Paradoxes: Why Terminator should end, but can’t
The Terminator franchise is a strange beast. It’s thematically unsound and, the further it goes with new installments, its story structure can’t hold the robots it’s built on. To get at the root of its self-destructive tensions, it’s important to note that the impetus for the first two films was director James Cameron’s own obsession with technology. In many interviews he’s said the reason he created the T-800 and later T-1000 was to push the boundaries of filmmaking technology. T-1000 exists because Cameron wanted to lay claim to inventing him.
That a techno-phobic franchise that pits the human race against an evil AI system was created by a man himself obsessed with creating new technologies is not that novel in and of itself, but Terminator always had a way of collapsing into itself, fascinating even when dissected and shown to be shallow. The time loop structure of saviour John Connor sending his own father back in time to impregnate his mother and then die was a suffocating complication and, as Vivian Sobchak noted, suggested a futureless world view.
In Cameron’s films, the idea of John Connor was always aspirational. His heroism was only a suggestion, unseen, even though we saw it play out in the present. Nowadays it’s fun to point out that Connor, as played by Eddie Furlong in T2, was yes, actually quite a dipshit. Connor was a kid, in the first stage of his implied bildungsroman, but more interesting was his relationship with his mother and the absence of a father figure. In the films that followed, Connor’s growth became central but he remained stuck in the reluctant phase of his quest. That’s partly because of sub-par filmmaking but, with the direction the Terminator films opted to take, it was also the nature of the beast. The franchise, so long as the capitalist studio structure requires it to be open to sequels and as long as its industrial impetus requires newer and badder terminators, will never end. John Connor, unlike most other Chosen One heroes, will never actualize, because that would signal the franchise’s conclusion rather than its beginning.
Another problem is, to return to James Cameron’s obsessions, that Terminator was never about Connor, it was always about the machines. Terminator fetishizes both the mechanical and the flesh. We (and Cameron) are drawn to both Arnold’s Atlas physique and the nightmarish red eyes beneath it. When T-1000 makes the distinction between the two fluid, one and the same, he’s not only scary but deeply unsettling. This is what elevated Cameron above his successors. He didn’t just put special effects on film — he burned them into our imaginations. Sarah and later John Connor were there to give reason for the terminators, not the other way around.
The franchise’s third installment failed both because the new terminator was useless, a regression of both real-world technology and imagination, and also because the Connor character was still dealing inadequately with his promise. Usually by the end of the trilogy a hero has proven him/herself and the story either ends or shifts to different concerns. Terminator 3 didn’t prove Connor, yet the franchise nonetheless shifted. (The T.V. series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles side-stepped into different themes, more concerned with identity than with future determination.)
In Terminator Salvation John Connor is now an adult but again his ass is routinely saved by a new machine. We still aren’t shown any reason to believe that Connor is the saviour that his time-traveling friends insist he is. In fact, he’s downright smug and petulant. He’s a loud man-child who fights only to ensure his own birth. When he meets a terminator/man hybrid he denounces him and declares that he “knows what he REALLY is!” As if he never had a giant terminator father figure in his childhood. As if, in the television series, he never had a sexually heated frienship with another one.
The new film fails, however inevitably, to elevate the Connor character, but worse, it does not invent a frightening new machine. The terminator in Salvation is a man made to be part machine; he looks human, is more graceful and expressive than the T-800 played by Arnold, is complete with his own love story; he struggles when he fights and there’s none of the KILL KILL KILL that his predecessors (even the T-X) nightmarishly possessed. It’s boring, cliched and completely devoid of the wonder and terror the first two films were built on.
It’s maybe a grand irony, a type of time-travel destination paradox; the further Terminator goes into the future, the more it explores its human side; the more Connor becomes the core, the more heartless the series becomes. John Connor has a right to doubt himself — though the franchise is built on his story, he was never meant to carry its load. The machines usually save him from this burden but, in Salvation, we have one machine who is a man, and another (Arnold) who is fully fetishized, a body yet fully a special effect. There’s nowhere left to go — but in true terminator fashion, go on it will. KILL KILL KILL.