I recently watched The Terminator 2 in 3D at the local theater. It is a complex film that explores the ideas of fate and destiny, determinism and free will, the empowerment of the individual and the ability of every person to change the course of the future.
First, a summary of the Terminator movies, the first and the second.
Starting with Terminator, a company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence called Skynet. When Skynet takes on human qualities, its creators panic – they do not trust it to make decisions that will be in favour of humanity and they try to shut it down. In response, Skynet uses its access to military systems to spark a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Human civilization is destroyed. Skynet creates machines to hunt down and terminate the scattered survivors.
John Connor leads the resistance, and he is targeted by Skynet for termination. The machines having developed the capability for time travel, send a Terminator – a cyborg killing machine that appears human – back in time to kill John Connor’s mother before he is born. John seizes the time travel technology from the machines and sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Reese is killed, but not before he sleeps with Sarah Connor, John’s mother, conceiving of John himself. After a long and bloody pursuit, Sarah destroys the Terminator, crushing it in the factory machinery.
Another machine is sent back to kill John as a teenager. Sarah had raised him as a survivalist, but ultimately he was taken into the foster care system after Sarah was forced into mental treatment, her experiences of the first movie taken to be a delusion brought on by trauma. This time Future John sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him, and Sarah; John and the Terminator must work together against the new Terminator, the T-1000. John and the reprogrammed Terminator (a T-800 model) go to rescue Sarah from the mental institution, and find her in the middle of escaping by herself.
They do escape, but only just, as the T-1000 has predicted John’s moves. The power of the new terminator is daunting, and contemplating the danger to her son and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Sarah recalls John’s message to her from the future: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Taking their future into her own hands, Sarah takes the fight to Cyberdyne itself. John and the T-800 catch up to Sarah just in time to prevent her from killing Miles Dyson – the scientist most directly responsible for the development of Skynet. Together, they destroy the lab, and, following an epic chase sequence, they destroy the T-1000 itself, and Sarah aids the T-800 in ‘self-terminating’ to prevent his technology from being recovered.
Fate is a Choice
The central message of the Terminator movies is John Cinnor’s message to himself, given to his father, passed on to his mother, and then repeated to himself, and by extension to us: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’
Existentialism emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It says that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.
Existentialism focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.
Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread).
It therefore emphasizes action, freedom and decisionas fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice.
This is the the Terminator. This is life.