The Terminator is an action-movie that made Arnold Schwarzeneggar a star, and introduced a few catch phrases like “I’ll be back.” The movie also presents some serious themes about technology and the future of humanity. The story focuses on the efforts of a cyborg from the future to terminate the mother of a resistance leader in the Terminator’s time before he can be born. Machines fill the screen throughout the movie, and the director often presents loving close-ups on “mundane” technologies of the time. Of course, computer technology is of most concern in the story because an epic battle of computers vs. humanity is the force that brings the Terminator to the Los Angeles of 1984.
Three significant discourses on technology are present throughout the movie: technology as weapons, a dystopian view on technology in the future, and concerns about the objectification of humans as less efficient computers.
Although there might be an underlying message about gun control (the Terminator and Reese have little trouble obtaining serious weapons during the film), the director seems more interested in portraying all technology as a potential danger to humans. During some early scenes in a junkyard, a close-up on a construction crane makes the device seem like a threatening force as its teeth tear deeply into the earth.
Telephones become a deadly tool as the Terminator uses them to track down Sarah Connor. Cars are an interchangeable means of pursuit to destroy humanity to the Terminator. Paul Goodman’s concern about technology being humane is everywhere in the movie. Goodman saw that too much thoughtless development of technology would lead to human woe, and in The Terminator, that is just what has occurred.
Bill Joy discusses in his article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” dystopian fears of a future where human beings cannot compete with superior robots and computer intelligence. The Terminator predates this article by about fifteen years. The future, seen only in Reese’s ‘memories,’ is clearly a dystopia. Computers decided to get rid of humanity, and set off a nuclear bomb. When some of the pesky humans refused to die, the computers found other ways to pick them off, one by one. The Terminators were one way of doing this, as they could remain incognito until the damage was done. In this future, human destiny has been taken over by human-created technology.
Another theme in The Terminator is the objectification of human beings as machines themselves, inferior and inefficient machines. Weizenbaum, a computer scientist who studied A.I., was concerned with this issue also. He warns of confusing questions of who we are with function. But the Terminator is noticeably superior not in logic, but in brute strength. He is stronger, faster, and nearly invulnerable. In fact, Reese often outsmarts the Terminator. The movie is more concerned with the physical, tangible threat of machines to humans.
The Terminator is an action film that explores serious questions. It warns us of a dystopian future if we cannot make technology humane. We must strive to understand the technologies we create and their impact on humanity, or, like the well intentioned, but ineffectual L.A.P.D. of the film, we will become embroiled in a war that we hardly understand.