Student Study Guide for Terminator II
This study guide was created by Marie Radanovich in 1996 as an ENG/FST 350 final project.
Many American films show values and images of American culture. For example, Independence Day shows the American value of patriotism. Terminator II also shows values and elements of American culture such as ethnicity, prejudice, family, machismo, bravery, and aggression. However, Terminator II not only reflects these American images, but questions and examines them and forces the viewer to reflect on the meaning and importance of these concepts in American life.
Ethnicity and prejudice are images shown throughout the film. One of the main characters of Terminator II is Miles Dyson, a Black physicist. On one hand, Dyson is a role model for African Americans, as he is wealthy, successful, and clearly intelligent. He contradicts common White racist stereotypes about Black men, which have them lazy and/or stupid. Dyson is a brilliant workaholic; in the director's cut, his wife almost has to physically pull him away from his work on the computer. Such an image is generally positive.
Yet Dyson is also shown in an extremely negative aspect. It is through Dyson's work at Cyberdyne that the Cyberdyne Systems computer is created and causes a nuclear holocaust. As Sarah Connor says, "it's people like you" who destroy the world, the line is best read to mean scientists like the ones on the Manhattan project, who created the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Like them, Dyson is responsible for the technology that destroys many lives. However, Sarah Connor seems unaware hat there were no Black scientists on the Manhattan project. This does not mean that Sarah is completely colorblind, or non-prejudiced. In her eyes, humanity is divided up into two groups of people: those who support technology and machines above all else, and those who support the survival of humanity above all else.
Images that symbolize World War II and Hitler's attempts at genocide are apparent in both The Terminator and Terminator II. Both films portray Cyberdyne's Skynet systems as a ruthless dictator whose goal is to destroy all life or at least all human life. In The Terminator, Kyle Reese tells Sarah that in the future Skynet puts humans in camps for extermination. All people in the camps are tattooed with bar-code numbers, and Kyle shows his to Sarah (and to us). This description of the future bears a striking similarity to the death camps of World War II, where the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of Jews and others sent to the camps for orderly extermination.
Another example of Skynet's dictatorship is shown in the directorís cut of Terminator II, when the T-800 tells John and Sarah Connor that he is only allowed to think independently when he is sent into the past on away missions. Sarah makes it clear that such a practice is an indication of a dictator who does not want his minions to ìthink too much.î If the terminators began to think independently, Skynet would lose its total control.
Another interesting parallel between Terminator II and World War II is the concept of destroying one's creators. Whether the product of opposing propagandists (as, e.g., saying Hitler's real name was the prosaic "Schicklgruber"—which it was not), or with some basis in fact, there was a belief that one of Hitlerís grandmothers was Jewish, making Hitler Jewish under the Nazis' racial purity laws. Yet, one of Hitler's goals as dictator was to make the German Empire Judenrei, eventually leading to the decision to exterminate all Jews. Similarly,, Cyberdyne's Skynet is the product of humans, yet later seeks to destroy the human species. If we accept Elie Wiesel's point that in a nuclear-armed world, "We all are Jews," there is a strong impression that the war against Skynet is the battle against Hitler taken to a higher technological level.
It is somewhat ironic that Dr. Silberman, a Jewish criminal psychologist ( Terminator) or psychiatrist ( Terminator II), who is one of main characters to hear Sarah's tale of the future, does not believe it. As such a future war against humanity is reminiscent of World War II's holocaust, Dr. Silberman should be someone who would be more aware of a second coming of a genocidal war. Perhaps the filmmakers chose to make the psychiatrist Jewish in order to make the statement that those who should be most aware of history repeating itself are instead blind to it. In other words, humans should be aware of when they are in danger of being destroyed or of destroying themselves, yet they are not aware of the warning signs around them. If we see Silberman collaborating with Cyberdyne, his actions are even worse.
The concept of family is another image given in Terminator II. The Connor family is not what one would consider a typical, traditional family. The Connors are largely a single-mother family, with a variety of father figures coming and going through Johnís childhood. It is clear that this is a mother-son family, which is shown by Johnís last name: Connor. He is not John Reese nor does he take on the last name of any of the other father figures that come and go in his early childhood.
When the T-800 joins the Connors, the single-mother family becomes a nuclear family, in two senses of the word: ìnuclearî with a mother, father, and child, but also ìnuclearî in the sense that this is where John will learn to survive the future nuclear holocaust. Sarah and the T-800, understandably, are not so concerned with raising John in traditional family values as they are with protecting John's life and teaching him to be a great leader and warrior.
The single-mother image, however, is a type of family to which many American viewers can relate. In a sense, it is the new American family. In an era where divorces are the norm and single parenting is common, Terminator II shows an image of the American family that is not traditional, but certainly understandable to many viewers. Also, throughout the film John is shown yearning for a reliable father figure whom he tries to find in the T-800. Such a yearning hits home with many viewers, who look for an ideal father figure and hero in their own lives. Note, for example, the sadness, disappointment and disillusionment of many people when O.J. Simpson was first arrested for murder, or when J. F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed. Just like John Connor, Americans continue to search for the ideal hero and father.
Another example of the image of family in Terminator II is Johnís perception of his mother. Early in the film John tells his friend that he once idealistically believed all his mother told him about the future. Then, when his mother is captured by the authorities, he goes through a period of disillusionment, thinking is mother is ìcrazyî and that he was a fool to believe her. Later, when John meets the T-800 he realizes that his mother was correct about the future, and that it was foolish of him to discredit what she told him. Johnís transformation of thought parallels the thought process many viewers go through as they develop from a child to an adult. In childhood many people idolize their parents and feel that their mother and father are flawless. Later, as adolescents, they realize that their parents do make mistakes, and decide that their parents are ignorant and ìcrazy.î Then, as adults, they begin to understand their parents further, and realize that their mother and father are wiser than they had once thought. Johnís feelings about his mother follow a ìcoming of ageî pattern of thought.
Another American value the film addresses is the concept of machismo and bravery. Many action films such as Under Siege and Speed assume that machismo and bravery are virtues to be highly valued. However, Terminator II, although an action film, questions the American ideal of a brave and macho man. For example, the bravest man in the film is the T-800...a robot. Yet he fits the image of the macho ìman.î He is a rough biker type, he faces danger unflinchingly, he is not afraid to be ìterminated,î and he never cries. In essence, the filmmakers are saying that the only way Americans can find the ideal macho man is to create a machine with no emotions.
The image of the T-800 shows that emotions must be sacrificed in order to create the ideal man. Not only does the T-800 never cry, it is something he ìwill never be able to do.î And, although the T-800 finally learns to not kill humans, the T-1000, another warrior, has no such value for human life. The sacrifice for making a perfect warrior-man is the loss of all humanity and compassion. According to the film, the definition of male bravery and machismo is not so much facing oneís fear as it is having no fear or human emotion at all.
Another brave character in Terminator II is Sarah Connor. Unlike many action films, the female character in Terminator II is not weak and helpless but strong and independent. Again, the filmmakers confront the idea of machismo and show that it is not just the province of men. In addition, Sarahís bravery is not emotionless, but is done out of love for her son, whom she wishes to protect. Her aggression is also not directed mercilessly toward other people, but against the technology that will destroy the human race. When she attempts to kill Dyson, the scientist responsible for that technology, she cannot commit the act. Afterwards, she tells John, ìI almost did it,î rather than ìI couldnít do it.î Her fear was that she might actually kill another human being, not that she would not have to courage to do so. Killing Dyson would not make her brave, but would instead destroy part of her compassion and humanity.
The morality of aggression itself is another concept questioned by the filmmakers. Throughout the film, John tries to teach the T-800 that it is wrong to kill humans. Yet, when the T-800 asks why it is wrong, John has no answer for him. "It just is," is his only reply. John's uncertainty as to the reasons behind the immorality of killing forces the viewer to answer the same question: "Why is it wrong to kill?" Quite possibly, many viewers would have answered with the same reply, "It just is." The audience is left with the realization that many Americans have a child's perception of aggression, knowing that it is wrong to kill but vague on the reasoning behind that moral stance.
Surprisingly, John is more secure in his morality than many of the other characters. John knows from the beginning that it is wrong to kill others for any reason, but both Sarah and the T-800 do not learn this until the last part of the film. Even Dyson learns from John, Sarah, and the T-800 to take responsibility for his actions and the destructive technology heís created.
Although John, Sarah, and the T-800 come to understand the immorality of killing, the rest of humanity portrayed in the film is not so enlightened. Of all the scientists at Cyberdyne, only Dyson becomes aware of the destructive tendencies of the technology heís creating. Everyone else is unaware or unconcerned with the vast nuclear arsenal at humanityís disposal, or that technology is being developed that will be able to use that arsenal. In addition, none of the LAPD are shown as distressed over being sent to Cyberdyne to kill Sarah, John, and the T-800, whom they believe to be a man. However, the filmmakers end on a somewhat positive note, with Sarah narrating, ìif a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of a human life, maybe we [humanity] can too.î Although it does not bode well that a machine learns the value of human life before people do, the film at least leaves hope that it is possible for humanity to abandon its killer tendencies.
Aggression, bravery, machismo, and prejudice are all elements of American culture, and Terminator II reflects those elements. However, Terminator II does not simply act as a mirror, reflecting the culture around us. The film also questions the merit of the images the viewer sees on the screen, and asks the audience to examine the virtue of standard American values and practices.