We are robot: how you’re turning into the Terminator
Arnie Schwarzenegger first appeared as the terrifying killing machine the T800 in the original Terminator movie (1984), before reappearing in Judgement Day (1991) and Rise of the Machines (2003), proving the prophetic nature of his character’s infamous phrase, ‘I’ll be back.’
The fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, directed by John McGinty Nichol (of Charlie’s Angels fame), opens today sans Arnie (except in a CGI moment), signalling not the closure some hoped for, but rather the start of a new trilogy.
Like its predecessors (and the television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles – 2008), the film, set in a post-apocalyptic 2018, where the machines have not only risen but triumphed, explores the ways in which the surviving humans do their utmost to destroy that which they created.
The hero, John Connor (played by Christian Bale), utters at one stage, ‘humans have a strength that cannot be measured.’ This strength enables them to resist the destructive forces of technology to the last man and woman – almost.
In many ways, the Terminator series is the apogee of the numerous dystopian narratives that express cultural ambivalence as well as outright fear about the potential danger our increasingly dependent relationship with technology poses.
When a young Mary Shelley penned her shocking novel, Frankenstein (1818), science was a burgeoning and fascinating area of study.
Her anti-hero, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is first rapturous when a spark of electricity brings his monstrous being, pieced together from human cadavers, to life.
Then, horrified by what he has done, he abandons his creation with dreadful consequences.
Since this moment, the idea that humans have no right to invent life – the ‘God complex’ – never mind abuse technological knowledge and ability, is a theme that science fiction particularly, returns to again and again.
In many narratives, the roles of technology and humans are juxtaposed and therefore clear: technology that’s beyond human control is dangerous and must be exterminated such as Star Trek’s the Borg, Dr Who’s Cybermen and Daleks and Stargate’s Replicators.
Even texts that try to problematise the (human) nature of technology, and its potential for great harm and compassion, end up relying on binary opposites and neat conventional endings, such as The Matrix Trilogy, AI, and Millennium Man.
Whereas the Terminator series has always offered characters, both human and machine, that hover between hope and threat, in Salvation, this notion is taken further.
Borrowing from films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, Salvation introduces audiences to Marcus Wright (played by Australian, Sam Worthington), a criminal who, fifteen years before the story opens, is given the option to donate his body to science.
Like Ridley Scott’s Replicants, Wright is a cyborg, a blend of human and non-human, flesh and machine, organic and inorganic. He’s what’s called a liminal figure – liminal, because he stands at the threshold at which binary opposites undo themselves and therefore, resists definition.
Uncertain what to do with him, the Resistance, lead by Connor, expresses the ambivalence and distrust that we sometimes feel towards those who defy neat categorisation – those who cross boundaries, blur borders and unravel familiar dichotomies. Wright says to the undecided Connor, ‘I’m the only hope you have.’ This is very confronting.
The Terminator movies, along with films like I, Robot, are among some of the most thought provoking of popular culture texts.
They force us to confront the reality of our own prejudice and fragility. After all, when we have difficulty accepting those whose language, colour, sexuality and beliefs are different to ours, how can we begin to accept those who aren’t completely organic and don’t share our maternal origins? Even if we’re complicit in their creation?
We’re growing increasingly reliant on technology. We spend hours each day in front of screens, linked to each other through the digital technology of mobile phones, computers and various social networks.
Our identity is often contingent on a retinal scan or finger print, our DNA can be harvested and stored, and Close Circuit Television is monitoring our every move if not word alongside something as benign as Google Earth or Street View.
The reality is that we’re already well on the track to becoming cyborgs ourselves.
Through technology, machines we’ve invented and for which we are responsible, we’re being entertained, informed, communicating and performing our professional and personal roles.
The boundaries between our bodies and the machines continue to merge – and this causes anxiety and joy in equal measure.
Not so long ago, these notions and the questions they raised were exclusive to the realm of science-fiction fantasy. But whether the future will be a dystopian battle between machines and humankind, or a more utopian blending of the two is really up to us.
Our sense of self, as individuals, a society and a global community, is now conditional on a much broader understanding of what it means to be human – one that accepts Otherness in all forms, including technology.
After all, that which is liminal may one day prove to be our salvation.
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