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The Terminator Essay, Research Paper
For the purposes of this essay I have chosen The Terminator, a science fiction B-movie feature from 1984. Although I intend mainly to study this purely as a single film, I do intend to study Terminator 2 in addition, thus making the essay a study of the series. In addition, I will be contrasting the theory written surrounding these films in relation to other contemporary postmodern theory, and as a result will be mentioning several other films by way of a comparison or contrast.
The Terminator seems quite remarkable to me, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is one of many action films I watched in my early teens; a considerable number of which, like this film, starred the Austrian body-builder turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. What is so different about The Terminator though, is that unlike most of these films, this movie has enough depth and substance that, not only does it still bear watching now that I am older, but it also has an archive of academic theory written about it.
The Terminator tells of a cyborg, a human shaped machine coated in flesh, that is sent back in time, from an apocalyptic future in which machines have got smart and acted on their own to destroy the human race. The cyborg s mission is to assassinate the mother of the human s great leader, the man who taught the survivors to fight back against the machines. The woman, a young waitress named Sarah Connor, is protected only by a lone warrior – Kyle Reese – sent back to protect her by her future son, John. Reese is in love with Sarah, a love formulated from a photograph he has of her. A sexual relation with her causes pregnancy that will result in John s birth, before the pair manage to destroy the terminator, although not before Reese is himself victim to the wrath of the machine. John Connor has then in effect knowingly sent his own father back in time to his death so that he may himself be born.
It is worth noting, that the film features an abundance of technology throughout. As Reese sits alone in his stolen car waiting to intercept Sarah, he listens to music and advertisements on the radio as he watches large automated drills at work in the vacant lot beside him, his eyes squinting against the glare of spotlights. In the course of the narrative, this scene is crucial as it represents a trigger that causes Reese to dream, to flashback to the future; a future of pain, suffering and destruction at the hands of machines like the terminator.
Constance Penley notes this fixation with present day technology as a key to understanding one of the subtexts of the film:
Machines provide the texture and substance of this film: cars, trucks, motorcycles, radios, TVs, time clocks, phones, answering machines. beepers, hair dryers, Sony Walkmen, automated factory equipment. The defence network computer of the future which decided our fate in a microsecond had its humble origins here, in the rather more innocuous technology of the film s present.
(Penley: 1989, 117)
Penley notes that this technology is not portrayed by the film as evil in the way that the terminator is, but rather as an unfortunate hindrance, albeit a life threatening one to the fates of the characters. In the film a simple answering machine can give away Sarah s location to the terminator; a Sony Walkman can prevent her flatmate Ginger from hearing the brutal fight between the cyborg and her boyfriend which is happening in the next room.
I believe that this lingering on 20th century technology also serves another purpose, that of naturalising the apocalypse of the future. The large flying laser-weaponed Hunter-Killers , used to spot and eliminate surviving humans may have seem far fetched, were it not for the inclusion of the Los Angeles police helicopters, which in a way perform a similar task – that of spotting human targets. This juxtaposition of the real , innocent present against an conceptual , evil future is very similar to methods employed by writer/director David Lynch in his film Blue Velvet, for as Norman Denzin notes:
Postmodernist too, according to Denzin, is the way the film mixes the unrepresentable (rotting ears, sexual excess, brutality, insanity) and the commonplace [bright fire tucks, small-town America, white picket fences and rows of trees], thereby challenging the boundaries which separates the two realms.
(Connor: 1994, 179)
I would go on to say that just as this makes the apocalypse to come more believable, it also makes it more horrific; for unlike the other future apocalypse movies which filled the video shelves of the 1980s, such as the appalling Steel Dawn, The Terminator allows a basis of comparison to exist between today s present and the possibility of tomorrow. Even George Miller s popular Mad Max trilogy only touch upon these possibilities briefly between the action, fighting and car chases. The aforementioned films, without this edge, exist purely as fantasy, whereas The Terminator possesses qualities of social prophecy, or as Penley refers to it – critical dystopia . This is similar indeed to David Harvey s summation of the aesthetic of the film Blade Runner; The images of decay everywhere in the landscape reinforce exactly that same structure of feeling. (Harvey: 1994, 311)
One of the more in-depth analyses of The Terminator is that of the issues surrounding the differences between man and machine and how this divide, if one exists at all, may be bridged. According to Forest Pyle, the film is to an extent a reworking of Frankenstein, in so far as it features something that is on the surface human (the terminator s endoskeleton is surrounded by living tissue), yet is without a doubt entirely artificial. What is of interest to Pyle is how the terminator is portrayed or subjected as possessor of this difference :
The opposition between protagonist and antagonist is established early in the film by the depiction of their arrival to the present. Schwarzenegger s body and motion are a cluster of signs – sculpted Aryan invulnerability – which resonate historically as man-machine .
(Pyle: 1993, 232)
This physical difference is highlighted to the limit towards the end of the film, as the terminator looses more and more flesh until the moment when Reese s pipe-bomb destroys the truck he is driving. A moment of rest passes as we believe him to be dead, before he rises phoenix like out of the flames, nothing more than an animated metal skeleton – in many ways resembling the Ray Harryhausen effects of skeletons in the 1960s fantasy Jason and the Argonauts; a similarity which I feel to be intentional on the part of James Cameron.
The film cleverly highlights the terminator s artificial constructed form by allowing us to see through his eyes; a red tinted graphical display, punctuated by words and graphics which include anything from simple commands, phone numbers and a choice of verbal insults ranging from go away to fuck you asshole! ; to a complete schematic of the stick-shift on an articulated tanker truck. I find it personally significant that this display is never seen by us until the triangle of characters – Sarah, Reese and Terminator – have met together for the first time – a failed assassination attempt on Sarah which is foiled by Reese. According to Pyle, it is this point-of-view shot that is crucial at this juncture of the film for it seals the distinction that the terminator does not see images but merely gathers information (Pyle: 1993, 232)
Until this point though, the terminator passes perfectly as human to both his victims, the ammo store owner, and even the police. Reese explains to Sarah that this production series of terminator is perfect, right down to sweat and bad breath. In short, it is the perfect simulacrum. In this Baudrillarian depiction, it is interesting to study the Replicants in the film Blade Runner (1982), especially in relation to the writings of David Harvey:
The replicants are, it should be noted, not mere imitations but totally authentic reproductions, indistinguishable in almost all respects from human beings.
They are simulacra rather than robots.
(Harvey: 1994, 309)
In the case of Blade Runner, the replicants are, by the end, perceived by the viewer as almost indistinguishable from human, rather through their actions and character than through the appearance factor which is pertinent at the start. Most significant of all is Rachel, a beautiful young female android who finds love with the Deckard, a human bladerunner (supposedly); a police executioner of trespassing replicants.
If The Terminator is about difference between man and machine, as it has been argued, then it is truly to James Cameron s credit that some seven years later he went on to create Terminator 2 (hereafter referred to as T2); a film which once again starred Schwarzenegger as another android – Cyberdine Systems, model 101 – but this time choosing to positively personify the robot ; for Nothing would appear more laudably humanist than the film s emphasis on learning such lessons [that to kill, or terminate is wrong], its insistence on a human agency informed by moral principles. (Pyle: 1993, 239)
In this film, Schwarzenegger plays an android of the same production series that has been reprogrammed and sent back in time by John Connor to protect himself, as a boy, against the new threat of an enemy prototype terminator which has also been deposited in the past – the T1000; a machine that consists of liquid metal which can mimic, or simulate anything it touches. In the present, the young John Connor resets the learning chip in the guardian terminator s head; thus giving it the capacity to learn.
Forest Pyle claims that the crux of the first film was our desire to attain mastery over the machine. A modernist belief that technology should make the world a better place, not destroy it. It is a reflection of our fears of technology: when the human opposition to the machine finally triumphs in The Terminator, the opposition between human and cyborgs begins to appear as the human projection it always was. (Pyle: 1993, 234).
In the sequel, the machine is no longer solely a killer; it is a thinker, a protector, a father to the young John Connor, and an entity capable of learning the value of human life :
The cyborg has been humanised , capable of learning, and crucially of dying. In the first film, as Sarah flattens the terminator in the hydraulic press, she declares, You re terminated, fucker! . She now gives voice to a belief in the capacity of the terminator not merely to be terminated, but to experience death .
(Pyle: 1993, 240)
With the relevance of this last quote, the similarities of T2 to Blade Runner become clear. Both seek to answer the questions of what does it mean to be human and could a machine or artificial intelligence ever hope to achieve this end? Both films seem to regard the ability to mourn your own mortality as an indication of humanity and both climax with the death of the robot , each providing the most poignant scene of that film. I will explain the ending of T2 in more detail later.
In any case, the similarities of human and non-human are drawing together, not apart as in the first Terminator film. This could be due to a distinction drawn by Linda Hutcheon between the Other such as females, and those that are merely different : Of course, the very concept of difference could be said to entail a typically postmodern contradiction: difference unlike otherness has no exact opposite against which to define itself. (Hutcheon: 1988, 6) Under these conditions a cyborg could almost become human for the divide between the two is seen as unstable and unclear – Hutcheon notes that difference is always provisional.
It is of interest that it is a paternal quality in relation to the boy John, that allows a machine access to human qualities; for the father is a crucial figure in Freudian psychoanalysis, notably surrounding the Oedipal complex. In a simplified version, this condition revolves around the premise that the young boy is attracted to his biological mother, yet harbours deep resentment against his father for being the focus of her desire. Initial hatred is later replaced by obedience and conformity, as the boy models himself on the father as this is clearly to him what the mother wants.
Oedipal connotations in film are widespread, and Blade Runner provides an insight as a nodal point of Freudian psychology. David Harvey claims that the character of Rachel is only allowed access to the realm of the human by acknowledging the power of the father figure – Deckard – and she escapes the schizoid world of the replicant time and intensity to enter the symbolic world of Freud. (Harvey: 1994, 312)
I would argue that the terminator gains humanity through a similar method; this being his acknowledgement that the father figure is none other than himself. The film is at great pains to point this out, right down to Sarah s voice-over narration explaining that of all the potential fathers that came and went, the terminator was the only one that made the grade . Indeed, the death of the terminator comes when he lowers himself into a vat of molten steel; melting himself down in the hope that it will prevent the apocalyptic future, thereby making a better world for his son .
Constance Penley takes this Oedipal analysis of Terminator one crucial stage further, confounding the proceedings by adding another dimension to the relationship between Sarah and Reese:
Kyle is the virile, hardened fighter barking orders to the terrified Sarah, but alternately he is presented as boyish, vulnerable, and considerably younger in appearance than her. His childishness is underscored by Sarah s increasingly maternal affection for him (bandaging his wounds, touching his scars), and in the love scene, he is the young man being initiated by the more experienced, older woman. Kyle is thus both the father of John Connor and, in his youth and inexperience, Sarah s son, John Connor.
(Penley: 1989, 122)
Penley claims that this element represents what Freud identifies as the primal fantasy ; the deep rooted desire to witness the moment of one s own conception. If we are to agree with Penley s reasoning, then this would appear to be precisely what the film offers, the fantasy of being able to, as Penley crudely puts it, to have your cake and eat it . Although, for Penley, this loop is so perfectly formed that something must be removed in order to forward the narrative, and that something is Reese. As the film draws to a close, Reese ironically calls the terminator a motherfucker and falls prey to an explosion which leaves him dead. Penley notes that John Connor has, in effect, selected his own father, created his own primal fantasy, whilst sending his father to his death (Connor never having progressed on to acknowledge the power and authority, thereby submitting to the father). Reese is both father and son in the same relationship. I find a small passage by Jean Baudrillard sums up this triangle of affairs perfectly:
You cannot have your cake and eat it too
You cannot eat your wife and fuck her too
You cannot fuck your life and save it too.
(Baudrillard: 1996, 43)
The whole Reese/Sarah relationship is also interesting due to its relation to time and space. As already mentioned, Reese had already fallen for Sarah in the future based on the photograph of her John had given him. Reese had become fascinated as to what it was the troubled girl in the photograph was thinking of:
The film ends South of the Border with a Mexican boy taking a Polaroid of Sarah as she is thinking of Kyle. It is this photograph that John Connor will give to Kyle, forty years later, knowing he is sending his own father to his death.
(Penley: 1989, 119)
The film has, in effect, created a time-loop paradox : an event which is shaped in the past before the future has happened. cause and effect are not only reversed but put into a circle; the later events are caused by the earlier events, and the earlier by the later. (Penley: 1989, 119) Indeed this is the crux of the whole relationship between Reese and Sarah. If Reese didn t travel back until the year 2019 to conceive John, how could John have sent him back before Reese had left? I find that Linda Hutcheon s description of Terry Gilliam s Brazil as a temporal historical warp quite fitting to The Terminator also, for as she states; contradictions are certainly manifest in the important postmodern concept of the presence of the past . (Hutcheon: 1988, 4) It is a genuine mind scrambler, and not one which I intend to get into, as I find it an infinitely regressive argument which could end up going on for endless pages. Instead, I would rather turn to the photograph itself, for I believe that it offers another similarity, and a crucial one, to Blade Runner. In the film the replicants, devoid of a history of their own, develop a touching affinity towards photographs:
photographs are now constructed as evidence of a real history, no matter what the truth of that history may have been. The image, in short, is proof of the reality, and images can be constructed and manipulated.
(Harvey: 1994, 312)
This is of interest as it once again ties in the Baudrillarian notion that the simulation has not only come to replace reality, but to mask the fact that there no longer is a reality. In this relationship with Reese and Sarah, it is of paramount importance that the photograph should hide the lack of reality for Reese, as the reality has yet to happen – not only does it not exist, it can t exist until such time as Reese travels back to 1984. The time travel paradox working here perfectly with the notions of the simulacrum.
To conclude, there is actually a great deal to say about The Terminator and T2. In this essay, I have tried to outline the major areas of debate and writings about the film, however I will have inevitably in an essay of this length left something out. Indeed, even the theory mentioned here is open to debate, and it is unknown whether writer/director Cameron has even acknowledged any of it, not least agreed with it.
To me, the film is still great entertainment, not in spite of this theory, but now because of it. The film now has an added substance and texture which enables it to stand out above the wave of science fiction video fodder of the 1980s.
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