THIS JUSTIN: The Horror Of THE TERMINATOR

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Heavy spoilers ahead for THE TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2, TERMINATOR 3, and TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. Stop reading this RIGHT THE HECK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FIRST TWO FILMS.

In any list of great cinematic one liners, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deadpanned “I’ll be back” from 1983’s sci fi/neo noir classic The Terminator almost always cracks the top 25. Indeed, Schwarzenegger’s entire career pretty much rises and sets on that line, and not unreasonably so: The Terminator is an incredible film. This isn’t a hot take. It’s an objective truth. It’s a love story, an action movie, a detective movie, and a sci-fi movie all rolled into one. Oh, and also in that glorious genre stew is healthy dose of horror. Not just straightforward good old-fashioned fear either. There’s lots of that, yes. But the themes examined in The Terminator open the floodgates for a deeper, more cerebral fear, something that tickles at the part of our brains that make us human. An existential dread that forces us to question the very nature of, well…existence.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator.

First, a refresher. The Terminator is the story of Sarah Connor, a college student living in Los Angeles. Sarah’s life is a humdrum half-asleep parade of a shitty waitress job, romantic trouble, and being third wheel to her roommate and her boyfriend. That is, until a series of murders begin occurring in LA; each victim sharing her name and executed in the order they appear in the phonebook. As the cops rush to find out what’s going on, Sarah is confronted at a crowded nightclub by the killer: a young and punk Arnold, wielding a Desert Eagle. She is rescued by a scrappy young guy in a trench coat who blasts Arnold through a window with a shotgun, and she watches in disbelief as her would-be assassin slowly gets up and resumes the chase.

It’s not long before the real story unfolds. What is initially presented as a grimy new-age noir film rapidly evolves into a fantastic tale of cyborg assassins and supercomputers. Arnold is not just some crazed punk out to kill Sarah. Rather, he (it?) is a cybernetic organism (“living tissue over a metal endoskeleton”) sent from the future by Skynet, an advanced military supercomputer that has gained sentience and, at that point, been unsuccessfully waging a war of extermination against what’s left of humanity after it launched an all-out nuclear strike on us in the then distant year of 1997. Her rescuer, a resistance fighter named Kyle Reese, is also from the future and was sent back by her unborn son to protect her from the Terminator because he, her son, would end up forming the resistance that would rise up and “smash those metal motherfuckers to junk” as Reese so eloquently puts it. The two spend the rest of the film on the run and share a night of romance together, and at the end of the film it’s revealed that Reese is actually the father of Sarah’s son John, the very man who sent him back to protect her.

Right off the bat there are some clear elements of a horror film in The Terminator. First and foremost is the concept of something unstoppable and relentless trying to kill you. It’s the archetypical nightmare: you’re being pursued by something that you cannot get away from. This idea of being stalked and hunted reaches way down into our lizard brain and hits a primitive spot. It goes up against one of our two basic instincts: to survive. Something is trying to kill you, and you are trying to survive. Similarly, Sarah has to stay alive because her son is of the utmost importance to the survival of our species. Even in a very basic summation of the film is a distilled explanation of what every organism in the history of the world is made to do: survive and reproduce. This film is about something that seeks to deny us of our basic function. It’s a predator/prey scenario, literally the most violent and horrific relationship on the planet. Except it goes further than that. At least a predator is trying to kill you because it needs to eat you. In The Terminator, the Cyberdyne Systems T-800 Model 101 (yes, I know the proper name, get fucked) isn’t trying to kill Sarah because it needs to eat her for nourishment. Rather, it’s simply a machine carrying out orders. As Reese (again, so eloquently) tells her: it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. It can’t be reasoned with, or bargained with, and it will not stop until she is dead.

A predator seeking prey at least has enough sense to understand “okay I’ve been chasing this gazelle for way too long, I’d better call it a day and find another gazelle to sneak up on and hopefully kill without too much of a problem.” The T-800 doesn’t do any of that. It just keeps fucking going, like a glacier or a nightmare Energizer bunny. There’s something there that piggybacks on the sense of being reduced to prey by violating again our sense of order in the world. Being prey sucks, yes, but we understand that on a base level. An unrelenting juggernaut that simply wants to fucking murder us goes against our most basic understanding of how life works. For Sarah, the thing trying to kill her doesn’t even give her the consideration of being food. It doesn’t give her any consideration at all beyond simply being an objective. Shooting up a nightclub, mowing through an entire police station, murdering her friends: none of this is done out of malice or for nourishment. These people simply got in the way of this machine carrying out its task. That’s all she is. A task. Not a trophy. Not a meal. An order and nothing more. The reduction and objectification at the hands of this force is incredibly unsettling.

You might recognize this as the basic sense of horror behind a slasher film as well, and it’s not a far stretch to see The Terminator as a weird cousin of the genre. An unstoppable killing machine targets a young woman, racking up an impressive amount of bodies on the way, and is ultimately dispatched by her and the male protagonist who saw it as his duty to protect her. Am I talking about The Terminator or Halloween II? One could argue that Sarah Connor qualifies as a final girl, especially if we take her expanded history in T2 and Dark Fate into consideration. When we first meet her, she is a student who is down and out over a guy, and by the end of the film it’s clear she’s become a hardened warrior, grimly preparing for a future she’s not sure is inevitable. Her experiences in the first film lead her to become a Rorschach-esque survivor in the second where has learned to adapt to her environment and turn everything from a broom handle to a bottle of drain cleaner into a weapon. It’s a transition not unlike that of Heather Langenkamp in the first Nightmare On Elm Street film: the damsel in distress becomes her own defender and ultimately triumphs over her adversary. (Olivia Popp wrote an absolutely incredible article on the nature of trauma in the Sarah Connor trilogy, and how Sarah has evolved and overcome it.)

Time travel is a tricky subject for me. A lot of the time when I watch movies or TV shows that deal with time travel, my brain gets in the way and goes to a lot of dumb places, philosophically. That’s what happens when you have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion, I suppose. In the case of The Terminator, the idea of time travel lends a deeper level of horror to the film.

So, in the film, Sarah asks Kyle if he knows who John’s father is so she can avoid him. Kyle says John never talked about him, but there’s something about the way he talks about Sarah and John that has a hint of knowing. And John certainly knows who his father is. Now, to reduce the mechanics of time travel to a basic level, the very fact that John sent Reese back in time means that Skynet is destined to fail because he was alive at all to send Reese back in time. Obviously, Skynet had tried and failed to kill his mother so it didn’t matter if Reese and Sarah did nothing, because somehow John Connor would come into being and survive long enough to crush Skynet. That might sound like something of a happy ending, but let’s pick at the implications there. John’s entire life is already written before he’s born simply because he sends Reese back in time. He is, for all intents and purposes, a puppet acting out a script, only slightly more cognizant than the machines that tried to kill his mother and made his childhood an absolute hell. We’re getting into T2 territory a bit here but it’s necessary. The second he realizes “oh shit my mom, who I thought was fucking crazy, was absolutely right and all of this shit is real,” his life is no longer his. He is on a track moving forward to an existence on the run, past August 29th, 1997 and all the way up to sometime in 2029 when he sends Reese back in time to stop the Terminator that will try (and fail) to kill his mother.

Much in the way that the Terminator views Sarah as nothing more than a task, there’s something insidious and dehumanizing about this fatalistic approach to human life. It takes away free will and autonomy but leaves us with enough cognizance to understand that we have been stripped of that free will and are helpless to do anything to avoid it. Our lives are not our own. Worse, we don’t even know what is making this happen. There’s some omnipresent and undefined Power that we cannot begin to fathom or frame with words and it has apparently laid out a track for us to follow before we are even born, and we have no choice but to do so. Some religious readers might read that and say “oh fun, Calvinism!” and you’d be right. It’s a horrifying (and vaguely Lovecraftian) concept that strips humanity of any dignity whatsoever when it comes to agency and free will. I largely despised the third Terminator film, but I’ll give it credit for sticking to one terrifying concept: Judgement Day and the subsequent War Against The Machines aren’t events meant to be avoided; they’re events meant to be survived. So, for some cosmic reason we cannot begin to fathom, humanity as a whole is destined to create a new level of intelligence that looks at us, deems us the enemy, and travels through time in an attempt to wipe us out. It fails, but we are doomed to live through Judgement Day only to trigger the events leading to it ourselves.

Even the origin of the true antagonist of the first two Terminator films, the supercomputer Skynet, has a quasi-mystical origin. Specifically, it completely lacks an origin and appears to be what’s known as a self-causing entity. John Connor is, to a degree, of a similar nature, but Skynet is one hundred percent self-causing. For fans of the Netflix series Dark, Skynet is a prime example of the “bootstrap paradox”. Much as Tannhaus’ A Journey Through Time is a book that exists because someone from the future gave Tannhaus a copy to write, Skynet exists because technology from the future created it. At the end of the first film, the T-800 pursues Reese and Sarah into a small robotics factory, where, after killing Reese, it is crushed in a hydraulic press by Sarah. In a deleted scene, Sarah is wheeled out of the building on a stretcher and we see the name of the factory: Cyberdyne Systems, the same company that would create Skynet twenty years in the future. And in T2, it’s confirmed that Skynet’s origins lay in the recovered processor chip from the Terminator in the first film. Essentially, Skynet was created from that Terminator, a machine that it had sent back in time forty years in the future. The technology behind Skynet has no temporal origin; it just exists and is looped in a cycle of creation and sending itself back in time to inspire that creation. The absolute refusal of this to make any sense alone is enough to unsettle a viewer, but when it applies to an order of intelligence whose sole purpose is the extinction of humanity it’s almost spiritually upsetting. It implies that Skynet is an eternal and external evil, constantly re-creating itself in infinite failed attempts to destroy humanity.

When I first saw T2, I had nightmares that the T-1000 was trying to kill me. I was nine years old, so it’s not surprising that it affected me that way. But here’s the thing: The Terminator and T2 still affect me that way. There’s so much about it that is truly frightening. Schwarzenegger catches a lot of flak for his acting, but goddamn he nails it as a robotic killing machine. Double for Robert Patrick in T2. I think this film was the first movie I saw where the villain looked and (largely) acted human but just kept attacking no matter what. I see these films constantly and rightfully lauded as masterpieces of sci-fi and action films, but I rarely see anything about them having elements of horror. I guess I wouldn’t call it exclusively a horror film, but it’s undoubtedly got the DNA of one. And not just the “hulking maniac intent on killing young women” horror. Real, deep, primal horror. A lot of it. So much so that that the classic “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” line is, well, wrong. There is a fate we don’t make for ourselves in the Terminator universe. In Terminator: Dark Fate, we find out that since the timeline has been altered, Skynet has been replaced with another AI known as “Legion” that also eventually decides that, hey hey, ho ho, the human race has got to go. Apparently we have a penchant for collectively birthing murderous AI that want us dead.  I can’t think of many things more existentially horrifying than the idea that humanity is trudging unceasingly towards a demise at the hands of something it’s created. But as Arnold gravely intoned in T2: it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. Major drag indeed.

Justin Lore
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