Post #2: “I’ll Be Back” to the Future: Past and Present in the ‘Terminator’ series (Part 1)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday June 8 2014
The recent announcement that the 2015 film Terminator: Genisys will supposedly reboot the Terminator series (despite casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging terminator) got me thinking about how the five entries in the previous narrative universe treated the relationship between past, present and future.
To date the Terminator series includes four films and a television series all set within the same continuity: The Terminator (1984; T1), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991; T2), Terminator 3: Rise the Machines (2004; T3), Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009; TSCC), and Terminator: Salvation (2009; Salvation). I want to examine how this series understands the relationship of the past, present, and future.
The films and TV series have different creative staffs: the first two films were written, produced, and directed by James Cameron; T3 was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris and directed by Jonathan Mostow, Salvation was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris and directed by McG, and the TV series was created by Josh Friedman and produced by Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna (both producers of T1-T3). These changes in staffing didn’t result in a changed narrative continuity, and in fact several intertextual reminiscences show that all five of these texts are in meaningful dialogue with one another.
Many of the characters re-appear, even if they are re-cast. John Connor appears in everything except T1. Sarah Connor appears in T1 and T2 (played by Linda Hamilton) as well as TSCC (played by Lena Headey), and is referenced several times in T3 and Salvation. During the premier of T3 Cameron stated that he felt the story was complete with the first two films and that Hamilton felt the same way, although Hamilton did provide audio for a recording that John Connor (Christian Bale) listens to in Salvation. Arnold Schwarzenegger also links nearly all of the entries since he appears in starring roles or in a cameo (figure 1) in all but the television series. Kyle Reese appears in T1, Salvation, and TSCC. Even a minor character like the criminal psychologist Dr. Peter Silberman appears in every entry except Salvation--and has a very surprising character arc as a convert to Sarah’s ideology in TSCC. Certain repeated phrases also establish a sense of continuity: “Come with me if you want to live” is code for “good guy”: it is first spoken by Kyle Reese in T1, and one imagines that the phrase originated with future John Connor, who programs the Schwarzenegger terminators in T2 and T3, as well as the Cameron Philips terminator in TSCC, to say the same thing to re-assure past characters of the good intentions of these re-programmed machines. Any discussion of the Terminator series is incomplete without a brief mention of the infamous “I’ll be back” phrase, spoken by each of the Schwarzenegger terminators in T1, T2, and T3 and John Connor in Salvation, all in different contexts. Although the films are related to one another in terms of narrative continuity, there is a sense that although these films link to one another, some of them also establish their own authority in relation to their predecessors. Consider, for instance, this exchange between John and Schwarzenegger’s terminator in T3:
JOHN: Do you even remember me? Sarah Connor? Blowing up Cyberdyne? “Hasta la vista, baby”? Ring any bells?
T-800: That was a different T-101.
JOHN: What, do you guys come off an assembly line or something?
JOHN: Oh, man, I’m going to have to teach you everything all over again.
The film is asserting that it is different from T2 and, as the conversation goes on, better as well:
T-800: The T-X is designed for extreme combat. ...
JOHN: You’ll find a way to destroy her.
T-800: Unlikely. I’m an obsolete model. The T-X is faster, more powerful, and more intelligent. It’s a far more effective killing machine.
Of course, this terminator does destroy a terminator model more advanced than either of the “bad” terminators in the previous two films, thus proving that T3 is “better.”
This close attention to the details of continuity in addition to the intertextual reminiscences are important in this case because they establish a dialogue between all of these entries. Rather than a piling on of film after film with no real connection between them, these entries all present different takes on what could be said to be guiding themes of the series.
James Cameron, however, sees his T1 and T2 as forming a complete narrative of their own, as he stated when he was interviewed on the release of Salvation: “From my perspective it’s run its course.” (/Film) Linda Hamilton had the similar opinion that the series "was perfect with two films. It was a complete circle, and it was enough in itself. But there will always be those who will try to milk the cow" (The Wharf). Her last phrase implies that post-T2 entries exist simply to make money, but it is also clear that T3, TSCC, and Salvation explore, with varying degrees of success, different facets of moral and ethical issues raised in T1 and T2. The assertions of narrative completeness by Cameron and Hamilton would have been more believable had T2 ended this way, with Sarah as a much older woman, John a U.S. Senator playing with his daughter on a playground, and Judgement Day explicitly averted. Instead, the film ends on an uncertain, if hopeful note. The discourse of past, present, and future and individual will as compared to inexorable fate is open, not closed. The intertextual reminiscences highlight this openness.
Being the first film of the series, T1 establishes the tropes that later entries refer to. In this context it’s still interesting to note that the writer Harlan Ellison sued the film’s producers, claiming that T1 used ideas of his without attribution. Subsequently T1’s credits included the phrase, “Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison.” The title of the TSCC first-season episode “The Demon Hand” tips its hat to “Demon with a Glass Hand”, a The Outer Limits episode written by Ellison and one of the works the writer claimed was infringed by T1. Although Ellison has since said that T1 purloined his The Outer Limits episode “Soldier” exclusively, TSCC is referring to the larger intertextual history of the series.
Perhaps the most prominent intertextual dialogue in all of the entries is the ethical character of the terminators. In T1 Reese tells Sarah that the terminator “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, ever, until you are dead”; the film sets up a strict dichotomy between humans and machines. In his BFI Modern Classics: The Terminator, Sean French emphasizes the shock to the characters that Schwarzenegger’s terminator in T2 is a “good guy” whereas the same actor portrayed a terminator who was a “bad guy” in the previous film. Future John had re-programmed a terminator of the same model as the T1 incarnation (figure 2).
The other entries continue to play with this trope. The T-850 of T3 mostly replicates the behavior of its predecessor in T2; it too has been reprogrammed, but much of the tension in the film is created by the fact that this model has not been programmed to obey John’s commands. Instead, the future Kate re-programmed it with a set of specific instructions that don’t always coincide with John’s wishes. As I’ll talk about in the next post, this John wants to prevent Judgment Day, while the T-850 sees the war as inevitable. Because the T-X model has the ability to control all machines, near the end of the film she takes over the T-850’s system and has him attack John. John, however, is able to convince the terminator to stop and shut himself down, at which point he returns to his “good guy” state and destroys the T-X. The T-850 is not making an ethical choice, however; he is simply overriding the T-X’s infiltration.
TSCC foregrounds the problem of re-programming in Cameron Philips, another terminator model sent back by future John to protect younger John. Her CPU is damaged in the first episode of the second season--this temporarily bypasses the re-programing and re-asserts the original program, the termination of John Connor. Sarah wants to destroy Cameron once and for all, but John fixes the cyborg’s CPU and re-activates her. Cameron’s allegiance and the effectiveness of the re-programming are a constant theme throughout the second season, and at one point Cameron admits that her original programming to end John’s life is still in her system, lying dormant in the background while the new program asserts itself.
Salvation uses Schwarzenegger briefly for a terminator again, this one the first of its line, programmed to destroy John (figure 3). In a desperate struggle John douses this model with molten metal, burning off the skin covering and revealing the endoskeleton, a sequence that re-enacts what happens at the end of T1. The endoskeleton is then frozen with a cooling agent, which recalls what happens to the T-1000 in T2. But this doesn’t stop it, and John is saved by Marcus Wright, the protagonist who is the first infiltrator unit that Skynet created. but who has rejected his “programming” and decided to help the Resistance. In this scene, then, Salvation recapitulates elements from previous Terminator entries and assimilates them into itself. By depicting Marcus as the savior of John in this scene, the film creates a “better” terminator that is morally aware. In his earlier confrontation with Skynet, Marcus actively rejects his programming.
SKYNET: Accept what you already know: that you were made to serve a purpose.
In response Marcus removes and then crushes the chip from his head that controls him (figure 4) and makes the choice to save John Connor and sacrifice himself. Although he is part machine, Marcus is able to make a moral choice and transcend his programming on his own, which foregrounds the human element of the cyborg. Whereas previous terminators’ ethical stances were completely reliant on their programs, Marcus is able to make a very human choice that results in the saving of John Connor and the success of the Resistance.
The ethics of machines is a theme that is also related to the tension in the series between the human characters’ individual desire to prevent Judgment Day and an impersonal fated future. In the next post I’ll be looking closely at this issue as it evolves through the series.