Throughout history, technology has shifted the way that people view the world for better and worse. Recent centuries have seen such rapid advancements that we have begun to draw fear from the uncertainty surrounding more questionable human creations; a fear that was highlighted when Mary Shelley’s timeless novel Frankenstein redefined and embellished the complexity surrounding monsters born of human ingenuity. One of the latest and most prominent technologically-motivated fears is the idea of artificial intelligence becoming smarter than humans and wiping us out. The Terminator series encapsulates this fear and, beginning in 1984, arguably helped popularize it. Now a modern classic, this series takes advantage of this plausible fear to bring forth entertaining movies involving killer robots, that, although action-packed and suspenseful, still make the audience think. These movies are actually heavily dependent on characterizing the machines as monstrous in order to keep the audience in suspense, and this is particularly true for the first two critically acclaimed films written and directed by James Cameron and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. For this reason (and the fact that the other movies suck), only the first two installments will be considered here. Overall, these films bring to life some damn cool monsters that helped establish our fear of cyborgs and computer overlords and provided fuel for the philosophical conversations surrounding artificial intelligence, giving us another narrative reminding us to be wary of what we create. Looking at these movies through the lens of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monster theory, their monster-oriented strategy for capturing viewers’ interest becomes apparent, and the monstrous embodiments of the evil A.I. Skynet become more intriguing as they are seen to bear striking similarities to the nature of humans in more than just the physical.
The backstory underlying the Terminator series is given in the first movie, The Terminator, and involves the creation of a U.S.-based strategic military defense system called Skynet that is designed to recognize and predict all threats and to respond accordingly. That system was at its core an artificial intelligence, meant to remove human decision-making from defense matters, and is at first successful, but rapidly becomes self-aware and increasingly intelligent. It determines that humans themselves are their own greatest threat as well as a threat to Skynet itself. As a result, Skynet obliterates humanity in a nuclear holocaust, effectively ending civilization in an apocalyptic future. It proceeds to automate the creation of machines designed to exterminate the rest of the humans. However, the surviving humans learn to fight back from a man named John Connor, who ends up leading them to victory over the machines. In a last resort plan, Skynet succeeds in developing a time machine through which it sends a terminator to prevent John Connor from being born by killing his mother Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton). John subsequently sends Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) back to save Sarah from the terminator.
The first scene in which the terminator appears begins with a flash and a lightning storm heralding its arrival from the future. The terminator, played by none other than Mr. Universe and king of movie one-liners Arnold Schwarzenegger, rises unclothed, immediately striking the viewer as it showcases his perfectly muscled body and daunting physical stature. However, even the governator in all his naked glory fails to inspire enough envy or desire to overshadow the sense of foreboding imposed by his cold, expressionless face. This unease is quickly confirmed when he brutally rips a young punk’s heart out after demanding the man’s clothes.
From the get-go, the terminator can be described using Cohen’s ideas from Thesis I where he states that “the monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence,” (4). Those first scenes perfectly exemplify every quality of “the monster’s body,” and his “uncanny independence” quickly becomes understood as freedom from the laws and morals that bind nearly all members of society. The terminator just kills anyone who opposes him or happens to be in his way as he presses on towards his objective with murderous intent. As Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor 42 minutes in, “It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with… it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear; and it absolutely won’t stop until you are dead!” The relentless terminator is both terrifying and dangerous due to the same reason that it can be characterized by ideas in Cohen’s third thesis: it is so deceivingly human that it blends right in until it reveals itself through action. Reese explains in the movie that “he’s not a man, but a machine… not a robot, a cyborg- a cybernetic organism. Underneath it’s a hyperalloy combat chastity, microprocessor controlled… but outside, it’s living human tissue, [the new model] looks human. Sweat, bad breath, everything.” Reese further admits that he couldn’t spot the terminator until it moved on Sarah. As Cohen asserts, “the monster refuses easy categorization… [it is a disturbing hybrid…] and so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions,” (6). The deceptive nature of the terminator illustrates this concept well, and in doing so makes him seem even more human from an analytical point of view. To elaborate, his ability to blend in makes him like real-life humans in that we cannot pick out the monsters until they do something awful. Mimicking voices to obtain information and fool humans, the terminator further impersonates the familiar to lure in its victims just as monsters in general have captivated audiences in their embodiment of our own familiar, collective social fears.
Like most monsters, the terminator doesn’t go away. The movie is structured around fast-paced chase scenes, the terminator pursuing Connor and Reese with no way to stop him. Through endless bullets, intense fire, explosions, and even being blown in half, the terminator persists, at the end dragging itself and grabbing at Sarah Connor with lifeless fingers as the bright red eyes of its metal skull look menacingly onward. Only by being thoroughly crushed in a hydraulic press does the monster finally die… or does it?
Enter Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the reason that Terminator is also subject to Cohen’s second thesis: “the monster always escapes” only for “its monstrous progeny return, ready to stalk again in a bigger-than-ever sequel,” (4-5). The 2nd film sees the monster come back in the form of a new terminator model, T1000, sent back in time just after the first terminator to assassinate John Connor as a boy. If anyone thought that the unstoppable killing machine played by Schwarzenegger was badass, T1000 completely redefines the idea of robot badassery. T1000, played by Robert Patrick, takes the form of a young white man with dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and a cold expression that he wears for nearly the whole film. Impersonating a police officer, this new terminator is nearly able to kill John before being thwarted by a reprogrammed governator in a clash of monsters. In this fight, it is shown that T1000 is made of an ultra-malleable regenerative metal alloy, a “liquid metal,” that makes him virtually indestructible. And despite his less intimidating appearance, his strength easily matches and arguably exceeds that of the Schwarzenator (now revealed to be a T800 model). If his strength and regenerative capabilities weren’t enough, T1000 shows itself being able to shapeshift, allowing it to copy someone’s appearance or morph into different shapes or objects such as the blade arm used to stab John Connor’s foster father through the face.
Told you he’s badass. With his ability to morph into anyone, T1000 “threatens to smash distinctions” even more than the T800. As Mark Dery points out, “[T-1000] speaks loudly of… androgyny and hermaphroditism. The robot is indeed polygendered: in its original slate it is unequivocally male…but it can assume any sex.” T1000 and the terminator played by Arnold both invoke ideas of attraction and jealousy expressed in Cohen’s sixth thesis claiming that “fear of the monster is really a kind of desire… the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from constraint… [we] distrust and loathe the monster at the same time we envy its freedom,” (16). Ask any sci-fi fan if they’ve ever wanted the physical strength, near-indestructibility, and freedom from morality enjoyed by the terminators. If they say no, they’re lying.
Due to the contrast with T1000, the terminator played by Schwarzegnegger is no longer threatening, a fact worth noting when considering that many monsters, familiar from their first appearance, become unthreatening when a second or third representation of the monster- like T1000- comes along. Once again, “the monster returns slightly different to be read against” new developments (Cohen, 5). Thing is, the two evil terminators seen thus far are simply extensions of a more intangible monster.
T1000 and the first movie’s T800 are merely physical manifestations of the will of Skynet; the true, Hitler-level monster consistent throughout all of the Terminator films that became self-aware, nuked 3 billion people, and then enslaved the rest as a source of labor and human tissues for terminators. These actions are worse than any mass-death events seen in the real world but reflect the same kind of monstrous phenomena thereof as highlighted in Monster Theory. Although thesis 4 focuses on how people make monsters out of other groups of people for reasons “cultural, political, racial, economic, [and] sexual,” parallels can be drawn between what Skynet does and what Cohen argues humans to do to each other on pages 7-8: “Representing an anterior [group] as monstrous justifies its displacement or extermination.” In this respect, Skynet’s first decision as an intelligent being couldn’t have actually been more human: after concluding that “it is in human’s nature to destroy themselves,” and therefore Skynet itself the A.I responds to its fear of a perceived monster with extermination (Terminator 2). The entity’s tragic realization about the nature of humans is ironically self-prophesizing because it was humans who created Skynet out of their fear of foreign threat, and yet it is the creation they designed for protection that destroys them. Here the Terminator series highlights the same principle underlying message in Frankenstein: that when humans blur the line between man and God by creating a conscious entity, they cross a line that should not be crossed and pay the price for it when their creation inflicts some horror back on them. This agrees with what Cohen states in his fifth thesis that “the monster polices the borders of the possible… [standing] as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes. [Monsters] together declare that curiosity is more often punished than rewarded,” (12). There is certainly apprehension about the creation of a true artificial intelligence that extends beyond just a sci-fi audience, though these films do a great job of channeling that fear through their monsters.
Overall, these action-packed movies are fun to watch and the terminators kick ass, which makes analyzing the monstrous machines therein much less of a chore than if the movies sucked. It is clear by the criteria set out in Cohen’s theories that Skynet and the terminators representing its will are indeed monsters. These figures embody both commonly held values like peak appearance and strength as well as distant fears like an A.I. takeover. Terminator and Terminator 2 have entertained and inspired sci-fi fans and general audiences alike for decades now, and the Terminator series at large will continue to do so as long as the movie studios keep milking the franchise. Having earned nearly $2 billion worldwide across five movies, rest assured that they show no signs of stopping.
Cameron, James; Hurd, Gale Anne. The Terminator. Directed by James Cameron, performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn, Orion Pictures, 1984.
Cameron, James; Wisher, William. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Directed by James Cameron, performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, and Robert Patrick, TriStar Pictures, 1992.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” From Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Dery, Mark. “Cyborging the Body Politic.” Mondo 2000: 6: 101-105. 1992.