Separated at birth: The Terminator and … SpongeBob SquarePants?

July 17, 2009 | 7:03 p.m.

This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of SpongeBob SquarePants. This year is also the 25th anniversary of James Cameron’s killer-robot classic “The Terminator.” That’s not the only link between the two disparate pop-culture icons, writes Martin Miller, an editor at the Los Angeles Times. This is a longer version of his piece that appeared this week in the paper.

Arnold as the Terminator

One serves up the glorious Krabby Patty; the other metes out pitiless death. You might think that a gregarious sponge who is fond of red ties and speaks crystal clear English underwater has little in common with a time-traveling, red-eyed killing machine whose default language setting comes with a heavy Germanic accent.

And that’s where you would be wrong. Spongy, dead wrong.

Despite their obvious differences, like for instance, a backbone and a penchant for murder, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Terminator are actually brothers from different mothers, as the kids might say.

The two are alike in surprising ways that has everything to do with why there are SpongeBob ceiling fans at Target and a newly opened roller coaster called Terminator Salvation: The Ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Although the two-dimensional characters share a host of traits — ferocious dedication to work, extreme mood swings, a distinct fashion style and an ambiguous sexuality — it is their mutual ability to emerge unbreakable from nearly all circumstances that helps explain their colossal worldwide appeal to three-dimensional humans. What mortal among us, subject to the blings and arrows of our consumerist, post- 9/11 world, wouldn’t like to plow through the day with the relative ease of either of these two fine fellows?

SpongeBob, who heartily soaks up the juice of life, feels everything. The Terminator (I’m talking strictly about the 800 Series, Model 101 here; subsequent portrayals in sequels are all mere commentary on the 1984 original) feels nothing. But whether it’s a spotlight


moment of acute social shame or a torrent of shotgun blasts, you can’t bring this pair down, at least not for long.

Both mega-merchandised figures are marking notable cultural milestones this summer on television and at the movies. SpongeBob is a still vibrant 10 years old, a birthday Nickelodeon is celebrating with a weekendlong marathon that begins on Friday and culminates on Sunday, the actual anniversary of the pilot episode’s first airing.

Meanwhile, the Terminator franchise chalked up its fourth major motion picture in May, a few months before its official 25th anniversary in October. The film has performed well internationally but only lukewarm domestically, foreshadowing perhaps that the unit may be nearing the end of its life span.

Still, no matter how the future may look for either one, they haven’t done too badly for an invertebrate with a name tag and a cyborg that looks a lot like California’s governor.

The world crushes us all. No one more than children. Don’t get me wrong, I have children, and with 6.7 billion inhabitants on the planet, everybody needs a little crushing now and then for society to function. (No, you cannot throw your spaghetti in the waiter’s face.)

And yet SpongeBob and the Terminator are not cowed by the world’s huge pile of petty conventions. SpongeBob laughs at the tsunami of rigid societal rules, while the Terminator fills them full of blazing hot lead — two coping techniques more than a few of us may have fantasized about.

Time and again, SpongeBob defies the established custom and instead of being punished is rewarded. In “Idiot Box,” one of the television series’ more memorable episodes — and that’s saying something — the Stephen Hillenburg creation and his dimwitted sidekick Patrick Star excitedly open a giant box, which contains a television. The two promptly discard the device and hop into the big box, where they use their imaginations to create a new and more entertaining world of avalanche rescues and pirate adventures. (The friends are promptly ridiculed by Squidward, a sarcastic and naysaying octopus and stand-in for parents, who later tries to join in the box fun but can’t.)

“We don’t need television. Not as long as we have … our imagination,” explains SpongeBob, who summons a tiny rainbow in his hands. The message is clear — don’t be bound by the narrow vision of others and revel in the power of your own mind. Like the person who dreamed up the SpongeBob ceiling fan.

Another classic episode, which requires no imagination to understand its larger appeal, is called “The Bully.” It sounds more like Terminator territory, but bullying is a theme frequently explored in the undersea world of Bikini Bottom. (Imagine television writers who were picked on as children and then working through their issues as adults — and getting paid for it!)

SpongeBob gets a new classmate named Flatts the Flounder, who despite earnest attempts at friendship is interested in only one thing — pulverizing the sponge. SpongeBob runs, hides, even tries to form alliances, but all to no avail. Finally, SpongeBob surrenders to his fate and Flatts pounds away.

Suddenly, SpongeBob realizes something everyone in a similar situation wishes they could — “I’m absorbing his blows like I was made of some kind of spongy material.” It doesn’t hurt, and eventually the bully is utterly exhausted and defeated by the rope-a-dope.

Even if your soul isn’t ground to dust by the hectoring of the world, it’s still hard not to get your feelings hurt along the way. Enter the Terminator, eyes cloaked by mirror sunglasses, a metaphor for death itself, with no feelings to get in the way of getting what he wants.

The James Cameron creation is the strong, silent type — even when he gets shot repeatedly, dragged underneath a speeding 18-wheeler or set on fire in a tanker explosion. (Even the more evolved — namely, more namby-pamby — “protector” Terminator in the second film admits he would never be able to cry. Oh, boohoo!)

Of course, he is still a character animated by his own decisive actions, which he directs more than a few times at one of the most confounding and enraging sources of modern life — the bureaucracy.

So we perversely love him because he’s powerful and because he concentrates his rage at objects with which we can sympathize.

In the early scenes of the original film the Terminator goes into a gun store and we witness his distaste for the regulations. He’s told there’s a waiting period for the handguns, and when he begins loading a weapon, the store clerk abruptly tells him he can’t do that. Blam! That’s what the Terminator thinks about your stinking rules!

But the scene that made the Terminator an icon comes at a police station. He walks into its quiet lobby and asks if he can see Sarah Connor, the woman we all know he wants to murder. The police officer dismissively tells him that he can’t see her and that he’ll just have to wait. And then he utters what is still his most famous catchphrase: “I’ll be back.”

Then, in an act quietly cheered by those beaten down by the machinations of the state, he crashes his car through the station’s front window and proceeds to shoot up the entire police station. Sure, he takes a few dozen bullets to the chest, which clearly stagger him, but that’s a small price to pay for refusing to be dehumanized and brushed off by the system.

That’s a sentiment even an eternally optimistic sponge could applaud.


BONUS: Now, some FAQs about the greatest Sponge in human history and one of greatest human killing machines who both share birthdays this year.

Who would win in a fight between SpongeBob and the Terminator (the 800 Series, Model 101)?

I know Kyle had this to say: “That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.” Yeah, well, he never met SpongeBob. Ask Flatts the Flounder.

What’s their Achilles heel?

The Terminator’s is a gigantic hydraulic press. SpongeBob’s, dry land.

Are they gay?

There has been much speculation on this, especially SpongeBob. Why do people care so much? Can’t we just live in a world where that isn’t even an issue?! But if you must know they’re both as gay as that Austrian guy from the movies – Bruno, but not as much.

Would Spongebob and the Terminator make a good couple?

Love is as much a mystery to this world as the secret recipe for the Krabby Patty is to Plankton. We don’t know what makes good couples. We may never know. But we can say that SpongeBob is a drama sponge, oh, Mr. Squarepants, he does love to carry on. And let’s face it, despite his many glaring faults that (let’s wheel out the elephant here) include murder, the Terminator is a pretty steady, calm, doesn’t-get-flustered

Spongebob up close

kind of cyborg. So in a yin and yang sense, they just might provide “the other” with the balance they probably seek. Also, both are asexual, so that means they’d only fight about money.

Who has the better catch phrase?

Let’s give the hulking murderer his due – “I’ll be back,” even “Hasta la vista, baby,” beats “I’m ready, I’m ready.” (Of course, let’s not get carried away. It’s not like the Terminator wrote his own lines.)

What’s their neatest trick?

SpongeBob’s ability to re-grow limbs. And the Terminator, time travel. (Or his retention of a thick Austrian accent despite being programmed by super-smart machines.)

Is SpongeBob the anti-Terminator or is the Terminator the anti-SpongeBob?

You should have stopped with a master’s degree.

— Martin Miller

NICKELODEON WANTS YOUR VOTE: What’s your favorite SpongeBob episode?



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