of a beautiful sacrificial bull than Poseidon, or creates a situation when a badly programmed artificial deity—the name “Skynet” places the AI in the same realm as the classical gods—makes a logical decision based entirely on the inhumanity of its creators. It is interesting that the most memorable parts of the Minotaur myth (the monster himself, the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne) and the entirety of The Terminator feature characters who had nothing to do with the decisions that brought about such dire situations.

Terrifying Technology

The backstory of The Terminator features an artificial intelligence that comes to view its human creators as a threat. Images of nuclear fire and burning inform the film’s post-apocalyptic world (blinding laser battles; the two children watching a TV with a fire in it instead of a screen), as does the dramatic revelation of the Terminator’s true form after he is caught in an explosion. Clanking garbage trucks and cranes, automated tanks rolling over skulls, red laser sighting, the red glow of artificial eyes: all of it is less a mechanical theme than an overwhelming visual assault. The storytellers are too clever to make technology wholly evil, though; the Terminator is weirdly charismatic in his human disguise, while Sarah uses a robotics factory’s hydraulic press to finish off her nemesis at the film’s climax.

Technology functions as a metaphor for unthinking, powerful desire in the Minotaur story from its very inception. When Minos keeps the bull for himself, an enraged Poseidon compels Minos’s wife Pasiphae to fall in lust with the animal. To enable sexual union, the Queen orders Daedalus to create a wooden cow covered in cow skin with herself inside it. Not only does this disguise remind us of the Terminator and his coating of human flesh, it also reflects the theme of duality. Pasiphae is the daughter of the god Helios and thus another demigod; like the Terminator, she uses disguise to bring about a destructive outcome.

It doesn’t end well for Daedalus either. Like the Skynet programmers, who in all likelihood were just following orders, he creates technology that is not just used for evil but begets more evil in turn, as if the process is exponential. As Daedalus is the only one who knows the secret design of the labyrinth and thus the way out, he is shut up in a tower with his son, Icarus. Whether this situation is an ancient Greek version of karma or the kind of brute logic worthy of Skynet, Daedalus is unable to accept his fate and proceeds to make it worse. He builds wings for himself and Icarus, using wax to hold the feathers together, and escapes by flight. However, despite his father’s warnings, Icarus flies too close to the sun; the wax melts and Icarus falls to his death. Fire is the most fundamental of human technologies, and in both stories leads to hubristic catastrophe.

Convoluted Family Relationships

The Terminator wins out here, although only just. When John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to save Sarah, John knows Kyle is his father and that Kyle will not survive. Kyle is not aware of these facts and neither is Sarah; indeed, the audience does not discover this tragic irony until the very end of the film. John Connor has the same initials as Jesus Christ, who was similarly sacrificed by his father for the greater good. While John is the son and Kyle the father, we sense that Kyle is the junior in their relationship: he is a loyal lieutenant to Connor’s leader.

The ill-fated son/father relationship finds its reflection both in the fate of Daedalus and Icarus and also in that of Minos and the Minotaur. The latter’s name is derived from that of his stepfather, who uses him as a weapon of terror to avenge the death in Athens of Androgeus, Minos’s birth son. That Androgeus is killed by a monstrous bull gives the story the same cyclical feel as the mind-bending time loops at the heart of The Terminator.

But it is in the person of Sarah Connor, one of our great contemporary characters in any genre, that the family drama finds its best expression. Later Terminator films explore Sarah’s relationship with John in great and affecting detail, particularly the first sequel, Judgement Day. In The Terminator, however, the relationship is only implicit, given maximum emotional weight as it is acknowledged at the very end of the film, with the mother’s terrible responsibility hinted at and Sarah all the more powerful for it.

Meanwhile, Kyle’s adoration of Sarah is almost religious: his knowledge of her is second-hand and he only knows what she looks like because he has a single Polaroid snap of her. Likewise, Queen Pasiphae has a quasi-religious identity; she is the daughter of Helios, god of—you guessed it—the sun. Both characters’ powerful sexuality and maternal instincts are suborned to a power play that is essentially patriarchal. Both Skynet and its machine empire feel brutally male, while the Terminator himself, with his incredible muscular physique, is an extreme expression of masculinity at its most terrifying. Similarly, the Minotaur is a bull-headed man: the hybrid of human and notoriously strong, unreasonable male animal.

An Unholy Blend

In each of these stories, a blend of improbable elements creates something memorably unpleasant. There is nothing wrong with a man and nothing wrong with a bull; it is the combination of both in a single being that upsets and beguiles. Bovines are herbivores, but the Minotaur only eats human flesh; cattle sleep at night, while the Minotaur exists in an artificially darkened, nocturnal world. We cannot help but apply practical questions to the story, like what is the Minotaur’s sexuality: cows or women? None of the answers seem remotely palatable.

Similarly, Kyle talks about the Terminators sweating and having bad breath to make them more convincingly human, while the Terminator’s landlord complains about the smell of the cyborg’s damaged flesh (“You got a dead cat in there?”). The Terminator doesn’t care that half his face is missing or that he needs to carry out a grisly combination of surgery and maintenance on the lever systems in his arm. He does check his hair afterwards, though, and while we will never know if it’s for vanity or to ensure anonymity in a vain culture, the gesture is disarmingly familiar.

Sarah Connor cycles through various archetypal identities on the way to her true calling. She might begin the story as a damsel in distress, but learns fast and is able to utilize both Reece’s military lingo (“On your feet, soldier!”) and the Terminator’s single-mindedness. Sure, the Terminator won’t stop, but neither, by the end, will Sarah. She thus has elements in common with the warrior goddess Diana, the Christian Virgin Mary, and the heroine of the Minotaur story, Ariadne. Ariadne herself starts as a jailer, part of an oppressive and inhumanly vengeful regime, and finishes as a revolutionary. As with Kyle Reece, she falls in love with the one who inspires her at first sight. There is a sense in both stories that the characters are in thrall to impersonal higher powers, from gods both machine and celestial to fateful time itself.

An Extraordinary Linking Device

Both narratives feature an emotionally resonant physical linking device. In the story of the Minotaur, Minos has a daughter called Ariadne, who is put in charge of the labyrinth. One group of sacrificial Athenians includes Theseus, with whom Ariadne falls in love. She gives Theseus a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread with which to trace the route back out of the labyrinth. Ariadne’s thread is richly symbolic, representing constancy, love, and rebellion.

The Terminator’s Kyle Reese has a snapshot of Sarah Connor, given to him by their son John. The photograph is as symbolic as Ariadne’s thread because it is taken when Sarah is talking to her unborn son about his father, who crossed time to save her. It is the first time the audience realizes how the disparate chronological narratives of the story are woven together. The photograph captures an incredibly romantic moment: seemingly hopeless, defiant, and darkly funny.

This temporal link is taken further with the introduction card to the film, in which we are told that the battle will be fought “tonight,” even though the night in question was in 1984 when the film was made. However many times I see The Terminator, that “tonight” still delivers a visceral thrill, like Sarah’s photo.

In George Frederic Watts’s The Minotaur, 1885, the creature is a symbol of mindless bestiality, but also an object of pity

The Unknowable

Finally, there is that unknowable quality in both strangely beautiful, frighteningly efficient antagonists. We will never know what the Minotaur thinks, any more than we know what the Terminator thinks. We have hints, sly humor, but mainly a dramatically instilled fear of something physically overwhelming, something utterly unreasonable and profoundly dangerous. And yet to what extent are these creatures responsible for what they are, let alone their actions? The Terminator is programmed by an entity other than himself, while the Minotaur is the result of a situation twice removed from any conscious decision-making—Pasiphae is bewitched by Poseidon; she is as much an innocent as the sacrificial Athenians. Rather, each monster is an embodiment of remorseless fate set in train by an abuse of power, which is perhaps why their deaths are so ambiguous.

The Minotaur is the more sympathetic of the two, despite his more obvious nightmare quality. There is a sense at the end that he is put out of his misery by Theseus, who then escapes with the Athenian slaves and Ariadne. As in The Terminator, however, the lovers do not get to stay together. Theseus is forced to leave Ariadne and, heartbroken, forgets to hoist white sails instead of black, an error that leads to his father’s suicide. Minos remains in power, ultimately becoming a Judge of the Dead. Fateful power, then, continues as before even though the “monster” is killed. Similarly, the death of the Terminator at the end of the first film does not prevent the imminent nuclear war; indeed, the sequel reveals that the embryonic Skynet is created from technology found in the remains of the first Terminator. Even destroying the T-800 is no guarantee that the war will be averted; instead, like the sails on Theseus’s ship, we are presented with alternative realities based entirely on human intuition and frailty.

That is why the stories are not really about these mysterious, fantastic monsters, although they are their tales’ most memorable elements. Instead, the stories of The Terminator and the Minotaur are about the people whose lives are affected in such unique and powerful—and decidedly violent—ways.

Andrew Wallace is a novelist based in England. He writes for the British Science Fiction Association and magazines including Vector and The Shadow Booth; he also blogs about SFF and the creative process at Life in Sci-Fi. The first two novels of his far-future Diamond Roads series (Sons of the Crystal Mind and The Outer Spheres) are out now, and his novella Celebrity Werewolf will be published by NewCon Press later this year.

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3 thoughts on “Brothers in Harm: Common Threads in ‘The Terminator’ and the Myth of the Minotaur

  1. Pingback: Brothers in Harm: my article about common threads in the Terminator & Minotaur stories published by We Are the Mutants – Life in Sci-Fi

  2. Pingback: Between Authority and Resistance: The Terminator’s New Clothes

  3. Pingback: Tech-Noir: How One Scene in ‘The Terminator’ Changed Science Fiction

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