Sunday, May 31, 2009

Terminator: Salvation

ChristianityToday explores some themes from the Terminator movies:

The human-machine relationship. From cell phones to iPods, technology is playing a bigger and bigger part of our lives, to the point where some people have said that we are all becoming de facto cyborgs ourselves. The original film makes humorous references to pagers and answering machines, both of which were fairly new at the time, as well as the bigger, factory-sized machines that make such devices possible.

In this increasingly mechanized and technological world, it is more important than ever that we hold on to something spiritual, to the thing that makes us uniquely human; in Terminator Salvation, a teenaged Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) points to his head and his heart and tells his fellow prisoners to "stay alive, in here and in here." But humanity is no mere spiritual abstraction; it is also rooted in the world of organic, physical life. So the people in these films love each other, have children together, and die for each other sacrificially.

The source of meaning and morality. In the first two sequels, John Connor and his wife-to-be, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), are assisted by Terminators that have been re-programmed to protect them—and they ask these robots if there is anything more to them than their programming. Are the Terminators "worried" about dying? If John and Kate are killed, will that "mean anything" to them? Faced with such questions, the Terminators betray little emotion, and reply simply that they would have no reason to exist if John and Kate died, and that they need to "stay functional" in order to keep their human masters alive.

But there is more to a meaningful life than simply following your programming, and both T2 and T3 end on notes which suggest that the "good" Terminators have achieved something resembling free will; in both films, the Terminator goes beyond the orders he has been given and sacrifices himself for the greater good, even though he didn't have to.

T2, in particular, goes even further and suggests that the Terminator of that film has learned "the value of human life." Interestingly, though, when John initially tells the Terminator it is wrong to kill people, he can't think of a reason beyond "Because you just can't, okay?" It isn't until the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles that a former FBI agent named James Ellison (played by the openly Christian Richard T. Jones) explains to a Terminator that it is wrong to kill because human life is made in the image of God and is therefore sacred.

And so, just as the re-programmed Terminators derive their meaning partly from the ones who have programmed them, but also partly from their freedom to go beyond their programming, so too we humans derive our meaning from the One who breathed life into us, and from our ability to exercise our free will in his service.

Destiny, prophecy and fatalism. The future is not set, and there is no fate but what we make for ourselves. So say several characters in each of these films, and yet, these characters don't always behave as though they truly believe this. After all, John Connor sent the adult Kyle Reese back in time to become his father—and much of the new film revolves around John's conviction that the teenaged Kyle needs to be rescued so that he can fulfill that destiny.

The films even play with the idea that efforts to change the future will just make things worse. In a couple of deleted scenes from the original film (available on some versions of the DVD), Sarah convinces Kyle that they should destroy the company that built the machines, to prevent the machines from being born—just as the machines are trying to kill Sarah to prevent John from being born. But, as we also see in T2, all Sarah ends up doing is luring the Terminator to one of the company's factories—thereby guaranteeing that the technology which makes the machines possible will end up in that company's hands.

In this, the films sometimes resemble Greek myth more than anything biblical. (T3 makes its debt to the Greeks explicit when the general who puts the machines in charge on Judgment Day tells his daughter, "I opened Pandora's Box.") To the Greeks, fate was unavoidable, and efforts to prevent a prophecy from coming true usually ended up fulfilling it.

And yet, the films resist fatalism. Just as the biblical prophecies often came with a call to repentance or an assurance that salvation was waiting on the other side of judgment, so too the Terminator films stubbornly cling to hope.

Death is certain, but human life remains precious nonetheless. The human spirit cannot be defeated or assimilated by machines. And, as the newest film makes especially clear, we can never rule out the possibility that we will get a "second chance."

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