Screening Log #71: The Terminator (1984)

Written by James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, and William Wisher Jr.
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn




There’s one strain of conventional of thinking that ascribes a generative kind of logic to man’s – the gendering here is intentional – pursuit of technological advancement. Where the female of the species is able to gestate life and give birth, man experiences a vacuum following his biologically microscopic and brief role in this process. So, to compensate, man embraces technology, he creates a wheel and a printing press and an iPad to express his inherent need to create. Certainly, this line of thinking is embedded in, and indebted to, the patriarchal structuring of society through history that ascribed the domestic role to women, and is no more actually given now than ever before. However, as a result of this schism in the creative acts of human kind, there has been, and still is, a certain skepticism about the development of science and technology as being dangerously unnatural and, as such, potentially immoral. Where birth and procreation are seen as a natural and good aspect of nature’s cycle, the products of human innovation can be seen as a threat to this balance, an otherness to nature that is somehow intrinsically wrong. Even now, scientific advancements are met with resistance when their scope threatens the providence of the “natural” world and its order.

James Cameron’s The Terminator extends this schism toward a logical, if entirely science fictionalized, conclusion. A robot soldier, the eponymous Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a human soldier, Kyle Reese, Michael Biehn, are sent back in time from a future war to kill and protect the mother of an unborn child, Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton, who will lead the future revolution against machine overlords. Cameron dramatizes the tension between the natural and synthetic modes of creation as a violent future conflict wherein the ability of these two generative modes to co-exist has collapsed in on itself. I suppose there is a certain slant of Darwinism at play in the conflict, its precepts of the “survival of the fittest” extending beyond natural life as the borders of what is constituted by “life” are themselves broadened by the awakening of artificial intelligence.

The film’s plot is a fairly linear series of chase sequences as both competing entities first look to find the oblivious Connor and then play cat-and-mouse games as Reese and Connor look to evade being preemptively terminated, in a historical sense. Much of the exposition is left to windy tirades from Reese to Connor and his own reflective flashbacks to his life in the future – so perhaps flashback is not entirely an accurate term. Cameron paints a militarized future where the remaining human population is ferreted out by flying drones and tanks in conjunction with bunker busting humanoid robotic units in heavy blue tones that simultaneously reflect the dark atmosphere of the time while also providing impressive light to reflect off of the steely metal armour and chassis of the robot overlords-to-be. Much of the film’s sequences in the present take place at night and reflect the palette of the future, hinting at its inevitability through a shared atmosphere.

During the gaps between the film’s chase and action sequences Cameron juxtaposes the quiet moments of bonding between Reese and Connor with the Terminator’s silent attempts to repair its injuries. The interpersonal natural growth of the relationship between the humans contrasts starkly with the physical manner that Cameron depicts the de-humanization of his antagonist. There seems to be a direct correlation between the blooming of what many would call the most humane of traits, love, and the disintegration of the machine’s layer of artificial skin. This strategy directly underscores Cameron’s thesis on the struggle between the two modes of creation. Where both characters from the future emerged identically naked, the natural Reese integrates and connects, the synthetic Terminator is systematically deconstructed to reveal its true, cold and violent, nature.

Any film that engages in time travel will have to have its own internal logic regarding the nature of this phenomena, i.e., does traveling to the past effect change in the future or not? The Terminator gestures toward multiverse theories briefly, Reese posits that his future is but one potential outcome of the present at one point, but seems to align itself more with a sort of futuristic determinism. As the film progresses it becomes more apparent that the events of the film are necessary to precipitate the future, as Reese’s involvement in the conception of the man, John Connor, who sends him to the past to protect his mother becomes rather first hand, shall we say. It is a credit to Cameron’s ability to briskly pace the film and saturate his action scenes with a visceral quality that he is able to wring any tension from the film’s final action sequence, given that success seems to be integral to the film existing at all. Were Reese to fail the film and any of its plot’s narrative causality would collapse, negating the film itself.

In addition to being a well-crafted piece of action science fiction, The Terminator (and its later sequel) also proves to be something of an early warning signal for Cameron’s later eco-blockbuster escapades. This same conflict, between the natural and artificial is re-visited in his Avatar, with the human role complicated from straight protagonist to something more problematic. Terminator 2: Judgement Day takes steps towards this complication as well, its new model of Terminator and human antagonists of Cyberdyne Systems inhabiting more complicated postures of natural and artificial synthesis, both ethically and literally. The storm toward which Sarah Connor drives at the film’s end most immediately signifies the turbulence to come in the struggle against the machines. Perhaps the storm, a natural and violent phenomenon, also gestures toward larger environmental concerns on the horizon for Cameron, gestating then, embryonic, but with a growing pulse nonetheless.

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  1. […] I’ve mentioned before, the binary opposition between synthetic and organic life presented in James Cameron’s The […]

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