Technology

Rage Against the Machine

Man versus robot in Terminator Salvation

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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.

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  1. Suderman’s just shilling for Big Android!

  2. “I do not have a brain tumor” (in thick Austrian accent)

  3. Uh oh… Sci-fi fantasy thread.

    I’m guessing 150 posts.

  4. Salvation takes both its audience and its technophobia for granted, …

    Wait just a cotton pickin’ a minute, Peter.

    I’m hardly a technophobe or luddite and I liked the first two installments of the franchise.

    It’s science fiction, for Chrissakes. Don’t read antmore than that into it. Godzilla and Them fans weren’t really expecting radioactive mutant monsters. Hell, they probably supported the US nuclear buildup as much as anybody.

    Sometimes (most of the time?) reviewers try to read way too much into why some fiction* is popular.

    * As retarded as the average American is, they do recognize what the word means.

  5. I plunked down $10.50 to see it last night, and while it wasn’t completely horrible, it wasn’t worth it either.

    The movie has almost none of the James Cameron touch that made the first couple so great, though it tries to. The franchise has definitely run its course.

  6. I’m going to see it tonight or this weekend. I am interested in how much it ties in with The Sarah Connor Chronicles, considering both were made by the same production company.

  7. Of course I’m going to see this film, but it really irks me that 2-4 have to have a robot as a good guy. The whole thing in the first, and best, Terminator was man vs. machine. To make some of the machines on our side is just bullshit and obviously done because Arnold had become a big star by the time they did the second film.

  8. Hit & Run baby, hit and run! ROTFL!

    Rev
    http://www.whos-watching.se.tc

  9. In the future, the world will be ruled by machines, and I will send one back to fucking terminate the Anonymity Guy. He won’t be able to reason with it, he won’t be able to bargain with it, and it will not stop–EVER–until he is fucking roadkill.

  10. Epi
    I hope this robot will be programmed to rape him before he kills him, or better yet kills him by raping him.

  11. “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”

    Was that any good? I couldn’t get past the little cute girl terminator plot device I saw on the commercials, but friends have said good things about it…

  12. TSCC was a good show, if you watch it as a drama instead of sci-fi action. It had its flaws but was interesting and unique.

    Definitely agree with J sub D here. I never got the impression this movie was supposed to have any deep themes to it (and that’s why the first movie is awesome and 2 and 3 suck), just scowling dramatic Christian Bale and his army blowing up some cool-looking robots. As long as it’s not Michael Bay stupidity I’m on board.

  13. I hope this robot will be programmed to rape him before he kills him, or better yet kills him by raping him.

    “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you, too. Or rape you, then kill you. Or kill you, then rape you.”

    Was that any good? I couldn’t get past the little cute girl terminator plot device I saw on the commercials, but friends have said good things about it…

    Yes, and getting better all the time…and Fox just canceled it after two seasons. Thanks, Fox!

  14. I haven’t seen the movie but will buy the DVD when it comes out.

    That said, it’s not Science Fiction anymore. Machines are killing people. Unmanned aircraft like the Predator and Raptor do it now and land based attack robots are on the way. At the moment humans make the firing decisions but I understand there is a push to take humans “out of the loop” when it comes time to make a decision to fire.

  15. I couldn’t get past the little cute girl terminator plot device

    Say your running Terminator central. Terminators are infiltrators, right? You can either make one look like a hulking Austrian psychopath, or a yummy young babe.

    Which one is more likely to succeed?

  16. I guess that is a good point RC, but I’m betting the decision to cast that lady was driven by different motives. Well, maybe not that different actually…

  17. The transhumanist H+ motherfuckers have overrun Reason. Prejudice against robots? Seriously?

  18. As long as it’s not Michael Bay stupidity I’m on board.

    Nearly as bad. It’s McG stupidity. Yes, T4 was written and directed by a guy named McG.

    You might recognize his name from other movies that explored deep philosophical themes, like Charlie’s Angels 1 & 2.

    The only good that I see coming from this movie is the giant royalties check that James Cameron received for the use of his ideas. At least that money might go to make something worth watching.

    And I can’t freaking wait for Avatar even if it is going to be some big pro-green “noble savage” kind of thing.

  19. mediageek, 90% of McG’s ouvre makes one want to call him “Michael Bay, Jr.”, but he is executive producer for Supernatural and Chuck, which redeems him slightly. Michael Bay is just pure, concentrated evil.

    “Michael Bay gets to keep making movies and Cartman gets his own theme park; there is no God.”

  20. This is a movie directed by someone who actually calls himself “McG.” He who directed the two “Charlie’s Angels” movies. Stop being surprised at it sucking long and sucking hard.

  21. “The killer robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first film became the protector and savior of the second.”

    No, they were two different robots, actually cyborgs. They were the same type, T-800’s, but not the exact same one. I’ve read so many reviews where the reviewers don’t seem to have even the most cursory knowledge of the canon it’s amazing.

  22. Despite naming himself after a McDonalds sandwich I’ll give him a chance for this reason: I would EXPECT Charlie’s Angels movies to be kind of dumb – that’s part of the point. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he is professional enough to realize this project requires a different tone.

    Michael Bay stupidity applied to a live-action cartoon about transforming robots from outer space is okay. Applied to fucking World War II, not okay.

  23. Epi-

    I’ve not seen Chuck or Supernatural. However, I did once read an interview with McG where he was whining about how no one respected him, and he just didn’t understand why, because, after all, he likes Citizen Kane! And, you know, Spielberg and everyone else like Citizen Kane! So, you know, that makes them equals!

    Since reading that interview, I’ve decided not to watch anything he’s made.

    Also, Michael Bay is t3h suck. The best thing about Michael Bay is that he’s been such a rich vein of comedy for the South Park guys to mine.

  24. Stop looking for deep meaning – hell, or even shallow meaning – in movies about explosions.

  25. What makes anybody think that the cyborgs won’t be running on Windows 63.2 in the future?
    French Independent production of Terminator
    Robot comes at you, blasting
    Robot “crashes”
    ennui, interminable ennui
    Finally, sick of life, the human hits the “restart” button on the Robot.
    30 minutes later, while the robot is still rebooting, the human confronts the existential question: Which is worse, waiting for windows to boot, or death?
    The human kills himself.
    The robot stands…unmoving…waiting for someone to hit any key so the download can begin.
    FIN

  26. That said, it’s not Science Fiction anymore. Machines are killing people. Unmanned aircraft like the Predator and Raptor do it now and land based attack robots are on the way. At the moment humans make the firing decisions but I understand there is a push to take humans “out of the loop” when it comes time to make a decision to fire.

    Hate to burst your bubble, Aegis Weapons Systems have been able to do the entire detect, track, ID, engage and kill assessment sequence autmatically for about 20 years now.

  27. Our robotic overlords will hail Michael Bay as their patron diety of death and explosions.

    Will,

    Don’t expect any mercy during the Great Robot Wars, dude.

  28. Way back when, Arnold still had some personal integrity and a sense of humor. He turned down the role of Reese to play the Terminator. During filming, he went to restaurant in full make-up (with the face half scraped away to reveal the robot) just to spook the other patrons.

  29. Stop looking for deep meaning – hell, or even shallow meaning – in movies about explosions.

    Ok, then. How about decent storytelling then?

    Both Terminator 1 and 2 are examples of extremely well-done storytelling. But then, James Cameron always has done a fantastic job of weaving a compelling yarn that also has explosions and great set-pieces.

    Terminator 1 would never have worked as a lo-fi sci-fi flick if not for the story being fleshed out so well. T2 just built on that myth even further.

    Then T3 just basically made a paltry attempt to reboot the theme of the series “No fate but what you make” to “Your fucked by the future and have no choice.”

  30. *sigh* Your -> You’re

  31. Hate to burst your bubble, “Aegis Weapons Systems have been able to do the entire detect, track, ID, engage and kill assessment sequence autmatically for about 20 years now.”
    True. Aegis has been able to attack “attacking” planes and missiles for some time. The command to fire still comes from a human. But now robot aircraft are flying over Afghanistan/Iraq/America can pick off people on the ground. The command to fire comes from Oregon (I think) but for how long? The cops are using the technology now as well.

  32. I should also have said that there have been automated Defense systems that shoot without orders (Phalanx) for some time. The Predator and such are new and much more attack oriented.

  33. Meh. I paid money to see the third one, and won’t get fooled again. But this thread does raise what I would have thought someone would consider an important question before now:

    Why does Fox hate Summer Glau?

  34. A more important question: why does everyone rave about Summer Glau when she’s on a show with Lena Headey?

  35. Second Old Bull Lee.

  36. why does everyone rave about Summer Glau when she’s on a show with Lena Headey?

    Why can’t I have both . . . .

  37. However, I did once read an interview with McG where he was whining about how no one respected him, and he just didn’t understand why, because, after all, he likes Citizen Kane! And, you know, Spielberg and everyone else like Citizen Kane! So, you know, that makes them equals!

    I’m not hating on Citizen Kane, but it is overrated. Even Orson Wells probably would agree that The Third Man is a better movie.

  38. Can’t be wondering too hard why all the types in Hollywood who thought Algebra I was really, really hard, unfair to have to learn that icky stuff, promote a fear of technology. Because, you know, machines are invented by all those God-damned four-eyed pocket-protector types who couldn’t understand why a Cool Person (such as your future film star) had a hard time solving for x in x + 4 = 4.

  39. The reason technology can be scary is because human beings make it, and sometimes human beings don’t know what they’re doing. And sometimes they do, which at times can be even scarier.

  40. The new movie’s muddled metaphors have more to do with the war on terror than the fear of technology.

    Also, I enjoyed the first Charlie’s Angels movie. It had a sense of humor, something Michael Bay has never evinced in any of his feature films, though it did shine through in one or two of his commercials.

  41. Terminators no longer terminate. Instead of just crushing the heads or impaling the hearts of their human targets thereby ensuring the defeat of the Resistance, they spend 99% of the time throwing them around the room over and over and over again. At least until they’re covered in molten metal/crushed/shot in the head.

    Boo. T:S gets 4/10.

  42. I saw it, and thought it was not bad at all. It tied in well with the previous Terminator movies. Maybe my expectations for Hollywood have gotten so low that it’s easy to be entertained, but overall I would give it a thumbs up.

  43. The new movie’s muddled metaphors have more to do with the war on terror than the fear of technology.

    I didn’t pick up on this at all; if anything it seemed deliberately and refreshingly free of the ‘post 9-11’ mindset (either as an apology or a critique). The villains were a straight malevolent force like Nazis or (Independence Day) aliens.

    That said, the movie was about an inch deep thematically and like Suderman’s review said, gave away the central mystery in the trailers (although T2 did largely the same thing in its promotions – I think everyone knew Arnold was going to be the good guy going in, but the movie was crafted so that it could have been uncertain until the mall hallway scene)

    Credit to the special effects people though – they went old school with a lot of real explosions and, except one scene, credible and well integrated CGI.

  44. fresno dan | May 22, 2009, 12:43pm | #

    Thanks. I laughed good and hard at this one.

  45. I didn’t pick up on this at all; if anything it seemed deliberately and refreshingly free of the ‘post 9-11’ mindset (either as an apology or a critique).

    Between the treatment of the captive cyborg and all the chatter about whether a bombing raid that kills civilians makes us just like the enemy ourselves (what was the line? something like “If we do this, we’re no different from the machines”?), I’d say it was stuffed full of it.

  46. The cynical take would be that Conner was clothing naked self interest in the vestments of high minded idealism, (he said his speech *after* he found out Reese was there correct?) but like I said the movie was about an inch deep, so you’re probably right.

  47. “Over the decades, the Frankenstein myth-the idea that man’s creations will unexpectedly grow immensely powerful and turn against their makers…”

    Yeah, like the government of the United States of America. That’s no myth.

  48. I don’t get why more people aren’t technophobic to robots. Historically, the evolution of a new a arguably superior species usually tends to destroy the less fit. I mean, look what humans are doing to the planet right now: replacing the original flora and fauna with human structures and acceptable human enslaved species. Species that try to compete are usually destroyed. I don’t expect the human race as we know it to exist in a couple hundred years. It’s gonna be replaced. BY ROBOOTTS. And terminator salvation was retarded.

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