Terminator Genisys: Fate escape by re-engineering epicycles
By Bill Stamets
This originally ran on billstamets.com
directed by Alan Taylor
written by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier
acted by Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Smith, and Byung-hun Lee presented by Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions
A sci-fi franchise with time travel is an ideal nexus for characters to talk about fate and free will. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier oblige in “Terminator Genisys.” The escapist action delivered by director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) is not quite a colloquy on paradoxes, though. Sorry, undergrads taking Philosophy 101 in summer school. Look elsewhere for a paper theme.
“God, a person could go crazy thinking about this,” gripes Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in “The Terminator” directed by James Cameron and co-scripted with Gale Anne Hurd in 1984. In her 2015 incarnation, Sarah (Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones”) will wrap her head around “alternate timelines” and her arms around Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney from “Divergent” and “Insurgent”).
This five-film franchise predictably sends men and machines into the past to change the future, and others to thwart changes. Plot permutations are limited to terminating or safeguarding Sarah or Skynet, a vast computer network. Once it’s “self-aware,” Skynet is destined to exterminate humanity. Sarah’s destiny is birthing the leader of the resistance against Skynet-operated machines, which include humanoids called Terminators.
Each intervention in time alters details in the backstory. Judgment Day, the secular apocalypse Skynet launches using U.S. and U.S.S.R. missiles, gets “postponed” at least once. Portents and intellectual property travel back from 2029, among other years. Storylines are set in 1984, 1991, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2017 and 2018.
Characters can know of things to come. One way is to find their younger selves and pass along things to remember. Sarah is repeatedly instructed by her future son and his future father: “You must be stronger than you imagine you can be.” Variants of “You can do this… straight line… don’t look back” are told, heard and recalled in “Terminator Genisys.”
John Connor (Jason Clarke, who played another leader of California underdogs in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) can sound like a prophet to his followers. Engineers working on the Skynet prototype accelerate their delivery schedule, thanks to leaks of future technology. They have no idea what’s to come, though, after their system goes online and auto-upgrades at a “geometric rate” to sentience, if not sapience.
“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. Decided our fate in a microsecond. Extermination,” tersely recaps the Kyle (Michael Biehn) of the 1984 film.
In James Cameron’s Terminator mythology, Skynet was originally conceived as super-software for automating U.S. defense against U.S.S.R. aggression in the Cold War. Before then, Skynet was the real name of two spin-stabilized military communication satellites built by Ford Aerospace in Palo Alto. NASA and U.S. Air Force launched them from Cape Canaveral in 1969 and 1970 for the United Kingdom Defense Communications Network.
Kalogridis and Lussier embroider Skynet mythology by adding a San Francisco campus whose CEO rallies employees at a press opportunity: “Cyberdyne will revolutionize technology with the ultimate killer app, Genisys. I’m here to tell you our pre-orders as of this afternoon have reached one billion users.” Looming is a “new age, where every single piece of technology will be seamlessly linked.” The utopian product is branded LinkLife. Genisys’s avatar is a 3D-simulated 10-year-old (Ian Etheridge) who greets users: “I cannot wait to meet all of you tomorrow. We will change the future together.”
Kyle gets an alert about this Trojan Horse: “I was given a message. You can kill Skynet before it is born. Skynet is Genisys.” His older self tells this to his younger self so Kyle will act tactically in the film’s present, prior to Skynet going online globally.
“The boy is the alternate timeline version of you– Kyle Reese is remembering his own past, which is our future,” explains the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Resistance hackers repurposed this unit and sent it back in time to raise and protect Sarah.
Pops– as Sarah calls her illegal guardian since age nine when a Skynet-sent Terminator killed her parents– may grasp the ins and outs of time travel better than the film’s screenwriters: “Alternate timelines are not complicated. It is merely a matter of tracking possible futures using an exponential growth and decay algorithm.”
A script glitch in “Terminator Genisys” is calling Skynet’s gizmo “the first tactical time displacement weapon.” Yet it functions just like all the other time displacers that tactically dispatch human-terminating humanoids to make pre-emptive hits. No plot in the Terminator franchise would work otherwise. Each successive Terminator model is more devious and deceptive than the last. The resistance is always at a disadvantage, hijacking older models for its own missions. It’s his lack of “mimetic poly-alloys” that proves a Terminator ally is no impersonator or infiltrator.
I count three time travelers from 2029 in “Terminator Genisys.” What’s novel is that after reaching one point in the past, Kyle will take Sarah to a later point in time. How? Using a gizmo built long before its time. And how could it be there, or rather then? Thanks to high-tech know-how from the future– conveyed on prior trips.
Forget the engineering. What about the experiences? “I’m remembering a life I never lived, but I know it’s real,” relates Kyle. “In a past I shouldn’t remember but I do.”
“It is possible if he were exposed to a nexus point in the time flow,” theorizes the Terminator, who takes care to define his quantum field terms. “A nexus point is an event in time of such importance that it gives rise to a vastly different future.” Neither Kyle not Sarah raise their hand for a follow-up: Is there a deity or IT overseer who discerns “importance” and resets timelines accordingly? And who is our Judge on Judgement Day?
Since the first sequel, each Terminator film recycles catchphrases and debuts new ones. Acknowledging Schwarzenegger’s own age, “Terminator Genisys” has his character self-assess as “old not obsolete.” Another prospect for a signature expression that he repeats for comic effect is ”theoretically.” It fits the endless calculations made by his Terminator character.
Theoretically, the second Terminator film “re-enacts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt,” suggests a self-labeled “independent futurist.” An Australian theologian spots “a Christological slippage between Schwarzenegger and John Connor” as “world saviors.” A prof who penned “Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush” claims: “`Terminator 2’ cloaks its sadomasochistic fascist fantasies in the guise of the violent, melodramatic family film.”
“Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am”– a book playfully lifting a classic line from the franchise– contains the essay “Judgment Day Is Inevitable: Hegel and the Futility of Trying to Change History.” Jason P. Blahuta looks at Sarah and John as “world historical individuals” and notes: “Fortunately, the Connors never read Hegel, and so they attempt to change history… Unfortunately for John, the machines seem to be Hegelians.”
Hegel outlines an inevitability for freedom, without intercessory time travel. For characters in “Terminator Genisys” to realize their own freedom, Kalogridis and Lussier resort to “alternate timelines.” It’s a move in the tradition of early astronomers who affixed epicycles to sync heavenly bodies in transit.
Can a Hegelian dialectic reconcile the world historical outcomes dictated by Terminator mythology, and characters with free will and faith they can change the future? Kalogridis and Lussier can only delegate this dilemma to Sarah, John and Kyle. Adept in weaponry, they’re out of their league in quantum mechanics and the philosophy of history.
“The future is not set, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” is a line repeated throughout the franchise. The third film ends with an uncertain John Connor accepting: “Maybe the future has been written. I don’t know.” (The fourth film was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris.) John begins the fifth by urging his anti-machine insurgents to create a legacy for unborn generations: “we sacrificed everything so that they could live in freedom.” In the press notes for “Terminator Genisys” Emilia Clarke offers her reading of her director: “I think one of his goals with this movie is to ask what it is to be truly free as a human being, and the choices these characters have to make in deciding that.” At one plot impasse, the Terminator tells her: “I do not see a choice.” Answering for all Sarah’s that came before, if not for every scripted character, she says: “The story of my life.”
Despite this Sarah’s resolute declaration to a civilian– “We’re here to stop the end to the world”– it’s clear the longevity of her franchise hinges on perpetual failure to preempt Judgment Day. Letting the machines exterminate humanity would likewise terminate the storyline, of course. The recursive Terminator plot is Sisyphean.
Yet in the latest iteration, Kyle tells Sarah in the last reel: “You need to understand that Skynet’s gone. You’re free. For the first time you can choose the life you want. Any life you want.”
Well, not quite. Clarke is reportedly in line to reprise Sarah in two further Terminator films.
Kyle’s closing voiceover almost sounds like a benediction: “It was over. Skynet was gone.” Transcending screenplays, Kyle and Sarah can lay down their weapons and set forth on a philosophical quest. “Though questions remain. We’ll search for answers together. But one thing we know for sure. The future is not set.”
“Terminator Genisys” negates a key detail in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” where The Terminator intones in his Austrian accent: “Judgment Day is inevitable.” World historic individuals cannot `reset the future,’ contrary to the 2015 tagline? The Terminator adds a pessimistic prognosis: “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
In “Hegel and the Impossibility of the Future in Science Fiction Cinema” (PDF) Todd McGowan writes: “Science fiction directs us toward a better future, even if negatively, through the depiction of a nightmarish one.” He sees “No Fate”– “the mantra that Sarah Connor scrawls with her knife in `Terminator 2: Judgment Day’”– as “emblematic for the genre as a whole. The very depiction of a possible future in the science fiction film calls us to act in order to prevent or realize it.”
Sarah, John and Kyle are free to fight their fate. Time travel and sequels can keep replaying paradoxes until a time when the first Terminator is never fabricated, or the last one is terminated.