Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Terminator

This article was first posted on July 24, 2010 and was inspired by my then recent viewing of Mad Max (one of the trailers featured on my Special Edition Mad Max DVD was for The Terminator) and my desire to cleanse myself of the disappointment I had felt after watching Terminator Salvation. It is presented here with some minor corrections.

As far as I'm concerned, The Terminator was the only Terminator film. There was no need for a sequel, especially one which portrayed a "kinder, gentler" terminator. WTF? The premise of the original film is that the terminators are ruthless, single-minded killing machines that do not feel an inkling of remorse or pity. Then, in first the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, we have a terminator voicing regret that he cannot cry. OMG, just shoot me. Now. Please. Arnold Schwarzenegger's menacing portrayal of the terminator in the original film was completely undone when, in the two sequels that followed, the storylines involved terminators being captured (just how do you capture a single-minded killing machine?) and reprogrammed to do good.

In addition to the "dilution" of the menace projected by the terminators that occurred when it was revealed that you could simply reprogram them to be baby-sitters (albeit shotgun and minigun toting baby-sitters) for smart-mouthed teenagers, the sequels run into the same problem that has bedeviled every story involving time travel, which is the whole issue of the possibility, and the often paradoxical consequences, of changing the past. In The Terminator, this is avoided as it becomes apparent that everything that has happened and will happen is part of a self-contained loop in time: Sarah Connor gives birth to John Connor who ends up leading the resistance against Skynet and he sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother using the same time displacement equipment used by the machines to send a terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor to prevent her from giving birth to the future leader of the resistance; what the machines don't know is that Kyle Reese is John Connor's father and John Connor's decision to send him back in time is informed by the knowledge that if he does not, he, John, will never have been born. It all makes sense and the self-contained loop in time is a time-honored tradition in stories involving time travel. However, Terminator 2: Judgment Day basically twists this self-contained loop around so much that it snaps and basically throws a bunch of action and special effects at us in the hopes that all the shiny stuff on the screen distracts us and prevents us from realizing that Terminator 2: Judgment Day's storyline effectively moots that of The Terminator since it ends on the premise that the nuclear holocaust that was pivotal to all the events in the first film has been prevented. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines attempts to redress this grave injustice to the storyline of the first film by putting the nuclear holocaust back on track but we end up with a story where the end is never in doubt, which is the kiss of death as far as suspense is concerned, which I'm told stories kind of rely on to give them a sense of immediacy. I won't even mention Terminator Salvation since I've discussed that film at length but I will say that it repeats a mistake made in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which is the premise of the "kinder, gentler" terminator. Yes, I know Marcus Wright wasn't an actual terminator but given that he was a cybernetic organism engineered by Skynet, to deny his role as a "good" terminator in Terminator Salvation is nitpicking.

Why is the introduction of a "good" terminator such a mistake? The entire premise of The Terminator is that technology can be dangerous to humanity if it ever advances to a point where man is incapable of reversing its effects should things go very wrong. As such, it is a cautionary tale of the danger of advances in technology outpacing advances in man's wisdom. It completely dilutes the impact of the cautionary tale when the centerpiece of this dangerous technology, the terminator, can be used for good. In the first film, the terminator is absolutely frightening as it goes about in its single-minded mission to kill Sarah Connor; as such, the message of the possible dangers of technological advances is very clear. When the concept of the "good" terminator was introduced in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, this message got muddled.

But enough of my gripes about the sequels. How was The Terminator? Well, despite having been filmed in the 80's, it's still a great movie, especially when you consider that it was filmed on a shoe-string budget of $6.4 million. The tension and sense of despair felt by Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese as they come to grips with the fact that the weapons at their disposal in 1984 may not be sufficiently powerful enough to destroy the terminator are as palpable now as they were when I first saw The Terminator back when I was in high-school. And since the 80's are apparently back, the big hair and the strange clothes are not as jarring as they might have been otherwise. The only WTF moment in the film, for me, was when Sarah, seeking sanctuary (and a payphone) in a dance club, is told that the cover charge is $4.50! $4.50 cover for a dance club! My God, how I miss the 80's. Not only did we have just enough technology to be comfortable but not so much that we actually had to worry about whether humanity had enough wisdom to use it without destroying itself, we had some of the best music the world has ever heard, we weren't inundated with media 24/7 telling us to be afraid, angry, etc. and dance clubs had $4.50 cover. All we had to worry about was HIV/AIDS and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Speaking of the possible dangers of technology, I hate to sound like a Luddite, but it seems like The Terminator's cautionary tale of technology running amuck and destroying humanity is more relevant now than it was in the 80's. I'm not saying that mankind is anywhere near creating robots that will spontaneously gain sentience and decide we're a threat to their existence, although recent advances in UAV's brings to mind the final scenes of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but that our reliance on technology for just day-to-day living may ultimately be our undoing. We no longer treat the benefits conferred on us by technology as a luxury but as a necessity. And the almost absolute trust that we put in technology is frightening. People have died after driving off cliffs while following directions given them by their GPS, which brings to mind that old adage: The problem is that as soon as you make something idiot proof, nature just comes up with a better idiot.

And that's the ultimate danger that an over reliance on technology can present to humanity. Not killer robots trying to kill us. But in effectively "helping" mankind get on an evolutonary path that may very well be a dead end.

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