The Primordial Soup: Terminator, Fate, and Tragedy

So this little movie is coming out in the United States this Wednesday.

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The Terminator franchise is one of my favorite movie series ever and the reason I like it so much is because of one of it’s most important central themes: fate and destiny.  For those of you who don’t know (30 year old spoilers) the Terminator movies are about an evil computer program called Skynet that manages to wipe out most of humanity in a nuclear apocalypse.

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Fortunately enough humans survive to form a resistance led by a charismatic leader named John Conner.

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The humans wind up destroying Skynet, but not before the computer sends back one of their agents in an attempt to kill John Conner’s mother before he’s even born.  In response the human resistance sends one of their own soldiers back in time, a man named Kyle Reese to protect and help Sarah

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So begins a game of cat and mouse that spans decades.  For every robot assassin Skynet sends back the humans manage to counter and kill it spawning the tagline for Terminator 2: “The battle for tomorrow begins”.

The brilliance of Terminator, Judgement Day, and Rise of the Machines (no I’m not including Salvation and the Sarah Conner Chronicles) is that amid the robots, explosions, car chases, and futuristic warfare, all three movies play out like one of the oldest forms of drama in history: the Greek tragedy.

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One of the most important themes of a Greek tragedy was the inevitability of a character’s fate.  According the Greeks your fate and destiny were controlled by three crones weaving the “threads of fate” that would determine your birth, life, and death.  They were unavoidable, unassailable, and inescapable.  Your fate was your fate and there was nothing you could do about it.

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Now, we can see this play out throughout the first three Terminator films as the series progresses.  At first, Sarah Conner is unwilling to accept her role in this as the mother of the resistance.

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At the end of the first movie she undergoes an moment of fatal realization, a moment the Greeks called anagorisis, where she realizes her fate is inevitable and proceeds to undergo a dramatic transformation into one of the most badass women in film for the second film.

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Likewise John Conner undergoes a similar moment of anagorisis in the third film.

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After meeting his good friend the T-850 after the second movie, John remains an unwilling hero who refuses to believe that Skynet will destroy humanity after the events of the second film by stating “We stopped Judgement Day” prompting the chilling response “Judgement Day is inevitable”

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It turns out that Conner’s fate is unavoidable and Judgement Day happens, and as the nukes start flying John accepts his fate, takes command of the last remnants of the human race, and magically transforms into Christian Bale.

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But here’s where it gets interesting.  If you want the best example of how the Terminator movies exemplify the inescapably of fate you have to look at the entire franchise from the point of view of the villain that started it all: Skynet.  From the computer’s viewpoint the entire story is a rehash of one of the most famous Greek tragedies of all time and one of those books that most of you were probably forced to slog through in high school: Oedipus Rex.

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Here’s a brief overview of the play.  Long ago in ancient Greece the king of Thebes named Laius receives a prophecy that his newborn son will kill him and take his throne.  Wishing to avoid this fate the king orders his wife Jocasta to kill the infant.  Jocasta doesn’t want to kill her son and orders a servant to do it, who then ignores his queen’s orders and leaves the infant out to die.  The baby is found, is adopted by another king and queen who name him Oedipus.  The boy eventually hears a prophecy stating that he will kill his father and sleep with his own mother and, in a move that defines every type of irony, decides to leave his adopted parents in an attempt to avoid his fate.  During his travels he meets Laius on the road to Thebes, an argument breaks out, and Oedipus kills Laius which fulfills the prophecy.  Traveling to Thebes he rescues the city from a creature called the Sphinx,

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In their joy the city makes Oedipus their king, which involves marrying their now widowed queen Jocasta, and Oedipus winds up having sex with his mom (eww).  Eventually Oedipus finds out and, not surprisingly, is rather upset which results in him gouging out his eyes and leaving the city ashamed.

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Now how does a play written thousands of years ago bear any similarity to a modern movie about a computer program that attempts to wipe out the human race?  They both wind up setting the very events into motion that lead to their downfall through the actions they take to prevent their downfall in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier in the article the humans send back Kyle Reese in the first film in an attempt to stop the Terminator from killing Sarah Conner before she can give birth to John.  However, it turns out that Sarah and Kyle fall in love, have sex, and Sarah becomes pregnant with John after the Terminator kills Kyle.

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It’s a very tender moment but remember, it’s only thanks to Skynet sending the Terminator back in time that the humans send Kyle back.  If Skynet hadn’t attempted to prevent its destruction it would have not created the very conditions that would have led to its destruction in the first place.  And right about now your brain probably feels like this.

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Now once you’ve wrapped your mind around this you can see exactly why Skynet and Oedipus are similar.  Both of them attempt to escape their fate by changing it.

While Skynet is the tragic antagonist of the story the second movie attempted to do the same thing to the protagonists.  After Sarah turns the first Terminator into pulp with help from an industrial machine press

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Sarah and John discover that the parts from the first Terminator were collected by a company called Cyberdyne Systems, the company that would create Skynet and bring about Judgement Day.

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While I think it would have been deliciously ironic for the very event that brought about Skynet’s downfall to bring about it’s creation as well the second movie destroys that notion by eliminating Cyberdyne’s research in a fury of bullets and explosions

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and turning any trace of Skynet and the evil machines into literal molten slag in a scene that made everyone who watched it burst into tears.

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However, fate decides that free will and choice is utter horse crap and Skynet, which was developed as a piece of military software designed to prevent another virus from infecting every computer in existence (because THAT always works), destroys humanity in a nuclear apocalypse anyway.  After all, “Judgement Day is inevitable”.

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So that’s the ultimate lesson of the entire Terminator franchise: your fate is inevitable and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it, just like the finest Greek tragedies Western literature has to offer.  However, don’t worry because while human kind is forced to bend to the will of fate it turns out that even evil soulless machines are as well, and any action that it takes to change the future will wind up either making things worse or become the cause of the events it originally set out to change.

Have fun watching Terminator: Genysis.

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