Post #3: “I’ll Be Back” to the Future: Past and Present in the ‘Terminator’ Series (Part 2)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday June 22 2014
Last time I looked at several of the ways in which the five entries of the Terminator series interact with one another, from characters to the ethical position of the different terminators. Given this foundation, I propose to look at another major theme, the issue of free will versus fate, that is consistently developed throughout the series. Given the linkages between the entries, it can be said that the series is trying to develop these ideas, and they do not always do so in a uniform direction. These different directions give us an insight into how broader ideas about these concepts are shifting in the society that produced them.
The opening minutes of the first Terminator entry set up the tension between present and future that will be a preoccupation of the series. In a sequence that has aged fairly well, we catch our first glimpse of the future war between Skynet and humanity in 2027, which is explained with the superimposed words, “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…”
My recent viewings of X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Edge of Tomorrow got me thinking about what time travel means to us and why we tell such stories. Given that it is only possible for humans to travel forward in time at the same rate, time travel is a way to comment on human experience of the universe. Like death and taxes, time defines what it means to be human. Being able to move through it, whether forwards or backwards, and being able to change it can be a comment on human experience. Of course time travel in a series can also be a meta-exploration of time as it relates to the producers and the audience. What effect does the inevitable march of history in the “real” world have on our relationships to the characters and the narratives of previous years?
I’m not concerned with the infamously intricate paradoxes that plague time-travel narratives. And the Terminator series is certainly not exempt from such issues: Daniel Perez, a once-hopeful writer of a Terminator script, has pointed out that 1) if the Connors succeed in preventing Judgment Day, Kyle Reese will never be sent back in time to father John, and so John will not exist 2) but John does in fact exist, and so the war between Skynet and humans has to happen. In this post, though, I’m not interested in the mechanics of time travel, but instead its poetics. What kinds of relationships between past, present, and future does the construct of time travel create and what do such relationships tell us about views of individual agency as compared to collective history?
At the end of T1 Sarah resigns herself to raising her unborn child and prepare for Judgment Day. The audience has no sense that she is going to try to change the future and make a better world for John to grow up in by preventing the apocalypse. Kyle Reese has told her that she must survive so that John can one day lead the Resistance against the machines. Reese recounts the following message from future John to 1984 Sarah:
KYLE: Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive or I will never exist.
These words are intended to inspire Sarah to become a soldier and lose the innocence that she has in the first half of T1. In the final scene she drives her jeep down a highway, mountains looming on the horizon, ominous storm clouds threatening above them (figure 1). There is no sense that Judgment Day can be avoided, and the future must be fulfilled by the actions of actors in the present. The concern is not with changing the future but with making sure that the future happens.
T1 was released in 1984 at the height of the computer revolution, and Cameron and his staff clearly tapped into a strand of anxiety about the rise of the machine and the consequent eclipse of the human. The electronic age has built an infrastructure around machines that can’t be dismantled; the only thing left is for human beings to resist total destruction and survive as best they can.
In a deleted scene from T1, Sarah suggests to Reese that they can stop the war before it begins by blowing up Cyberdyne (on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, no less!), but Kyle tells her that it won’t work. It seems like she convinces him at the end of the scene, but that’s certainly not the direction of the finished film. We don’t know exactly why Cameron got rid of this scene, but perhaps it clashed with the larger meanings of the film.
The first half of T2 has the same theme as its predecessor: the re-programmed T-800 rescues John and Sarah, and they flee police and the T-1000 across the California border into Mexico. This re-caps the end of the first film’s pessimism about the future and the ultimate goal of survival rather than change. Abruptly, though, Sarah changes her mind. Instead of hunkering down and waiting for the war, she decides to try to prevent it. Falling asleep at a picnic table, she has a nightmare of the coming apocalypse: she and John are incinerated when Skynet attacks the human race.
She heads back to California alone to kill Miles Dyson, an engineer at Cyberdyne Systems. Because Cyberdyne retrieved the arm and CPU of the terminator Sarah destroyed at the end of T1, Sarah believes the company will be instrumental in creating what will become Skynet. She leaves her son and the T-800 without an explanation, but when John sees what she’s carved onto the picnic table, “No fate” (figure 2), he explains to the terminator:
JOHN: The whole thing goes, “The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
T-800: She intends to change the future.
John is “recalling” Kyle’s words to his mother in the previous film--though the Kyle of T1 says only the first part. (In that deleted scene from T1 that I mentioned above Sarah says the whole phrase to Kyle, and she says the same thing in a T2 deleted scene when she “sees” a vision of Kyle in her cell). Whereas the first film ended with Sarah preparing for an inevitable future, the second film mimics the same movement but then doubles back on itself. Sarah is proactive; instead of accepting the future that Kyle and the T-800 represent, she works in the present to change the future that has become her past.
John and the T-800 arrive just as Sarah finds herself unable to go through will killing Dyson, and they convince Dyson to help them steal the first terminator arm and CPU and blow up the building.
John and Sarah destroy the arm, CPU, and both terminators in an industrial forge, and the film closes on a highway road at night with Sarah’s voiceover:
SARAH: The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too.
T2 thus ends on a hopeful, if not entirely positive, note. Although the Connors want to change the future, they are not willing to kill to achieve that goal.
When they were interviewed around the release of Salvation, both Cameron and Hamilton felt that the Terminator narrative was complete at the end of T2. The alternate ending to that film makes the ending more definitive. Cautious optimism is replaced by a typical Hollywood “happy ending” that shows the Connor family in the future. Sarah sits on a park bench recording her thoughts about the latest terminator as John, now a U.S. Senator, plays with his daughter. Judgment Day, she claims, has been averted. Cameron evidently wanted his ruminations on the future of humanity to end with question mark. There are considerable gains in T2 in terms of ethics and the outlook for the future, but evidently the condition of the world at the turn of the 90s didn’t allow for complete trust in the future. At the end of T2, the audience is left wondering: is the future truly what we make it? In some sense young John’s ethical training of the terminator asserts that we shape ourselves.
T3, however, reverses the first two films’ discourse as revealed in John’s narration in the opening scene. He ruminates on his mother’s philosophy in the context of the Judgement Day date having passed without incident.
JOHN: “Every day past this one is a gift,” she told me. “We made it, we’re free.” I never really believed that. I guess she didn’t either.
Interestingly, “every day past this one is a gift” is spoken by Sarah in the alternate T2 ending, which speaks to T3‘s desire to engage the issue of free will versus fate in a complex way. In the film the latest terminator-protector states that despite the characters’ efforts in the previous film the war between machines and humanity can’t be stopped.
JOHN: No, no. You shouldn’t even exist. I mean, we took out Cyberdyne almost ten years ago. We stopped Judgment Day.
T-800: You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable.
John resists this fatalistic narrative, shouting, “There doesn’t have to be a war! We can stop it!” He goes so far as to threaten suicide:
JOHN: You mean we go run and hide somewhere in a hole while the bombs fall?
T-800: It is your destiny.
JOHN: Fuck my destiny.
To placate John the T-800 seemingly agrees to help prevent the war by finding the military official who inadvertently “starts” Skynet, In the last scene John realizes that the terminator agreed to this course of action because it takes him to an underground bunker that will protect him from the nuclear fallout of Judgement Day. The final moments have John resigning himself to his role as leader of the Resistance after the apocalypse:
JOHN: I should’ve realized—our destiny was never to stop Judgment Day. It was merely to survive it, together. … Maybe the future has been written--I don’t know. All I know is what the terminator taught me: never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle is just begun.
T3 erases the ideology of T2 and its optimistic view of the future, its assertion of individual will in the face of incalculable odds. 9/11 is something of a catch-all explanation for media trends in the first decade of the 21st century, but the sense of inevitable cataclysm in the wake of the fall of the Twin Towers surely has something to do with the fatalism of T3, just as the end of the Gulf War in early 1991 might have influenced Cameron’s decision to end T2 on a note of restrained optimism. The (unrealized) fears of massive computer failure at the turn of the millennium also seems to have affected T3’s depiction of Skynet as a kind of virus that spreads through all computer networks and takes control of them. Although Y2K was blown far out of proportion in the months leading up to 1-1-00, it revealed an underlying anxiety that the human was being rendered helpless by technology.
In the next post, I’ll consider the contributions of Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles and Terminator: Salvation to the theme of individual will and fate in my final entry on the Terminator series.