Surviving A Science Fictional Year: The Terminators

The Terminator (1984) • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) • Terminator Salvation (2009)

 

I only ever saw the first Terminator movie once, when I was five or six. It scared the crap out of me (as a lot of the movies on my list seem to have a habit of doing, except for Predator, oddly enough). As a kid, I remember not having a firm grasp on the difference between actors and the characters they play. I knew, obviously, that movies weren’t portraying real events, but that (to some extent) the actors were having genuine experiences. It’s a difficult concept to track and lacks internal logic: evidence of it as the idea of a five year-old mind. But if you can humor the me of 1988, the moment where the T-1 is performing self-surgery, my brain interpreted that as the moment where the real life Arnold Schwarzenegger (his name is in Google’s dictionary. Weird.) was discovering that he, the actor, was in fact a robot. What terrified me more than this nonsense-relization was that he seemed to be so unfazed by this realization. As such, I never saw it again and it was crystallized in my mind as one of the scariest things possible.

Fast forward twenty years later and, with my views on James Cameron having so drastically shifted, I was concerned the movies (the first and second, the second of which was a long time favorite) wouldn’t be any good any more. I was glad to find that was not the case and the movies largely continued to hold up. I did find that for my purposes, however, the first one was a little philosophically empty and, therefore, difficult to deal with.

My initial thoughts were regarding the fear that machines will somehow spring to life and make the annihilation of human life its primary concern. Going back to What Technology Wants, the book by Kevin Kelly from my previous post, it is argued that the world of technology (or the technium as he coins it) is the seventh kingdom in the animal world. This sort of stuff makes you feel like a madman to discuss in polite company, but if you read his book (you should), he makes a compelling argument. Kelly discusses in his book how, like prior kingdoms, the technium is rising on the backs of mammals. He also argues that, like has yet to happen in real life, no new life form appears with the express desire of eliminating a prior life form. He acknowledges that sometimes it happens as an unfortunate side effect – such as with ice age humans and the evidence that they hunted the mammoth to extinction, or with the cyanobacteria annihilation of many anaerobic species – but for a species to make a willful attempt at annihilation of an entire other species or kingdom would be unthinkable.

Related is Roko’s Basilisk, which briefly summed is the idea that a hypothetical all-knowing machine might decide to punish those that didn’t help create it and reward those that helped it greatly. Though I think science fiction movies have yet to really explore this notion: machines are here to punish us for our sins.

And this is where the second one comes in. The first movie is a tightly told horror story, and it should be appreciated for the serious way in which it approaches a concept that, with any lesser candor, would be goofy (oh hai Terminator 3). But the second one informs us what these movies are really about: Judgment Day.

The new face of God.

For some of us, Judgment Day has been separated from its ominous roots, making it a judgment day, but the phrase and the idea is strictly a religious one. It’s the day Jesus comes back to judge the works of humanity (spoiler alert: we are found wanting) and takes up the ones who have earned favor. This reflects Roko’s Basilisk in a way where “hypothetical all-knowing machine” is replaced with “hypothetical all-knowing man-deity,” and “punishes those that didn’t help create it” is replaced with “punishes those that don’t believe.”

The problem in the world of The Terminator is that these aren’t simply events that happen, something that occurs and the fallout of which must be dealt. Judgment Day is specific punishment. This is where Kevin Kelly’s (perhaps unprovable) assertion runs aground: whether or not machines become aware and assume a state of benevolence doesn’t matter because we as humans feel like we deserve punishment. It’s perhaps our own guilt coming through these movies than any kind of rational fear. Fearing bears when one is slathered in beef jerky in the woods is a rational fear, but fearing that robots would like to murder us because our phones are getting fancier is not.

The first two Terminator movies are, I think, probably Cameron’s best. The philosophy is the most tightly contained, and the running times least insufferable. And it’s perhaps thanks in part to that fear he was trying to voice: robots probably won’t rise up, but we deserve it for our sins. Numerous sins we knowingly continue to perpetrate: sins of cruelty against each other; sins of exploitation against our resources; sins of abuse against our environment; the sin of refusing to acknowledge other creatures’ right to life. These movies aren’t, perhaps, expressing a fear, but a desire we fearfully crave: the desire of the guilty to be punished and the relief that comes after penance. The problem, however, is who will punish us when god is dead? Cameron tells us that it will be the thing most like god (second to God himself, and a little higher than ourselves perhaps), the thing that is everywhere on the planet at once, has near omnipotent knowledge, and, if hundreds of years of philosophers are correct, a child of our own creation like god.

 

Stick around (by which I mean click the page 2 button) for parts three and four.

A Science Fictional Year: Avatar, John Carter, Prometheus

I chose these three significantly different movies for some pretty similar reasons. My primary reason was that all three were touted as something special or standout by their studios: Avatar was some kind of revelation of cinematic technology; Prometheus was to be a new benchmark in dramatic sci-fi storytelling; John Carter was to signal some bold new creative direction for Disney. Also, these three are probably the biggest sci-fi movies that have come out for some time previous to their release in that all three were big on world building. This is a similarity I hadn’t really noticed until after I watched them. The fact that big revolutionary science fiction seems to be a grand venture in world building seems to indicate something about the nature of transcendence: we go from being rote experiencers of the world to integral makers. The thing that is bound by the experiences determined for it is not yet transcendent, or the more we can fashion our realities the more ascendent we become.

Avatar (2009)

I watched Avatar first, so we’ll start there.

Cards on the table: I don’t like Avatar. It’s as big and dumb and spectacle driven as the reputation of a blockbuster would indicate. And this is the world’s blockblusterest movie in that it’s made two billion dollars worldwide and is the world’s most expensive movie with estimates somewhere between 237 and 310 million, with an additional 150 million in marketing dollars. Taking those numbers (after marketing, this movie nearly cost half a billion dollars to make) in context with my assumption in my first post about movies having something to say, you’d expect a half billion dollar revelation. But… not.

Before anything else, I’m impressed with how well the CGI looks five years later. There are moments where the Na’vi look almost human, and the movie never veers into the uncanny valley. Though: a lot of the native animals have that weird sheen common to 1998 PSX cutscenes. And there were some times in which I felt like things were floating above the ground as opposed to moving across it. District 9’s prawns are the only other thing in the world of CGI I can think of that holds up like this.

I saw the movie on opening night with my best friend, in 3D (what a waste of an attempt at innovation), with little knowledge about the movie, only knowing for sure that I was bummed out by the seemingly oversimple cat-alien designs. I mean, come on: it’s too easy. Want an alien? Oh, it’s totally an anthropomorphic human thing. Bam, you got your alien. The best part of the night being, before the start of the movie, periodically putting on my 3D glasses and staring dumbstruck at another part of the theater and remarking, “Whoa! It’s like I’m really sitting in a theater! It’s like I’m really sitting next to people!” There might be a reason I don’t get asked to see many movies in theaters.

The story is obvious: Fern Gully and Pocahontas get married and have a Dances With Wolves story, but in space. And this is where I get confused about why it cost half of a billion dollars to tell me this message (knowing full well it cost that to animate the CGI). It’s oddly colonialist even in its anti-colonialism and trades transcendence for the mostly mundane. It really is a movie of opportunity not taken. If this movie were made with the actors behind the cat sex-aliens, it would be loudly proclaimed as racist. Of the human cast, all but two are white. Of the entire Na’vi race, only four get speaking parts, of those four, three are black, and one is native Indian. With that in mind, this becomes a movie about a white guy who is so good at going native, that he out natives the natives. And good thing too, because without the white guy, they would have all died. He is so talented at being native, that he’s able to tame the giant flying lizard that evades and overpowers everyone else.

I could easily spend a college essay’s worth complaining about the things that get under my skin about this movie: the choice of unobtainium naming (yes, I know it’s a thing scientists say, but not trillion dollar corporations that have to sell shit to investors); the Snidley Whiplashness of the mining company contrasted to the painful Dudley Dooright scientists (Hitler had scientists too); how the world, while pretty, seems like a world that’s just meant to be pretty and not functional; the alien sex scene whose sexiness is proportionate to how needed it was (i.e. not); how this movie isn’t considered a cartoon; how it looks like everyone member of the Na’vi looks like they’ve had minor hairlip surgery. How the word Na’vi is an inversion of the word naive complete with an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter.

The biggest bother of this movie, however, is it’s inability to challenge a viewer in even small ways in the midst of a very predictable and probably soothing story. This is, inherently, a movie about literally changing how you see the world. The central conceit is a technology that allows people to leave their God-given body for a lab created body to be able to see the world in a totally novel way. And then this body has the ability to interface its brain with that of another living wholly independent being, and, AND, the dominant life form of this planet has the ability to hook into some kind of world goddess tree. Yet the only way this movie communicates any of this is montage. I don’t know how, exactly, I would recommend James Cameron go about this a different way, but the lack of any substantial difference in presentation makes being a nine foot tall blue cat alien seem no different than being a meathead industrialist in a machine.

I think the easiest method would simply be a first person view. When Jake wakes up in his new body, it becomes as disorienting for the audience as it was for Jake. Apply some fish lens, and his arms seem grotesque and too far away from the central mass. His gangly legs seem to flail in all parts of our peripheral vision as he learns to run, and sometimes we catch distracting glimpses of a tail. It wouldn’t have to be more than a few scenes. Maybe when he merges minds with another animal, for a moment the world takes on a Predator style hue while his mind incorporates the new state of being. And since the world tree is essentially some kind of Buddhist metaphor, the first time his brain hops on in that tribal scene, he experiences a disorienting taste of total enlightenment that shows him the planet from the planet’s biggest brain. And then instead of his goal being to murder the industrialists before they murder him, maybe he’d want to show them this enlightenment and that’d be his motivation, but instead his hand is forced in favor of defense.

Instead we get a big, dumb, obvious action scene that goes on for way too long. Perhaps it’s meta-commentary on what it’s like to be American right now.

click page 2 below to see my thoughts on John Carter…