Saturday, May 30, 2009
Are We not Men? _Terminator Salvation_
*****SPOILER ALERT: The following comments take off from revelations made toward the end of the film that answer questions about character and narrative posed throughout. Readers not wishing to know these before viewing the film should not read further.*****
Near the end of Terminator Salvation, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthingon), the major new character introduced in the film to the franchise has his role explained to him (and us) by a computer. He is not only a cyborg, a revelation already made dramatically in the course of the narrative, but one whose purpose was to lure Connor to SkyNet where the resistance leader could be killed. This purpose is explained by a computer simulation of Dr. Serena Kogan, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who had fifteen years earlier persuaded Wright to donate his very human body for medical research. Wright’s enraged reaction includes tearing out the SkyNet control chip implanted in his neck and smashing the computer video display. He then comes to the aid of Connor, who is being assailed by the next generation, Schwarzenegger-faced Model 101 Terminator. After dispatching the machine and fleeing the headquarters, Wright offers his human heart to the mortally wounded Connor so that the resistance leader can fight on.
Wright is arguably the central character in Terminator Salvation. (Bale’s stilted acting as John Connor makes this an easier claim to defend, though that’s not my point.) The film begins with Wright on death row in 2003, signing over his soon-to-be-executed body for research to Dr. Kogan. His appearance in 2018, the post-apocalyptic moment of principal action in the film, is not immediately explained and his movement through the narrative parallels, while sometimes crossing, that of John Connor up to the scenes at SkyNet headquarters where the revelations about him and the final conflicts with Connor and the new Model 101 occur. The film’s poster shows only him and Christian Bale’s John Conner, the grown-up resistance fighter whom viewers have come to know over the three earlier films and the current TV series. Reportedly, Bale had even initially been approached by the director, McG, to play the Wright character before convincing the filmmaker that he should be Connor.
That Wright is a cyborg comes as only a minor surprise midway through watching the film. What interests me more, and is finally more telling, is the later revelation that his very purpose was programmed by SkyNet. This explanation is neat and plausible. It makes sense within the narrative and allows for the subsequent closure achieved through Wright’s rescue of Connor from the Terminator and his donating his heart for transplant. It also alludes to the other films – one that comes to mind is the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, where Bennett Marco, Denzel Washington’s character, who serves throughout the film as the viewer’s surrogate and seeming pursuer of villains, is himself revealed in the end to be the brainwashed assassin.
It is also assures that the film remains summer schlock rather than edgier sci-fi (or, to borrow the evocative name of a club is the first film, tech noir) fare.
Why? In the Terminator franchise universe, machines are bad and humans good (some stupid, some mean, most victims, but all, as a species, good in the face of SkyNet’s genocidal evil). After being revealed as a cyborg, the question remaining about Wright, whom we’ve been assured in the prologue was a human, is how did he become a cyborg and for what purpose. The first possibility, that SkyNet made him for the subterfuge, is laid out in the film. The second possibility, the one not taken, has Wright as a cyborg made by men for the purpose of aiding the resistance. This would be akin to the human reprogramming of the Model 101 Terminator sent back to help Sarah and John Conner against the T-1000 in the second film.
Such remaking of a human as part-machine by other humans would also be importantly different from the simple reprogramming of a machine. It would complicate the clear boundaries maintained in the franchise between men and machines. Summer Glau’s female Terminator in the TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, treads on similar ground, occasionally expressing curiosity for human emotion and feeling, particularly for the teenage John Connor. The Model 101 Terminator in the initial sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, also evinces some arguably human traits despite at the end of that film explaining that he can never cry. If the boundary was pushed in the 1991 production, it may be the larger-than-life Schwarzeneggerian exception that proves the franchise rule. On today's film screen, especially, no such blurring occurs.
Even more importantly, the mechanizing of humans by humans avoids any suggestion that men are striving to become more machine-like in ways that parallel how machines, in the continuing evolution of Terminator models, seek to become more like men (at least in appearance). Terminator Salvation therefore avoids any hint of convergence of man and machine, at least from the human side. As a result, the film sidesteps the knottier and ultimately more provocative questions posed by ore thoughtful science fiction, preferring to fill the current production with pyrotechnics of future war.
Blade Runner, particularly in the variations offered through its multiple versions, is the consummate example of a film that plumbs the depths of what convergence of man and machine might mean. It is also probably an unfair basis for comparison. Yet other productions demonstrate how multi-dimensional characters can complicate otherwise clearcut oppositions between man and machine. Consider the first Matrix film (1999), setting aside the sophistication of the guiding conceit of the matrix itself, Cypher, the character played by Joe Pantoliano, who betrays his fellow rebels in hopes of returning to the painless ignorance of simulated reality. Again, this is perhaps another unfair comparison.
My point nevertheless is that reworking even relatively minor elements could interject layers to character and narrative. For a summer action film from an extraordinarily profitable franchise, that may well be a non-issue. But with two more Terminator films in a projected new trilogy set after Judgment Day, that kind of richness could only be for the good.