Tuesday, May 12, 2009

No fate but what we make up on the fly

I've noticed that there's a new movie in the Terminator franchise being released this month. It's called "Terminator: Salvation" and stars Christian Bale as the oh-so-important John Connor, leader of humanity's rebellion against the machines in the near future. This is the fourth movie in the series so far, though I stopped watching after two. This entry is about why.

Some background on Terminators and me: I liked the first two movies. They were fun action movies that also contained some interesting issues to consider, particularly the second film. Lots of ideas on what it means to be human, whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves, and the nature of fate and inevitability.

As with all franchises of movies, I'm sure there are some people who obsess over the details of the background story of the Terminator universe. There are several different models of Terminator which can and can not do certain things, and it seems tailor-made for hosts of people who like to argue about whether or not a T-1000 could form a crossbow out of its "mimetic poly-alloy" (I'm just enough of a nerd to recall that phrase on demand from memory!). I don't care what the little flying ships in the future are called, I don't think it's significant what age John Connor was during the events of "T-2", and I really don't care what Arnold ate for breakfast while filming.

Being a nerd, though, I have to angrily pontificate on the Internet about *something*. And I choose the concept of free will and destiny, as it relates to Terminatordom.

From the start, the series unfolds in a world with a mutable future. The evil robots send Arnold back in time to kill the mother of the person who's giving them so much trouble in the future. This action would, by the series' logic, prevent John Connor from ever having been born and allow them to chuckle evilly forever (or whatever it is robots do when the rest of life on Earth has been destroyed). Not only do the robots fail, they fail spectacularly: their actions directly lead to the conception of said hero. That seems to suggest that they should have NOT tried to fix it, but then where does the savior of Humanity, Jesus Christ... oops, I mean the OTHER J.C., come from? It's best not to get tangled in the threads of causality too far; that way madness lies.

In the course of the second movie, the angry machines in the future (not quite finished off in the first movie) try to kill John Connor directly. They send Robert Patrick back to do the job and, after much early-years CGI, fleshy goodness triumphs over metallic evil. And, victory is achieved in such a way that the robot-controlled future is averted. The message, iterated by one character, is that "there is no fate but what we make for ourselves". In other words, man has the steerage of his own sails. Despite all the future tourists, the decisions of people in the now decides the ultimate results: our destiny is not fixed and inevitable.

This is a nice life philosophy and reflects a sort of Capra-esque "what you, yes you, do IS important" view. T2 ends with the metaphor of life being an unknown road to the horizon. The fate we made has pointed us towards a different future; deciding not to be a slave to destiny made the difference.

Then comes T3, subtitled "The Rise of the Machines". It turns out all that other stuff is pointless: Judgment Day, in which most of the world is destroyed in nuclear war, happens anyway. The friendly terminator says as much, "Judgement Day is inevitable." Take that, free will! The founding principle of the first two movies, that sending people and terminators back in time may change the future, has been completely invalidated. Instead of "no fate but what we make", it's now "no fate except for the nihilistic one; you have no chance to survive make your time". The Terminator franchise has just be shifted irrevocably into a rigidly deterministic universe.

I'm totally hip to why the studios made more Terminator movies. They make good amounts of money and are reliable. The three movies have grossed approximately $400 million at the box office. I've even got to hand it to the writers of T3 for finding some way out of the robot-free corner that T2 backed them into.

But I don't have to watch or support what they've created. So I don't. Because I'm not interested in something that tosses aside its own logic for convenience. And that, in relation to a future that is now presented as fixed and beyond our control, I object to the philosophical worldview of the Terminator series.

That is certainly a sentence I'd never have expected to say with utter sincerity.

1 comment:

  1. I have to disagree. Saying somethings are inevitable doesn't automatically lead to saying everything is inevitable. Our universe is a perfect example of this, in that we have things that are non-deterministic and deterministic things.

    For example, we know that the sun eventually turning into a red giant (without some sort of massive outside unfluence) is inevitable. That has no bearing on the non-deterministic nature of the paths of electrons, however.

    What we see is that even though small, individual parts of a system may be non-deterministic, the system as a whole can have very deterministic outcomes.

    This possibly has applications in humans too. Individual humans may have complete free will (I'm not sure if this is true or not; we certainly have the illusion of free will at the very least), but the actions of all humans together may be leading to inevitable outcomes that may be predictable.

    This is the view I took with T3, and I think if you see at the very end, that's sort of what they're saying to. Conner had to make a decision: he could let the bomb go off and forget all his troubles, or he could embrace the future he knew about due to the time travel.

    If they wanted to portray a 'rigidly deterministic' universe, they could have written it to completely remove even the illusion of choice. For example, he could have 'decided' to let the bomb go off, only to have it be a dud.

    T3 is actually my favorite chapter in the terminator universe. I don't know if I'll even see the fourth movie, and I couldn't get into the TV show, despite the presence of always beautiful Summer Glau.