“They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”
-Kyle Reese, The Terminator (1984)
There is nothing subtle about The Terminator, James Cameron’s breakthrough film released two years after Blade Runner. There are no humanized androids searching for a soul; no budding romance between human and cyborg; and certainly no anguished debates over the ethics of genocide. The film is as deceptively simple as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic acting – A cyborg goes on a killing spree in downtown Los Angeles and is crushed in a trash compacter. The backstory grounded in time travel is either intricate or convoluted depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief, but Cameron’s message is stated simply enough: “Human beings just inherently can’t be trusted with technology,” he remarked after the film’s release, “They’ll create things like nuclear weapons and Terminators.”[i] The Terminator films owe much to both The Day the Earth Stood Still, specifically Gort’s remorseless destruction of humanoid threats, and Metropolis, where the Moloch “Heart Machine” literally devours its human workers. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) features a beautiful and deadly gynoid as the titular character (Kristanna Loken), a new robot Maria designed to seduce and destroy.
The Terminator universe is expansive, including a short-lived television series and several films unaffiliated with James Cameron, but the original established a persistent Holocaust aesthetic and narrative. The Terminator begins with harrowing images of futuristic tanks crushing skulls amid the ruins of a destroyed city. Text explains how Skynet, a computerized defense system, became “self-aware” and initiated a nuclear war. Skynet built Terminator robots to hunt survivors, but a stubborn human resistance remained. “Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades . . . .” the crawl reads.[ii] The film is essentially a cat and mouse game between the Terminator and the time traveling Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) as they search for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of future resistance leader John Connor. The Terminator methodically murders every Sarah Connor in the phone book as Reese tries to convince the actual target her insane predicament is real, starting with the killer cyborg: “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, until you are dead.” Reese describes the folly of Skynet, ceding responsibility and free will to a computer: “Decided our fate in a microsecond – extermination.”[iii] What does it say that “a new order of intelligence” immediately regarded people as a threat? Is Skynet Gort off Klaatu’s leash? Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is a terrifying entity – cold, terse, invincible, and murderous. But as evil as he seems, this perfect killing machine is simply a product of our own historic trajectory since World War II. We already built nuclear weapons. How long before we build Terminators? Like so many cyborgs in SF, the Terminator is a form of retribution for our arrogance and penchant for self-destruction.
The frightful picture Reese paints for Sarah Connor is an extended Holocaust metaphor, but it occurs forty years in the future. Reese lived in ruins, “starving, hiding from HKs [Hunter Killer] . . . patrol machines produced in automated factories. . . . Most of us were rounded up, put in camps for orderly disposal . . . . Some of us were kept alive to work, loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever.”[iv] Reese reveals his laser scan tattoo, lauding her future son John for teaching them to “storm the metal wire of the camp.” Cameron’s flashbacks depict underground ghettos, rats, endless piles of bones, and roving cyborgs sweeping ruined cities. Reese is wracked by nightmares and flashbacks, startled by seemingly innocuous machines like garbage trucks and radios.
A survivor, Reese is a stranger in a strange land and manifests trauma no one else can possibly comprehend. In their brief time together Reese and Sarah conceive a child, John Connor, and destroy the Terminator, but Reese dies in the struggle. Pregnant and anticipating Armageddon, Sarah is left to prepare for the future.
[i] James Cameron quoted in Jesse W. Butler, “Un-Terminated: The Integration of the Machines” in Richard Brown and Kevin S. Decker, eds., Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll be back, therefore I am (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009), 53.
[ii] The Terminator, directed by James Cameron (1984: Orion Pictures), Netflix.
[iii] The Terminator, Netflix.
[iv] The Terminator, Netflix.