Spend enough time watching popular sci-fi and you could be forgiven for worrying that your vacuum cleaner might lead the rest of your household appliances on a night raid against you and your family. Or that your laptop might, at any time, reveal a set of jaws within its keyboard and, as you innocently strike the enter key one afternoon, stretch open its mandibles and bite you. From Dr. Strangelove to Blade Runner to The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, pop-culture's fictional wars against the machines never seem to end, as man's robotic servants rise up and demand their rights, with killing and enslaving their masters typically topping the list.
Over the decades, the Frankenstein myth—the idea that man's creations will unexpectedly grow immensely powerful and turn against their makers—took hold of the pop culture universe, serving as the inspiration for some of its most memorable and enduring stories. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if, in the minds of those who create pop entertainment, man's machines hover in a state of perpetual near revolt. Popular culture may increasingly be created with the aid of cutting-edge technology, but its view of technological progress tends toward the paranoid and fearful.
For the latest example, one need look no further than Terminator Salvation, the fourth film in a multi-decade franchise pitting humanity against unstoppable robots. As in previous installments, Salvation comes with a built-in technophobic sentimentalism mixed with grimy paramilitary paranoia: Machines are the enemy, and roving bands of heavily armed outlaws are the only way to stop them.
The movie follows the near-future exploits of a grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) across a machine-decimated California wasteland. Judgment Day—the fateful moment when the robots' all-powerful computer network, Skynet, launched the world's nuclear weapons against its human overloads—has already happened. All that remains of man is a handful of scattered leftovers, resistors and raiders and survivors and scroungers, for whom every day is a misery-filled post-apocalypse now.
The film follows the parallel stories of two protagonists, Connor and a mysterious stranger named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Connor is an officer with The Resistance, a sort of Luddite militia group loosely organized against the robot overlords. Marcus is a former death-row inmate who released his body to science. His identity ought to be one of the film's central mysteries, but since the trailers gave it away months ago, there isn't much to reveal. In a triumph of post-apocalyptic recycling, Marcus is a machine built with the vital organs—brains, flesh, heart—of the death-row inmate.
Can the fighters in The Resistance trust him? They hem and haw over the question of his inherent humanity, but their debates eventually give way to the world's most obvious metaphor: As part man and part machine, Marcus, it's decided in the end, is good because, literally, he has a heart. Neither Bale nor Worthington do much to make you care, though. There's little to the movie aside from goopy metaphors and gloomy technophobia. The only things that work are the spectacular robot designs and the sprawling vision of California as a bombed-out, irradiated husk.
Salvation takes both its audience and its technophobia for granted, but one need only look at the first two films in the franchise to get a sense of how societal fears of technology evolve: The killer robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first film became the protector and savior of the second. As technology becomes older and more familiar, it becomes safer and more accepted, and eventually serves as a bulwark against new threats. The tendency is to revere the past—forgetting that it, too, once seemed threatening.
Yet if the Terminator franchise is any indication, technology is hardly an impediment to human flourishing. If anything, the latest film unknowingly suggests the reverse is true. There's more art, more imagination, and more creativity—indeed, more signs of humanity—in the parade of computer-generated iron-and-steel killers that menace the protagonists than in the half-baked script or wooden cast. By and large, Terminator Salvation is an incoherent trifle, but if anything, it's the robots, not the humans, that make it come alive.
Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.