Terminator Salvation: Apocalypse and Transhumanism

Will the new TERMINATOR explore apocalyptic anxiety regarding technology and nuclear annihilation in a new way?

The local fire station used to be located a few more blocks to the east of us. Within the last couple of months, the local city police and fire departments secured separate facilities, which means that the fire department is now much closer than  it used to be in the past. On the one hand, that’s a good thing because it means that their response to emergencies and fires in the neighborhood will be much quicker. On the other hand, this means that the weekly testing of the emergency fire siren every Thursday evening is now much louder, and thus able to send more chills down my spine than when it was slightly farther away. Every time I hear this siren, which sounds exactly like the air raid sirens of my youth, it takes me back to my elementary school years when my fellow students and I would hide under our desks in drills that prepared us for the possibility of nuclear missile strikes. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union and improvements in international relations, such preparations and the resulting childhood fears are largely a thing of the past (with the situations in North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia such drills may return), but for those of us who lived in the last few decades of the Cold War, the wail of the sirens serve as a reminder of fears of nuclear apocalypse.

Fears and scenarios depicting The End are found throughout cultures and religions, going back to the earliest times of humanity. Just as we need stories to explain where we have come from and why we are here, we also need stories to explain our inevitable ending. As Elizabeth Rosen has commented, “The story of apocalypse has become a part of our social consciousness, part of a mythology about endings that hovers in the cultural background and is just as real and influential as our myths of origin.” As an explanatory myth, apocalyptic “is an organizing principle imposed on an overwhelming, seemingly disordered universe” (Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination[Rowman & Littlefield, 2008]).

In Western culture, apocalyptic has been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition which continues to exert strong influences and much of the vocabulary related to considerations of the End. But various cultural circumstances have contributed to the shifting use of our apocalyptic vocabulary, as well as a change in the way in which the apocalypse is construed altogether. So while in its Judeo-Christian context, “apocalypse” referred to a revelation of divine vindication in the face of persecution and seeming cultural disorder, in contemporary usage “apocalypse” is now used as a term that refers to an overarching catastrophe that threatens the existence and present form of the human race. In addition to a change in vocabulary with reference to the End, late- or post-modernity also adds a new twist to the apocalypse, not only moving beyond the Judeo-Christian framework but also critiquing the notion of apocalyptic itself, producing variations in conceptions of the End that introduce new moral ambiguities and at times question whether the End really is the End or more of a radical form of transition and transformation.

Science fiction has a long connection with apocalyptic fears, going back to the early pulp magazines, later moving into radio, motion pictures, and television. It has presented the basis of its apocalyptic nightmares in any number of ways, from fears of alien invasion, nature threatening extinction, religious apocalypse, or science and technology out of control. Douglas Cowan, in an entry in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, recognizes each of these as categories for science fiction’s exploration of apocalyptic, and notes that “[w]ith the advent of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War, science came into its own as the midwife of apocalypse. For the first time in its history, humankind had the ability to destroy itself utterly, and few in the technological nations were left unaware of this fact.” It is not surprising, then, that a number of science fiction films have connected various aspects of technology such as computers that threaten to take over the world (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT [1970]) to the use of nuclear weapons that threaten to bring about the destruction of humanity (WAR GAMES [1983]).

One science fiction film franchise has stood out in dealing with the apocalypse and combining it with fears of advancing technology in the form of computers, nuclear weapons, robotics, and artificial intelligence. In 1984 director James Cameron released THE TERMINATOR, a combination of action adventure with science fiction in an interesting storyline about a future computer network, Skynet, that would launch nuclear missiles in an effort to destroy humanity and take over the planet for machines. As the battle raged into the future and the victory of the machines seemed uncertain, Skynet would create a race of cybernetic organisms, killing machines, one of which would be sent into the past in order to kill the mother of a future leader of the human resistance efforts.

THE TERMINATOR did well at the box office and struck a chord in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration and its talk of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and growing fears of nuclear confrontation between the Superpowers. It would be several years before a sequel was produced; in 1991 Cameron surpassed his initial exploration of cyborg apocalypse with TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. This second installment in the franchise upped the ante in conflict, moving beyond a terminator hunting a human being to pit Terminator against Terminator. This battle was done with great special effects, computer generated as well as makeup, created by the legendary Stan Winston.

While this battling Terminator scenario made for great action and visual spectacle in T2, without its moorings in a compelling story the idea fizzled with the next installment, TERMINATOR 3: THE RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003). This film pitted two different versions of Terminator cybernetic organisms in mortal combat in ways that looked like “World Wrestling Federation or Ultimate Fighting Champion meets the gender wars.” With this cinematic entry the franchise seemed to have reached its end.

Fast forward to 2009 and the Terminator franchise shows the possibility of new life and potential vitality, particularly if it can reconnect strong visual effects and battling Terminators with the apocalyptic storyline that provide its initial strength. Director McG, previously connected with efforts such as THE O.C. and the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movies, seeks to revitalize the TERMINATOR franchise with TERMINATOR SALVATION, scheduled to open in theaters in the U.S. on May 21. The film’s official website provides the following plot synopsis:

In the highly anticipated new installment of The Terminator film franchise, set in post-apocalyptic 2018, Christian Bale stars as John Connor, the man fated to lead the human resistance against Skynet and its army of Terminators. But the future Connor was raised to believe in is altered in part by the appearance of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a stranger whose last memory is of being on death row. Connor must decide whether Marcus has been sent from the future, or rescued from the past. As Skynet prepares its final onslaught, Connor and Marcus both embark on an odyssey that takes them into the heart of Skynet’s operations, where they uncover the terrible secret behind the possible annihilation of mankind.

TERMINATOR SALVATION promises to break new ground in a number of ways. First, it will be the first film in the series that does not feature Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, the director was able to lure Christian Bale to the project as John Connor, an actor who is known for his strong personal investment in films (such as his dramatic weight loss for THE MACHINIST) and who drew acclaim in last summer’s blockbuster THE DARK KNIGHT. Second, the trailers for the film provide hints at what may be an interesting plot development that can take the overarching storyline to new places in connection with the idea of technological apocalypse.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington

For a while now, many blogs and websites have reacted to early “leaked” details of TERMINATOR SALVATION, specifically speculating on the identity of the Marcus Wright character. Some have thought that the film will depict him as a human working in league with Skynet. Since this early speculation trailers for the film have become available, and they suggest an even more dramatic possibility for Wright, and one more in keeping with a developing apocalyptic myth that seeks to come to grips with technology, specifically in the form of robots.

The shorter trailers for TERMINATOR SALVATION provide only a glimpse of what is presented for a greater period in the four-minute trailer (embedded at the top of this post).  In a tense conversation, Connor  - with a weapon pointed at Wright – asks, “What are you?” The camera shifts from Connor to a tight shot of Wright revealing a human face with an underlying metal skeleton at the outer edges where the human skin has separated from the artificial face. At this juncture Wright replies, “I’m the only hope you have.”

We have seen the combination of cyborg and human before in the TERMINATOR films as Skynet developed killing machines that closely approximated the human so as to make them more efficient hunters. But does this next installment in the franchise hint at something more? Is this hope connected to the film’s title TERMINATOR SALVATION, and if so, what is the substance of that hope?

Our anxieties related to our relationship with technology, particularly as it becomes more sophisticated, and in its computer and robotic expressions come ever closer to approximating the human, touch on at least two areas, including identity and relationship. As technology produces new robotic limbs that replace our own, and as new forms of robotics mimic human intelligence and emotion, this raises questions about our identity and our uniqueness. Will it be possible for such expressions of technology to approximate the human in ways that raise questions about the personhood of our technological creations (one of many disturbing questions raised by Spielberg’s neglected and multifaceted A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE)?

In terms of relationship we have always had an uneasy connection with technology. We love the gadgets that make our lives easier, and usually take them for granted, until malfunction or power failure makes them inaccessible. Beyond this, what happens when these fruits of technology threaten our lives? It is worth noting that scholars have noted a decided shift in the apocalyptic narrative from its earlier religious expressions to more secular and technological ones that coincided with the first nuclear explosion.

It is dangerous to speculate too much on a film that has yet to be released, based upon brief glimpses from a trailer, but TERMINATOR SALVATION may provide a new element in response to our anxieties and fears over our relationship with technology, that of synthesis. If this is part of the storyline, then once again science fiction presents a futuristic possibility, but one only slightly ahead of the present. An intellectual movement exists called transhumanism or sometimes posthumanism. This has been defined as the combination of technology with human beings in such a way as to “enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological abilities.” All well and good as we think of Steve Austin in the 1970s television series THE BIONIC MAN, and war veterans with robotic limbs replacing those lost in battle. But many have wondered how far transhumanism might be taken, going so far as to change human beings into something entirely nonhuman or posthuman as part of an ongoing process of evolution and social transformation.

If TERMINATOR SALVATION does indeed present Wright as a human-machine hybrid, then it moves the franchise into interesting new ground, not only in terms of the possibility of surviving nuclear attack, and moving us beyond the action of humans battling Terminators, but also possibly forging new apocalyptic myths related to technology. This will raise new questions about what it means to be human, and the fearful spectre of the possibility of the posthuman. If McG does take the TERMINATOR franchise in this direction he will indeed revitalize it, and inject an important element of philosophical, cultural, social, and theological consideration.

About the Author

John Morehead

I work academically and popularly in the area of intercultural studies, and apply these insights to the sociological and cultural study of the fantastic in pop culture through TheoFantastique, my website that explores sci fi, fantasy, and horror.

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