Study Guide

The Terminator Machines and Technology

Machines and Technology

If you ask people, a lot of them will say that technology has been pretty good to us. Smartphones ensure we have access to all information all the time. Airplanes get us around the world more quickly and more safely than ever. And can you imagine a world without indoor plumbing? Stop. Don't actually do it. It's…not a pretty sight.

But not everyone is stoked about our technological progress. Some people just do not trust machines. They suffer from an anxiety disorder called "technophobia," the "abnormal fear of or anxiety about the effects of advanced technology" (source).

For some, this fear is limited to unlikely potentials of the modern world—things, for example, like hackers getting the launch codes to nuclear weapons. For others, the fear is more acute, and the modern world is a horrifying landscape of innovations waiting for the chance to strike.

The Terminator drenches its mechanical and technological imagery in technophobia. From weapons to security cameras to seemingly insignificant home gadgets, the film worries that someday, we might lose control over our machines. Then again, maybe we already have?

The Dangers of Tomorrow, Today

History is important when considering the technophobia underlying The Terminator. The film was released in 1984, a time when the Cold War was still hot. In fact, President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. the Star Wars program, was initiated on March 23, 1983, around the time the film was originally set to begin, before production delays pushed it to 1984.

We don't need to go into the technical specs of the Star Wars program here. It's enough to say that the program aimed to protect America from a nuclear attack through the use of space lasers. Yes, you read that right. That's the word "space" followed by "lasers." And yes, a real-life president thought this would be a sure thing.

Sure, the Star Wars program didn't result in anything resembling a mini Death Star, nor did it build a functional laser, despite billions of dollars invested. But at the time, it represented the latest in a long line of technological innovations created to make people safe—and probably made them feel more in danger than ever).

Nuclear weapons, the most famous of these technological innovations, were built to keep Americans safe (try to wrap your head around that), but then the technology's very existence became a source of fear. First, the U.S.'s number-one enemy, the U.S.S.R., developed nuclear weapons itself. Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both of these events led to the fear that this technology would prove too powerful for any government to control, and it could have potentially devastating consequences.

Basically, the thought was that we had built a device so powerful that it could—and frankly still might—destroy all of humanity. And if we've already gone that far, what would happen if we ever got those "space laser" things working?

It's easy to see how the Cold War technological peeing contest influenced the film's representation of tech. In fact, when telling Sarah about his life in the future, Kyle Reese describes a scenario eerily possible in the Cold War world: "Defense network computers. New, powerful...hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat. Not just the ones on the other side. It decided our fate in a microsecond. Extermination."

Notice that the system the Terminator originates from was meant for "defense." It was a weapon designed to keep Americans safe from their supposed enemies, much like nuclear weapons and the Star Wars program were ostensibly meant to keep people "safe."

Yet in the film, we find out that the technology grew beyond the capabilities of government to control it. The Terminator is a perfect example: it's well beyond the control of authority figures. The police sure can't stop it. Once let loose, it simply does what it was programmed to do without hesitation or a second thought.

The future Hunter-Killers are another good example. They wander the wastelands of our post-apocalyptic future. These machines cannot be talked to or reasoned with; negotiations are impossible, because these machines have no capacity for it. They just kill any human they find without hesitation.

In this nightmarish future, these machines control humanity rather than the other way around.

Everyday Fear

But The Terminator doesn't limit its technophobic commentary to imagery of giant killer robots. Our simple, everyday machines play roles that also suggest something ominous hidden beneath their utility.

For example, consider Sarah and Ginger's answering machine. When Vukovich calls Sarah's apartment, he hears the following message: "Hi, there. [Laughing] Fooled you. You're talking to a machine. But don't be shy. It's okay. Machines need love, too, so talk to it—." It is cute enough if you're into those prank messages. And it's anything but threatening, right?

Well, later in the film, we see a dark reversal of this joke. When Sarah calls her mother, she ends up talking to the Terminator, which is mimicking her mother's voice. She's talking to a machine, but she's been fooled into believing it is a person. Once again, the machines have taken over, and the film shows the answering machine as the first step in this terrifying evolution of control.

Construction machines are another example. While sitting in his car at night, Kyle Reese watches these machines laying the foundation for a building. The light shines on him, and he has a flashback to a time he battled with a giant Hunter-Killer tank.

The hard cut between the construction vehicles of the present and the death machines of the future suggests a relationship between the two. The present machines may be building our cities and our societies, but we won't be able to control them forever. Eventually, they'll be beyond our control, and we'll be at their mercy as they destroy the very cities they built.

On that note, we're going to go binge-watch an entire season of Doomsday Preppers while suspiciously eyeing that microwave we've never quite gotten along with.

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