Study Guide for The Terminator

1. Citation

The Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. USA: Orion, 1984. Gale Anne Hurd, prod.

2. Brief Description

The film stresses the antipathy between humans and conscious machines, epitomized by the Terminators: nearly indestructible killer robots of great efficiency and fanatical perseverance. Cf. Fred Saberhagen's berserkers (killer machines trying to eliminate all life). Rev. Jack Kroll, Newsweek, 19 Nov. 1984: 132, who notes that Terminator is "currently the country's top-grossing movie." Discussed by Vivian Sobchack in ch. 4 of Screening Space (see Sobchack's Index for Chapter 4; allow yourself plenty of time if you try to read VS's ch. 4).

3. Major Cast

The Terminator : Arnold Schwarzenegger

Kyle Reese: Michael Biehn

Sarah Connor : Linda Hamilton

Lt. Traxler (head cop): Paul Winfield

Assistant to Lt. Traxler : Lance Henrickson

4. Setting

"Los Angeles 2028 A.D." and in 1984. Note well the mise en scene: all the physical things we see in the setting. LA of 2028 is a mess, but LA in the present is also pretty funky, and (also) the home of many machines. The texture of Terminator (the dirty, dark, but highly complex world we see) places this film with RoboCop, Alien(s), Blade Runner, and other films showing a dark and littered future, as opposed to a future that is (for good or ill) white, shiny, neat, and asceptic.

5. Comments and Questions

A. First shots in 1984 LA: The machinery stopping is an SF flik cliché, used here to signal the imminent "irruption" into our world of something alien and of great power, and probably of great danger. And then artificial lightning, a white flash, and der ARNOLD! arises from the mists, as a classic nude (The Discus Thrower) but with a truck in the background and very ominous music on the soundtrack. Then some graphic, classically macho violence and into the second sequence, when Michael Biehn's Sgt. Kyle Reese arrives a bit less spectacularly. Third sequence introduces Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor: our first picture of someone in daylight. Connor is a waitress, and a fairly wimpy one. Recall that later. It's a modern prejudice, but we tend to see the important people in stories as the ones that change. Sarah changes, and this is Sarah's story.

B. Most SF fans will know fairly shortly into the film that Kyle will sire Sarah's heroic son, and, generally, there's very little original about the film; its excellence is in how well it does what it does. And, possibly, in having a woman as hero. Allowing that people should be grateful for small favors and that The Terminator does women a favor in having a woman as hero--still, just how big a favor to women is Sarah Connor? In becoming SuperMom is she still playing a male game by men's rules? (Real Question.)

In the generation or so before TERMINATOR, a renewed theme was «Technology Out of Control!!!». The faith in Progress that not even World War I could really displace was shaken, diced, and pureed by World War II. The technological society seemed to be going more toward Karl Marx's vision in a Victorian factory of machines in control rather than humans' controlling machines. Alternatively, "The Mechanical Age" attacked before Marx by the conservative Thomas Carlyle seemed to be upon us; the dystopia of the Edwardian humanist E. M. Forster, "The Machine Stops," seemed to be near. The figure of speech of "the machine of society" was getting literalized and imaged; the "dark, Satanic mills" (as in "coffee mill"-grinder) irrupting in the "green and pleasant land" of William Blake's England could be re-visioned as factory-type mills taking over the Earth. 

I give some citations from Erlich and Dunn, Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography [i.e., List] of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF. 

Ellul, Jacques.  The Technological Society. ( La Technique ou l'enjeu du siècle, 1954). John Wilkinson, trans. New York: Knopf, 1964. Rev. American edn. New York: Knopf, 1967.  Also, New York: Vintage, 1967. 

Significant for its analysis of the replacement of "political man" by "the technician" (Preface vii in 1967 Knopf edn.). More significant for the analysis of contemporary industrial society which JE encapsulates in ch. 1: the machine is important because it "represents the ideal toward which technique strives. The machine is solely, exclusively, technique . . . . [W]herever a technical factor exists, it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine" (4)-and ours is a "technological society." JE's more recent works include The Political Illusion (New York: Random, 1967), and Le Système technicien (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1977). See V. Lauber, "Efficiency and After," below.

Mumford, Lewis. "The Mechanical Routine."  Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, 1934.  Rpt. Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society. Eric and Mary Josephson, eds. New York: Dell, 1962. 

An examination of the effects on people of increased mechanization and scheduling. LM examines the subjugation of humans to the time clock (regardless of individual needs), the phenomenon of time-saving devices as a source of stress, the de-skilling of the workforce where tasks are automated, the imposition of the necessity for collective action and not self-sufficiency. Lack of social evaluation of new technology yields stress and tension on humans, which LM finds very detrimental. 

---.  The Myth of the Machine. Vol.1, Technics and Human Development, 1966, 1967. Vol. 2, The Pentagon of Power , 1964, 1970. New York: Harcourt, 1970. 

With the application of mathematics and the physical sciences to technology, we have entered a new relationship to technics. "With this new 'megatechnics' the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man's role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations" (Vol. 1, ch. 1, 3). Cf. J. Ellul, cited this section.

---. "Utopia, The City and The Machine." In Utopias and Utopian Thought. Frank E. Manuel, ed.  Cambridge: Riverside & Houghton, 1966. (Augmented rpt. of article in Daedalus Spring 1965.) 

Traces the rise of the "utopian" city to the institution of the army: "the collective human machine, the platonic model for all later machines." The price of the urban utopia was "total submission to a central authority, forced labor, lifetime specialization, inflexible regimentation, one-way communication, and readiness for war" (15, 17).

Winner, Langdon.  Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of- Control as a Theme in Political Thought.  Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1977.

[Gary K.] Wolfe cites this work as an excellent survey of the subject identified in its subtitle (see Wolfe under Literary Criticism). Cf. J. Ellul and L. Mumford, works cited this section.

Marx, Karl. "Machinery and Large-Scale Industry." Ch. 15 of Book I (i.e., the first volume) of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (in Part Four). 1867. Frequently trans. and rpt., e.g. Ben Fowkes, trans. Ernest Mandel, introd. New York: Vintage-Random, 1976. 

See esp. section 3 of the chapter, "The Most Immediate Effects of Machine Production on the Worker," and section 4, "The Factory." Includes descriptions and analyses of working with machines in the UK in the middle of the 19th c. and a very important comment on two possible relationships between humans and machines in a factory: "In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject ..., and the mechanical automaton [i.e., the machine] as the object; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, co-ordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force. The first description is applicable to every possible employment of machinery on a large scale, the second is characteristic of its use by capital, and therefore of the modern factory system" (544-45; 2nd paragraph of 15.4). For application of KM's insight to industry in general, see E. S. Rabkin, "Irrational Expectations" (162-63), cited under Literary Criticism.

Carlyle, Thomas. "Signs of the Times."  Edinburgh Review #98 (1829). Coll. Thomas Carlyle: Critical and Miscellaneous Essays . 5 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1899. New York: AMS P, 1969. Centenary Edition of The Works of Thomas Carlyle. Vol. II (Vol. XXVII in the thirty-vol. Works). 

A very influential essay contrasting the "outward" vision of the world, translated into attempts to control nature and humans through " Mechanics," and the "inward" attempt of " Dynamics" to understand "the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man," which TC sees possessed of "a truly vital and infinite character" ( Works 66 and 68 f.). In "the Mechanical Age" of early 19th-c. Europe, people have "grown mechanical in head and in heart," with even philosophers organized into institutes that are "like so many ... hives" (59, 63, 62). Deals with the metaphor of "the Machine of Society" and compares "Mechanism" to "some glass bell" that "encircles and imprisons us" (66, 81, and passim). Discussed by L. Marx in ch. IV, sections 3 and 4, of Machine in the Garden (q.v. below).

Forster, E. M. "The Machine Stops."  Oxford and Cambridge Review 8 (Michaelmas term 1909): 83-122. Frequently rpt., including in Of Men and Machines, q.v. under Anthologies.  The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, IIB. Ben Bova, ed. New York: Avon, 1973.  Science Fiction: The Future. Dick Allen, ed. 1st and 2d edns. New York: Harcourt, 1971, 1983.  Man Unwept. Stephen V. Whaley and Stanley J. Cook, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.  Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. Patricia S. Warrick et al., eds. New York: Harper, 1988. 

The prototypical mechanical hive story. Brings together most of the relevant motifs developed by dystopian authors for the rest of the 20th c. See under Literary Criticism the CW essay by C. Elkins. Among early literary works, cf. M. F. Crow, The World Above, cited in this section.