Man against machine. John Connor against Skynet.
Human beings have one goal as a species: progress. Science brings us good things. Machines make life easier. It’s just the best literary environment for the perfect antagonist: robots that kill humans. The conclusion of humankind is its own doom. Our creation kills us. We, the imperfect creation, make something “better” than us and it destroys us. We create an artificial intelligence that doesn’t need to sleep, eat, breathe, drink… it overpowers all our minds combined.
Scared, we try to go back, unplug it. Kill our creation. Skynet decides our fate in a millionth of second: annihilation. Humans are a threat to Skynet, therefore humans must all be murdered. Sublime setting for a sci-fi story.
John Connor leads humanity to its final victory over Skynet. This is said at the very beginning of The Terminator in 1984. We already know how the story ends: we win, but at what cost? Every movie (except for Salvation) involves a change of history. The original Judgement Day and victory of humans happen in a particular way. Then one time travel happens and the story changes. Same fate, different path. Another time travel… and again, same fate with a different path.
The Terminator Saga is a masterpiece of narrative for a number of reasons. Where do we begin?
Let’s start with John. The story is simply about John and Skynet, and they are always present, they are the main characters even when they’re not alive yet. Writing a story about a person who isn’t born yet is obviously difficult, and it works well in this saga. John controls what happens before being born and after being dead. Skynet is a computer virus that slithers the modern world: phone calls, web searches, police records… even before existing, everything becomes the AI of the monster. They both play an epic chess match, trying to anticipate each other’s moves. Both create themselves by sending someone/something to the past.
What is more, they both need each other! This is probably the most interesting detail. John always needs machines to win: the time traveling machine, guns, the Terminator that will protect his mother or himself, or anyone in his side. He learns to hack computers, he really loves computers. Even Sarah says that the Terminator would never hurt John, whereas some of the men she dated would. John’s unit is a commando especialized in computers and hi-tec. The first Terminator is defeated thanks to a hidraulic press; the second one thanks to the machines in the factory plus the reprogrammed Terminator; it goes on and on and on: John uses machines to defeat machines. And of course, Skynet needs humans. They initially create Skynet, they are the slave labor in the future concentration camps, and all Terminators need to be covered in human flesh in order to travel to the past. The Terminators that try to kill John, Sarah, Kyle, or his lieutenants make use of other humans who have any knowledge of the good guys.
Fate. Fate is something we will never find out whether to be true or false. Does it exist? Are things already “written”? That answer we will never have. The movie takes that mistery and makes it real. Every time a soldier of either side travels into the past, the course of history changes, yet the final fate seems to be the same. Judgement Day always happens. Machines always rise, the Resistance always wins. The war is always over, yet it never ends. History enters a loop. Every single time Skynet is defeated a Terminator has already been sent to the past, altering history and starting all over.
Judgement Day is inevitable.
T-800 (Rise of the Machines).
The viewpoint is infinite: we see that there are multiple versions of John, Sarah, Kyle, Skynet… we could conclude that every time travel opens a new World. An alternate world is created where things change, but the original line apparently keeps on going. Imagine yourself being alive in the moment a Terminator is sent to the past and changing things forever. Would you cease to exist immediately? How? It’s coherent to say that that Terminator simply disappears from our line. And life goes on. In a different Universe life simply happens until something from the future appears and it shapes the future, never changing the past.
The terror of the perfect enemy. The Terminator saga is reknown for creating a nail-biting tension. Why? Because the antagonist is in a constant chase of the good guys. It doesn’t need to rest, it doesn’t feel pain, it has one goal and will never stop until fulfilling it. Skynet nor any of its Terminators feel remorse or pity, they are emotionless, they are never scared. Add some terrific and well written car chasing scenes and you have a perfect action movie.
Come with me if you want to live.
(Several characters, in each one of the movies).
More? Dialogues. Okay, they’re not the brightest of the movie industry, but if you can write a saga of 5 movies in which all of them have perpetual quotes that always fit and are natural to the situations and said by the different characters on a span of several decades, you’re doing a good job.
I’ll be back.
T-800 (The Terminator).
Badass gearing up in a cool way, play some rock music. Your mind automatically plays Bad to the Bone. Probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history.
I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.
T-800 (Judgement Day).
Take something meaningful for the whole humanity and make it the main issue for the plot, now you have an action movie that deals with philosophy.
There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.
Sarah Connor (Judgement Day).
A machine simply doing what it was programmed for. Like a baby, it sees something that it doesn’t understand and asks:
Why do you cry?
T-800 (Judgement Day).
And now there’s a waitress turned into a soldier, full of hatred towards machines. She’s suddenly looking at her son playing with a machine that was built to kill humans. She understands that the machine is their best ally.
Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or be too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there and it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.
Sarah Connor (Judgement Day).
Now think of some words a rebellious teenager would say to express that they are screwed. It can sometimes be so simple:
Sarah: How many?
John: All of ’em, I think.
From all the movie characters that ever aimed a gun at someone else, there’s only one sentence you can think as the most appropriate:
Hasta la vista, baby.
T-800 (Judgement Day).
The little little spark of comedy. In my most humble opinion, a touch of humor is never out of place, as long as it is kept to a rational minimum in an action movie. The fact that some machines try to pass for humans is a good situation to make the viewer laugh a little, not to mention a sceptic psychiatrist that can’t believe what he sees, or the reactions of people when they are told what will happen on Judgement Day. What could a main character say in a movie in which you foresee them fighting machines?
I hate machines.
Katherine (Rise of the Machines).
There’s something we all appreciate in some movies: characters well written. All these human characters have something fantastic in their development. Sarah is forced to learn and adapt, she takes what life gives her and changes drastically understanding the responsibility there’s upon her. John’s stages are even more radical. We get how his teenage years are tough, with what seems to be a delusional mother, and him going through puberty in a whirlwind and chaos. He makes some bad decisions because he is human and he needs his mother, he exposes himself to danger, and falls into despair several times. And it’s this humanity that always defeats the cold machines. Passion, hope, and pain remain as the ultimate human strengths.
Man: He said there’s a storm coming in.
Sarah: I know.
John Connor teaches the Terminator that protects him that he (or rather it) has to learn, that human life is important.
The cinematography is often used as an added narrative device, and of course in the case of The Terminator saga, some shots are worth as much as those narrative speeches out of screen. The T-800 stepping on those red roses on the ground, or any of the models emerging from fire, for example. We could talk for hours about that final shot in T2: the thumbs up from the melted metal, or the impact that some scenes have had in the general viewer, like the T-1000 going through the bars. Some sequences will probably be taught as examples of how to express emotions without words. Take Sarah falling on the ground upon seeing the Terminator without knowing it’s on her side, or John teaching the Terminator to high five. The machines give the main characters some deep feelings for good and bad, and some of these moments are made without words and some other times with brilliant dialogues between a human just describing their pain and a machine trying to understand what’s up with humans. However, the drama and the despair of John and Sarah’s fate is well put with the black highway at night with yellow lines while the camera goes from side to side.
Very few care about the details that give the story between John and the machines its actual meaning. Take for instance that moment with the sparks in the background, when the beaten Terminator says to John “I know now why you cry”. It simply puts both worlds together, especially when a moment later Sarah’s hand full of wounds shakes the machine’s, also covered in blood. Machines and humans can have a future together, through sacrifice and after bloodshed. John’s tears go down his cheeks like his future scars. John becomes the leader of the Resistance because he knows the value of both human and machine life.
You’ll often hear/read me play the devil’s advocate when the majority of the audience are unanimous in their opinions towards certain movies. Concerning The Terminator, I must say it’s my duty to defend both Salvation and Genisys. Salvation’s main failure is that it doesn’t have any time travel in the whole movie, which takes most of the fun out of it. However, this 4th episode brings a new twist to the confrontation between John and Skynet and it is continued in the next movie. Skynet always loses, and every time it loses the war, sends a machine back to the past to reboot the war, so it is expected that there will be something new. Creating a cyborg by taking a human and making him half a machine is quite the plot we wanted to see. This little fact helps us see how both John and Skynet are more similar to each other than it appears. The difference is obvious and well stated: humans will not make cold blooded decisions.
This point is well developed during Genisys. Skynet’s new idea for a reboot of the war depends on making John a machine. This totally breaks the spirit of the saga, and I understand why many will dislike it; I, however, like it so much. Skynet and John Connor finally become one, which is suggesting that both sides are unable to win the war. It’s probably the most open ending for a Terminator episode, and extends the action to a bigger span of time in the past and the future. Not only that, it updates the context of the message into the real world by showing us that social media is taking humanity out of humans and turning us into machines. Our existence is now in the cloud, we live in our cell phones. John represents all of us while we lose our human contact and empathy in a little screen. A movie that sends us such a warning and creating an impact in our consciousness deserves a little more recognition.