Terminator Salvation, the new ‘us-versus-machines’ blockbuster, immediately presents a number of quandaries.
The title, for example, could signal that this is the concluding opus to the 25-year franchise.
In theological terms, salvation comes after a fall (sin) and the consequent search for redemption (freeing of sin); it is an end to a means, which leaves the likelihood of yet another sequel slim to none. Or does it?
Twenty-five years ago, during the mass spending machination of Reaganomics, writer/director James Cameron gave the world “The Terminator, an apocalyptic vision of modern society’s obsessive quest for an industrialized and technological apex.
Alternately set in 2029 and 1984, the film followed the urgent mission of one Kyle Reese who travels back in time to save the unassuming Sarah Connor from certain death at the hands of a cybernetic humanoid assassin.
The film not only helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the role of the Terminator), into stardom and eventual political office but also ignited a fierce ethical debate on the merits – and dangers – of rapid automation.
The film was a dark and visionary piece of science-fiction – it was both a thriller and a horror film and is more symbolic of Cameron’s true genius as a writer and director.
The film’s artistic and commercial success (it is also a cult classic), spawned “Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003 with Arnie coming back again and again in twists and turns on the original plot.
Many fans of the franchise believe “Terminator 2 to be the best, but I disagree; in terms of the story arc “Terminator 2 served only to delay the inevitable.
Skynet, a Cyberdyne Systems supercomputer tasked with running America’s defense grid, creates an online virus to fool its human programmers into believing America’s civilian and weapons networks are at risk.
The Pentagon reacts by prematurely enabling Skynet, which quickly becomes self-aware and realizes it must destroy the gravest threat to its existence – humanity.
The recurring theme of machines out to kill humans is tangentially reminiscent of the (Ani)Matrix but Cameron’s original story preceded the Wachowski brothers’ production by 15 years.
However, fans of science-fiction understand that the “I, Robot, “Matrix, even “Galactica (and Caprica) films, among others, all explore the common thread that we may be allowing technology to determine the evolutionary course of human history.
“Galactica even makes that statement in its series finale when it alludes to the cybernetic human created by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. The surprisingly human-like cybernetic human is a model designed to appear on fashion catwalks.
No, folks, this is real science. The model, HRP-4C Gynoid (which can be found on Youtube – search: “Japanese Model Robot ), has already spawned a successor – the cybernetic human teacher. What most people do not know, however, is that this blinking, smiling, frowning, talking “fembot was first made public in 2006.
This brings us to the second challenge posed by the film – if humans created robots and artificially intelligent supercomputers as automatons, who is in need of salvation?
Hint: The absence of a colon in the title should provide a first indication.
Many fans of the franchise were dismayed that McG (Joseph McGuinty), known more for the Charlie’s Angels films than science-fiction fare, would direct the fourth Terminator installment, and shrugged it off.
But in the midst of the non-stop action – when it does pause from the pyrotechnic clash of advanced battle-helicopters taking on Skynet’s ‘transformative’ battle-bots, it is only to tie in scenes and events back to the first film – McG went out of his way to throw us into the heart of yet another raging ethical conundrum.
It is no coincidence that the opening scene is not of a futuristic Los Angeles but of a Texas jail cell in 2003 where death row inmate Marcus Wright is about to sign over his body to a research company just hours ahead of his execution.
It is in these first four minutes (and in the last 15) that McG tackles the issue of salvation firstly by asking the question of who really owns a corpse after death and how much ‘research’ and transplantation is considered morally acceptable.
Then he immediately shifts to what the United Nations and international rights groups today say is an inhumane violation of human rights – capital punishment.
The film then jumps to 2018, a time in which John Connor has rallied a fully-armed resistance force against the machines.
McG does introduce two very significant plot twists: John Connor (played by Batman’s Christian Bale) is not the primordial hero built up in the first three films – he is not mankind’s salvation; someone else is. The second is the introduction of a human cyborg – not the T-600/T-800 Terminators – and the role he – it – plays.
Although McG does pay homage to Cameron by introducing an archetypical warrior heroine, it is easy at first glance to ridicule this movie as yet another Hollywood attempt to capitalize on a franchise by combusting the screen with special effects and testosterone action.
But first glances can be deceiving as Sarah Connor realized in 1984 and to McG’s credit this film does challenge society to consider the consequences of its technological leaps forward while it is still anchored by Medieval notions of revenge killings.
And despite Bale portraying Connor with the same stoic fluidity of a dragon slayer in “Reign of Fire, it is Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek’s Pavel Chekov) who steals the show and saves the day. Literally.
Having raked in some $56 million during its opening weekend in North America, odds are that this film (and the super-cool T-800s) will be back.
Just like Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Axl Rose.