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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Terminator: Grim and Timely Visions

The following essay was written for Professor Klovan's Int. D. 300 (Film Studies) class, circa 1987/88. It is presented here warts and all, as written by the 18 or 19 year old Earl J. Woods.

Los Angeles, AD 2029. The machines have “risen from the ashes of the nuclear fire.” The sky is a black veil shrouded in fog; light flashes only intermittently, and when it does flash, it means death for an endangered species: Homo Sapiens. The landscape is a collage of twisted wreckage and human skulls. Unliving dreadnoughts of metal and electricity crush the bones under their treads, hoping to find living men so that they may be crushed as well. Overhead, the all-seeing patrol aircraft sweep the ruined plain for the last remnants of humanity, like exterminators hunting cockroaches. But cockroaches are tenacious…

So begins James Cameron’s The Terminator, a grim vision of the future. Cameron does not describe his future world with words; rather, he lets the camera, the filmmaker’s brush, paint the picture. If we examine the visual style of the film, one of Cameron’s major themes becomes clear: improper use of technology, combined with a dangerous thirst for power, could contribute to mankind’s ultimate downfall.

Examination begins with the above-mentioned opening scene of The Terminator. The landscape is obviously oppressive; all is dark and foggy, obscuring, by implication, thought and freedom as well as vision. The robot tanks smash what freedom does exist with searing lasers or crushing, ponderous weight. The masses of skulls squashed by these machines represent “the masses” that exist in our world today; that is, the basically ignorant, apathetic general public. The skulls, like the masses, do not fight back. Only the living fight back. This is true in the literal sense in 2029; today, the politically dead masses do not fight against oppressive elements in our society. Eyes in the sky search for human rebels as well, alluding to today’s guardians of the status quo. The way the mechanical Big Brother moves in the film is interesting; it sweeps back and forth, methodically, covering all of the territory but missing some important details: the human freedom fighters. Perhaps Cameron sees himself as one of these people, fighting against closed-minded studio executives.

The conflict, then, would seem to be simple: man vs. machine, once again. However, not all of the machines in the film are bad; in fact, the humans need machines to win their battle. The conflict is actually “well-meaning” man vs. “power-hungry” man. Reese, Sarah and the police captain represent intelligent, well-meaning man. The Terminators and the other mechanical monsters of the future represent today’s noncreative, anti-individual persons, taken to the extreme. Mechanized, rigid bureaucrats are replaced by real machines – very efficient.

The action in the present begins with a low-angle shot of a familiar piece of 20th century hardware: a garbage truck. The normally innocuous vehicle is made to appear large and threatening, a harbinger of impending doom. In fact, the truck is harmless; it is being used to a good purpose, keeping the city clean. The implication is that even the most innocent of machines is vulnerable to corruption. There is a cute tidbit in this scene: as the lightning flashes and Reese appears in our time, the garbage truck’s motor fails. This is a tip of the hat to the UFO movies of the 1950s. It is also an allusion to the prevailing attitude in those films: preservation of the status quo through faith in the government and the United States Armed Forces.

Shortly after this scene, both Reese and the Terminator search for the mother of mankind’s savior: Sarah Connor. Man and machine use one of the most prevalent products of today’s information technology, a phone book. Once again, technology is a two-edged sword. Reese uses it to find and help Sarah; the Terminator uses the phone book to find and kill her. Later, both hunters jump-start a car to assist in their search, and the same logic applies. When Reese steals his vehicle, large machines are again presented as tainted tools. Reese observes two construction cranes, lit in the same manner as the garbage truck seen earlier. The parallels between present-day building machines and future destroying machines are quite obvious; actually, Cameron almost beats his audience over the head with this parallel, as the cranes dissolve into hunter-killer drones. The present scene is a fenced-off construction site, suggesting entrapment. These machines are unable to escape their misuse.

There are parallels between Sarah and the Terminator as well. Both wear dark glasses, each for a diametrically opposed reason. The Terminator wears the glasses to disguise his nonhuman reality. Sarah wears the sunglasses to protect her vision, both literally and figuratively. It is not her eyesight that actually needs preserving, but her hard-as-nails outlook on life, her tough pragmatism. Sarah’s bedroom is littered with technology, but she uses it to positive ends. A blow dryer is fairly harmless, used properly. Sarah uses it properly, as she is in firm control of the machines she uses. Her friend Ginger, however, lets technology control her. Ginger’s walkman is playing constantly, connected directly to her brain, controlling her mood, and, often, her actions. Ginger’s misuse of the walkman causes her death – the blaring music allows the Terminator to catch her unawares. In contrast, technology serves Sarah – the TV bulletins warn her that a killer is on her trail.

It must be noted, however, that the corrupted technology is far more emphasized in the film. Sarah’s own answering machine, normally a faithful servant, gives away her location. The computers that rule the world of 2029 are a perversion of the Strategic Air Command/NORAD defence system, manufactured by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne is presumably a capitalist enterprise, part of the money/power hungry military industrial complex. Another example is the police psychologist’s use of technology. He uses video equipment to look down upon Reese not as a patient to be helped, but as a research project to be exploited. The high angle of the camera, looking down on Reese, makes him look inferior to the technology.

Reese tells Sarah that the Terminator pursuing them is a new model – the 101. 101 is the room number of the torture/interrogation room in George Orwell’s 1984, yet another allusion to the dangers of power thirst combined with available technology. In an even more frightening development, Reese reveals that many humans have identification brands. In the film, the brand is seen as a stark red mark of numbers and lines. The audience is immediately reminded of today’s Universal Product Codes, one of the most common symbols of our consumer society.

Cameron makes another grim comment in the form of a scene in the human rebel camp. A group of children gather ‘round the TV set, much like children do today. IN 2029, however, the television is but an empty shell used only to house a fire for warmth. The implication is that trust in television has led mankind back into the stone age.

Distrust in technology is a pat answer to the problems of adjustment in our changing world for many people. Cameron does not succumb to the easy answer of condemning machines – he suggests only that we learn to control them. For, at the end of the film, Sarah is able to kill the Terminator only with the aid of a friendly industrial robot. The unswerving road Sarah follows into the storm indicates that our destructive future is inevitable, but she does drive a tough machine into it: a Jeep Renegade. Perhaps we can survive the unpleasantness ahead, if we are very, very lucky.

Professor Klovan wrote, "There is much to admire in this neatly presented and well-written essay: the explanation of "101," the paragraph on parallels, and generally, the high level of insight. However, in the first section of your discussion, you tend to be stretching the film's allegorical implications to the limit. It's difficult to accep that we should see the cyborg as a kind of "bureaucrat" (p. 2), or that the failing garbage truck motor is a comment on "preservation of the status quo through faith in the government and the United States Armed Forces (p.3)(!). Overall, this reveals a superior level of understanding, but there are a number of little things which leave the reader wondering.



Anonymous said...

A "B"? That seems a little low. B+. Maybe prof wanted more analysis of camera angles, edits, audio, dialogue, etc., rather than socio-political commentary. Who knows?

Terminator does have quite a bit of meat on its bones/exoskeleton for social allegory, and it looks like you picked up on a lot of that. It's been many years since I've watched Terminator, and I think I remember the 1980's Obligatory Sex Scene more than I remember Arnie. All films should have an Obligatory 1980's Sex Scene, I would suggest, if any high-powered movie producers are reading Earl's blog.

Again, you are very brave to post this stuff on-line. There's a term that I ran across about this time last year that really fits what you wrote about: "steel-jawed prose". You get an A+++ from me for that.

Earl J. Woods said...

Gosh, I don't even recall the sex scene...oh wait, the crucial one, when Reese and Sarah start the whole predestination paradox. Maybe I lost points for not making note of that in the paper...

I meant to note as well that I wrote this paper a couple of years before Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released. I wonder what I'd write now, knowing what I do about the eventual direction of the story...

Thanks for the compliments! I'm not sure how brave it is, posting this stuff - if I want to call myself a writer, I need to put my stuff out there for the public to read. Ghostwriting is for the birds when it comes to the feedback never know if people are reacting to your ideas, or those of the person you're writing for.

Anonymous said...

It's brave. I know more people who use nom-de-plume while on-line to avoid having their public ideas connected to their private lives, than I do people who use their real name. Not just handles, either, like "Pompeiian Circumstance", but real names just different from their own.

And it's not that these people are saying anything radical, preposterous, or immoral - if anything, their private life is duller and less inspirational than their on-line world. They just don't know what bits from the past will stick to them in the future. Like getting hit in the teeth with a Frisbee. Or nearly having your cornea inverted by a bolt of static electricity. Or making a total dweeb out of yoursef every time there's something wrong with the brain machine. Or eating a Doug Steak. Or having a peanut lodge in your ear when you are trying to enjoy a perfectly good airshow. Or ordering a Wookie Burger at Spacedock. Or admitting in a crowded elevator that, indeed, "Spock's Brain" is the ultimate Star Trek episode. Or finding out that CSIS secretly broke into the dorm room and erased all of the House Party files, including all of that great Burn/Shock/Brand stuff. Or having your fingers freeze to the camcorder because the only day we could all get together it had to be -272 degrees out. Or getting joke dinnerware as a wedding gift because just one time ten years before, someone was caught eating spaghetti out of a pot lid instead of a dinner plate... even though a pot lid is really logical, because it's got a handle on the bottom, so you can hold it over the sink while you eat, and not burn your hand on hot stuff...