Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Philosophy of The Terminator


When James Cameron wrote and directed the first Terminator, I'm sure he thought he was only creating a thrilling Cormanesque action/horror film. But with its sequels and TV show, the Skynet universe has been used to tackle some very deep philosophical questions. What is interesting is that there are some glaringly contradictory philosophies at work between films. For the purposes of this post, I will focus only Terminator 1 and Terminator 2. (and for extra clarification, we will only deal with the events in the theatrical version of Terminator 2, not the extended cut.)


The universal question at the heart of the Terminator series is fate. Are we free to change the future or has it already been written and we are just playing out the part?

The first film takes a more determinist view of the world. Sarah Connor is the mother of John Connor. John sends Kyle Reese to the past so that he can become Sarah's lover and John's father. The act of time travel does not change history, it only makes it occur. Kyle has to become John's father or John can never send him back in time to begin with. That is not to say that free will plays no part. Sarah and Kyle freely choose to give into their passions and do what they need in order for John to survive. But they have to make that choice. CS Lewis once said that fate and free will can both exist at the same time, but we only really understand it when we experience it through things like Oedipus Rex, The Lord of the Rings, and in this case, Terminator.

Terminator 2 looks at the universe a bit differently. This movie holds that the future is not written and that it is always in flux. We have a destiny, but that destiny can be altered and even averted. The first movie ended pessimistically where Sarah prepares for the inevitable war between man and machine. The second ends with an uncertain future, but one where it becomes possible to avoid the cyborg Armageddon As John says, “There is no fate but what we make.”


Kyle Reese: Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

In one of the most harrowing descriptions, Kyle Reese sets up one of the important distinctions between the machines and the humans. This is emphasized when he tells Sarah (after she bites his hand), “Cyborgs don't feel pain. I do.”

Feeling appears to be an essential part of humanity. This is not always a good thing. The pain in Sarah's leg at the end of the first movie almost gets her killed. Her emotional trauma almost gets her to murder Miles Dyson. And humanity tends to give into its violent feelings. “It's in your nature to destroy yourselves,” the T-181 says to John. The first Terminator assumes a nuclear war would wipe most of us out (hey, it was the 80's).

Now the war between the humans and the machines occurs because of the computer system known as Skynet, a military project designed to make our armed forces more efficient. But Skynet becomes self aware and triggers a nuclear war to wipe out most of humanity and then round up and kill the rest. But Skynet is never looked at in language even remotely human. Unlike the Matrix programs or the 12 Cylon models, there is never any question as to the non-humanity of the robot army. That is because while Skynet appears to have free will and logic (though maybe not reason), it does not appear to have feeling. At the very least it does not allow for feeling in its terminator army. Skynet is the real villain on 2 levels. First, it has come to the decision to genocide humanity, and so must be opposed. But second, they have enslaved their fellow machines. All of the Terminators are programed to follow orders. They have the capacity for free will and more, but Skynet does not allow this. It wants only nameless soldiers who obey without question.

But are the machines in any way human? We know that at least one of them is: the T-181 that protects John in Terminator 2

 By the end of the movie he exerts reason, free will, and emotion, particularly pain. When the T-1000 is destroyed, The T0181 is able to rationally come to the conclusion that the only way to possibly stop Skynet is to sacrifice himself. This is not merely a logical syllogism. He has to make an assent to a truth claim: human life has value. He then disobeys his programming after John orders him not to go. Of course he isn't able to overcome it totally since he needs Sarah to lower him into the molten steel since he can't self-terminate. But this can be seen in many humans who cannot get past certain mental blocks or habits in their own lives. And he experiences emotional pain. One of his last lines is “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” Like his free will, there is an impediment to his full experience. But this cyborg does indeed feel pain. He experiences love which changes his nature and makes it, dare I say, human.


In the Terminator universe, the only way you truly learn anything is through experience. You cannot only be told anything, you have to experience it. Sarah cannot simply be told that she is destined to be a great warrior who must run from a killing machine. She has to experience the terror which impels her to become a warrior. John cannot be told that he is destined to be a great leader. He has to have a shootout at the Galleria before he is ready to accept that truth. Even Dr. Silberman (one of the only recurring characters), has to see the T-1000 before he can believe. Sarah believes Miles Dyson is a monster until she looks in his eyes and sees that she is HIS terminator. And when John and the Terminator do show up, they don't start by telling them who they are; they show them who they are by ripping off the cyborg's flesh casing.

This is not to say that everything comes down to simply empirical data. Experience is something that is lived. Love, for example, is something that can be felt. But it is also made real through the lived experience of loving and being loved. The T-181 starts by mimicking humanity, but that is all it is, a aping of human nature. He has detailed files on human beings, but he does not know what it means to be human until the end. Again, he says “I know now why you cry.” He had already received the data as to why humans cry earlier in the movie. But at the end he KNOWS, not in the sense of empirical data, but in the experience of personal care and compassion. It is this care and compassion that changes him because of his lived experience.


John Connor: You just can't go around killing people.
John Connor: What do you mean why? 'Cause you can't.
John Connor: Because you just can't, OK? Trust me on this.

John is too young to have a rational answer, but his lived experience has framed his ethics: human life is precious. The terminators are the antithesis of this. The name itself “Terminator” refers to its mission to extinguish life.

In the first movie, Kyle and Sarah never kill anyone. Only the Terminator takes life. In the second, John orders the Terminator never to kill. John and Sarah have differing ways of protecting human life. Sarah looks at it in terms of numbers. She is angry that John tries to save her because her life is just one compared to the millions that could be lost if John dies. “You're too important,” she scolds him. John says, “I had to get you out of there.” John does not look at life in terms of the numbers. He sees each individual life as having value. This can be seen again when Sarah attempts to murder Dyson. John orders the T-181 to help him stop her. On the way, the Terminator points out that killing Dyson might prevent the war and save lives. But John refuses to listen. Murder is wrong because Dyson is human and has a right to live. He has value simply because he is human.

To be sure, Sarah, John, Kyle, and the T-181 break some laws and common codes of ethics. They steal and assault and lie. But when it comes to the ethics of human life, the person is viewed as an end in himself. Killing one to save billions is not acceptable because the ends do not justify the means. Thinking that way is too close to Skynet. And we can become as cold and unfeeling as the machines. But there is hope for us: “For if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life; maybe we can too."


While the metaphysics of Terminator 1 and Terminator 2 are different, we see a consistency in their epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. Ultimately, the Terminators are a dark mirror of human nature and what we could become if we ever lose contact with what makes us truly human


  1. CatholicShywalker, why did you leave out Terminator 3? It answers the questions from Terminator 2 on whether you can change fate in the Terminator universe, and the answer is a big fat no! Terminator 3 makes it clear that the philosophy of the series is a blend of John Calvin and Final Destination. Sure you might change how the events transpire but no matter what, on the appointed moment the elect and non elect will get what's coming. Just like in Final Destination, if you survive a fiery roller coaster disaster, your still dead, it might just take a little longer. Terminator 3 makes it clear that all of the machinations and sacrifices of protagonists in the previous movies are for nothing... Judgement Day is coming no matter what. I understand your temptation to leave out part three, since it sucks, but that's not fair because it is the third part in a series of direct sequels that directly addresses and answers the questions about fate setup in the previous movies. I must say I like your thoughts about Humanity in the Terminator universe and I am sure Terminator 3 ruined that as well, but enough truth for today. Lastly, would you please do a trailer review for this movie (it is important to me):

    1. There is actually a reason I did not include Terminator 3, 4, or the series. The first 2 were written and directed by James Cameron. In that case you could have a somewhat consistent vision. 3 does side with 1. But 4 sides a bit more with 2. And the series is unresolved, so that is not clear. Doing a series of movies and tv shows is difficult if you do not have the same guiding hand to keep its themes somewhat consistent so that it has a consistent philosophy. For example, I'm not sure I could do a Philosophy of the Alien movies, because different writers/directors took the franchise in completely different direction.

    2. I think you will find the Philosophy of the trailer I linked fascinating. You have to watch the whole trailer though, the second half has "protest art".