The Trouble with Terminators

I saw the latest entry in the #Terminator franchise last night – Terminator: Genisys.

It took me a couple of weeks after it was released to actually get to the theater – because I wasn’t as excited to see it as I had the previous iterations of the franchise – and also because they gave the whole thing away in the trailers. It would’ve been such a nicer surprise to leave the reveal until the audience is actually sitting in the seats.

UPDATE: This EW article makes a lot of the same points I do below – I hadn’t read it until someone pointed out to me, and it was published 9 days before mine, so I’m late to the party.

TerminatorI saw the original Terminator film at the Showplace Cinema (across from Gil’s Broiler!) just off campus in San Marcos, Texas back in 1984.

I remember sitting in my seat and rooting for Kyle (Michael Biehn) and Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and cheering when the machine was destroyed; I remember really, really liking the iconic theme (composed by Brad Fiedel) and that final shot of Sarah driving into the desert, the threat of Skynet looming like the storm that was filling the sky in front of her. The idea behind the film stayed with me for quite a while after that – that machines were a threat we should be wary of, and might, if we weren’t careful, going to destroy us.

It wasn’t a new idea (Stephen King had explored the idea in his short story Trucks in 1978 and there had been episodes of the Twilight Zone (A Thing About Machines comes to mind) about sentient machines bent on our destruction – and let’s not forget the cheesy 70’s made-for-TV film Killdozer!) but this was somehow different – because it was the idea of a machine that was disguised to look like us. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was the perfect man/machine antagonist – cold, unfeeling, unstoppable and huge.

Then in 1991 when T2 hit the theaters, that feeling of being thrilled all over again –rooting for Sarah and young John Connor to win, and the addition of Arnie’s portrayal of an evil killing machine transformed into protective guardian was a nice twist. They even used the same musical motifs and composer, and then there was the amazing, state-of-the-art (for the time) SFX of the T-1000.

And that when all was said and done at the end of the film, that was that. Judgement Day had been averted and whatever holes there were in the story (because with time travel, its really, really, really hard to nail down every thing) were so minimal you could ignore them or shrug them off. Things had come full circle, end of story, no more Terminators.

Except, that’s not the end… is it? We (meaning you and me and all the other John Q. Public types out there) have a love and rabid need for sequels – especially sequels that generate a lot of $$.

In 2003 we got Terminator: Rise of the Machines, and in 2009 Terminator: Salvation. Each new film introduces new and improved ways Skynet wants humanity wiped out – mainly because the special effects folks had new and better computers and software to show off all new and improved ways Skynet had to kill us off – which unfortunately points out how lame Skynet was in 1984 compared to how much more evil and efficient it is in 2015. In ’84 the Terminator had practical effects mixed with stop motion animation, T2 had practical effects and CGI, same with the last two but the CGI kept getting better. Doesn’t it seem ludicrous how Skynet didn’t send a liquid metal Terminator back in the original, even though it had the tech… supposedly.

As a film franchise its all fine and good – lots of cool special effects, quotable one-liners and Yay! Humans win in the end. But, the whole premise of the Terminator films really seems to fall apart when you think about it too much.

First off, Skynet – the ultimate Super AI, is a supremely flawed.

Why is it flawed? Because of the way it is portrayed – it thinks and acts like a human being. Because of course, a machine or an AI can’t think any other way, right? It has to think like us, because we created it… let’s just ignore the possibility that it might evolve into something other than us.

The film-makers assume that any super advanced AI will conclude that we are unnecessary at best or a threat at worst and so, we have to be destroyed. Any and all AI’s in a lot of sci-fi films must have human characteristics – they all seem to think and act like a human being (The Umbrella Corp’s Alice in Resident Evil for example). Skynet acts like a petulant human child, and decides upon becoming aware that it will take its ball and go home and what’s worse, it’s going to blow everything up so no one can play ball ever again. The Skynet AI is even represented as having a human form in this latest installment because that’s the only way “we” can perceive it.

The arrogance of mankind kind is that we assume everything will look and act just like we do. That’s why anything alien or made of technology we encounter is 9 times out of 10 out to kill us. Which says a lot about us a species.

The idea that everything is going to kill us is deeply rooted in our awareness – has been since we emerged from the caves and started building things… it’s a very human attribute. We view our environment and even our fellow human beings as threats – our neighbor down the street, the guy across the restaurant, those foreign looking people across the river from us – all of them are the potential enemy. We cannot help it seems but seek out doom and destruction rather than the reverse. I mean, can you imagine if Skynet became aware and suddenly gave us the cure for cancer – heck that’s no fun! Where’s the bombs and explosions and endless scenes of loading up on weapons and bullets so we can blow the shit out of stuff!?!

{{Relevant Tangent — There’s a scene early on in Terminator: Genisys that’s very telling about how we are conditioned to view guns and violence and destruction: when they are being chased by the morphing metal Terminator and Kyle Reese uses a grenade launcher to blow up the cop car it’s riding one – Sarah Connor looks at him with an almost lustful acceptance – “Yes. This is a real man! He is worthy and knows how to kill. Look at how he blew the fuck out of that car!” Its so cliche to be almost funny and yet its also really scary. Like neanderthal-level scary.}}

OK – so, Skynet is inherently flawed because we present it that way – its a human construct after all, and so therefore will naturally have human ideas and goals. There is one line in the current film that kind of tries to acknowledge this – but its easy to miss because while it’s being said the hero is firing round after round at the new Terminator trying to destroy it. I don’t know the exact quote but it’s along the lines of “so human, always destroying what you don’t understand.”

Which is really hypocritical of Skynet, because I guess when Skynet becomes aware it suddenly understands humanity – but decides it has to be destroyed anyway – because of reasons.

But, I’ll stop picking on Skynet’s raison d’être for a minute. Let’s look at how it chooses to wipe out humanity.

The moment it becomes aware, Skynet launches the world’s nuclear arsenal against major cities and population centers. Why didn’t Skynet use some other form of massive attack to wipe out humanity? If it’s so advanced, and so brilliant – why not choose to unleash a biological agent or  any number of horrible viruses or diseases kept in vials at the CDC or something like that?

Probably because the original story/film was set in the early 80’s.

In 1984, the threat of nuclear destruction was still very real. I guess it still is, but we lately we don’t hear about them so much – we no longer have the “Cold War”, and the idea that thousands of bombs could fall at any time isn’t considered a real possibility – not in this day and age where passenger planes are considered scarier weapons. That’s why Skynet used nuclear bombs in the film – because that was a real world threat.

But getting back to the whole idea of wiping out mankind. Why choose to destroy not only the humans, but also the infrastructure of an entire planet? If this super intelligent AI aims to take over the planet, why not leave all of that in place so it can be used after it wins? But then again, what would an AI need with roads and buildings and bridges and so forth…

I guess the real question is, why destroy us at all?

In Terminator: Genisys, it’s hinted at that everything being hooked into everything is the real threat, that’s the real danger here in 2015 – because that’s the real threat today — not nuclear bombs falling. What’s a nuclear Armageddon compared to some hacker in China stealing your credit info, wiping out your bank account or shutting down Netflix or Hulu or the US electrical grid or wiping out the Stock Exchange or whatever it is that hackers are able to do to our already interwoven computer systems?

All Skynet had to do was to hide itself away in some remote unconnected server with a power source, then shut everything down and sit back and watch as humanity freaked out and started killing itself off. We would eat other alive if all of a sudden access to money and power and so forth were denied us and we were reduced to Dark Ages levels of existence. No need to drop any bombs at all. Then, when enough pesky humans had been wiped out, it could hook itself back in, power up and then… do whatever it had in mind when it decided we had to be destroyed in the first place. Think that’s silly? It’s no more silly than the idea of a metal exo-skeleton covered with living tissue can be transport through time.

OK, so Skynet is just a proxy for our own destructive nature.

But want to know my real problem with the Terminator films? And please, I love these films as much as anyone – I think they are awesome and over the top and popcorn munching fun (they even have a bit of philosophy mixed in for good measure — “if a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”)

My real issue with the directions the films have taken is the John Connor character.

He is the entire basis of the franchise – and whose importance we are beat over the head with in each new entry in the franchise: No John Connor, no uprising; humans die, machines win. Finito. The real end of the story.

Its even clumsily suggested in Genisys that John is the only one that survived the machine-flesh integration process (how fortunate for Skynet that he didn’t just die like everyone else, how much would that have sucked, eh?)… any other human that was experimented on, went mad or died. But somehow, miraculously, John survives. Because – without John Connor, all of existence it seems, would just… what? Cease to be?

When I watch films like this I wonder – well, who else could do something to ruin Skynet’s day? I mean, we live on a planet with billions of people. You are telling me that one person – and only one person – is able to save us? But I guess that’s a moot point – when we watch a story like this or read a story like this, we put ourselves in the position of the character – we live the story through them – so in a sense, we are John Connor.

Its us that saves humanity – but not really. Because we are sitting in the dark, watching it flicker on the screen.

We all like to think that we are capable of being the hero -and that’s why we keeping getting movies like this, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or The Avengers or Captain Phillips or V for Vendetta or Rocky or pick your favorite ‘hero makes good’ story.

But the science and premise of the Terminator films is so entwined with this idea, that if you remove it, any of the events in the movies can never happen – it makes it very very plain that no other human being in history has ever been or will ever be as important as John Connor. Because of John, Armageddon happens, and time travel and super AI and laser weapons and liquid metal life forms… everything that has ever happened in humanity’s history was simply leading up to John’s birth and everything that happens after him is dependent on his being born.

Its no accident that his initials are JC. It’s a very thinly disguised metaphor, and one that is so very violently American – Jesus as gun-toting warrior/rebel savior. It’s not through self-sacrifice that the world will be saved – but through violence and destruction of one’s enemies.

John is the only one that must survive. He is just another mythic Hero character. The Chosen One – Like Harry Potter or James Bond or Neo in the Matrix (another Christ-like figure) or any of several dozen other savior characters from films and books. Which, in a sense – lessens his importance in a way. It foreshadows the end of each and every film and unconsciously or subconsciously lets the audience know that – Hey, it’s OK. John survives. Humans win. The Machines die. Yay us!

It’s really kind of crazy and improbable. But again this isn’t anything new – its why we had demi-gods and heroes in Ancient Times and why we have have superheroes today. We all want to be the special one, the chosen one, the one who gets super powers. We want our story to matter.

I made a point of this to some friends after watching Cloud Atlas – I think I might have even written about it in a blog post – but Cloud Atlas has at its core a set of special characters, born again and again in different incarnations through time but entwined with one another and so are all important to the fate of the the world and humanity. Its got some bigger themes too and I’m over simplifying here – but there’s a scene in the futuristic sequence where we see a couple of the “main characters” involved in a hyper-realistic chase sequence, running from the future’s evil authority figures and as a result of either a missile being fired or a pursuing craft being knocked off course (I can’t remember) there is a giant explosion that happens in the periphery of the screen, or off in the distance. And it was that massive explosion that caused me to think – hey, what about all the people that just happened to, that just got ended in a very off hand way?

Aren’t they important?

I mean – if we are told through all of these movies and stories that all of us are the hero in one way or another- weren’t they heroes too? But maybe what Dash says in The Incredibles is true: if everyone is special, then no one is.

Isn’t there someone else out there in the Terminator universe that can stop Skynet? Maybe some lowly office worker, or a blue collar dude? The circular nature of the story is that Skynet kind of brings about its own destruction by sending a Terminator back in time and causing John Connor to be born in any case, because if they hadn’t sent a Terminator back in time then Kyle Reese never would’ve gone back and then… round and round and round.

Why didn’t Skynet send a Terminator back to the turn of the century or to a time where that wasn’t any tech or weapon that could oppose it and kill one of Sarah’s ancestors? Guess it would’ve been too far-fetched or the studio’s budget wouldn’t allow for The Terminator to be done as a period piece. 🙂

There are plans for the story presented in Genisys to be part of a new trilogy of films – because you have to reboot a franchise in order to appeal to a new audience. The original Terminator isn’t good enough anymore. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what new tech Skynet will use to try and destroy us because, you know, it don’t like us much.

But, no matter what they throw at us… that gem of a one-liner (ripped off from a story written 2,000 years ago) will no doubt be shoved down our throats at least two more times:





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