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Just Enough Knowledge: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines an Awful Movie, Yet Perfect Ending   Leave a comment

Hello and Happy New Year my Dear Readers!  Now that I have woken up from my New Year’s Eve hangover (which I liked better than The Hangover II, but not as much as The Hangover I) I’m ready to kick off 2013! And to get things rolling I have a guest blog from my good friend SPAM.  Who’s name always confuses my spam filter when he comments.  But I think I fixed that…

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I think everyone took a class or two in college that gave them just enough knowledge to sound like they know far more about something than they actually do. With that in mind, I am happy to announce this guest-blogging segment for Atomic Sam, Just Enough Knowledge. I will be using my very wide, if shallow pool of knowledge in academia, politics, science, religion, the classics, and other highbrow fields, and applying it to pop culture.

I’ve always had some interest in philosophical undertones in fiction, especially in Sci-Fi. Taking Western Philosophy gave me just enough knowledge and the vocabulary necessary to explain what I like and why (or more accurately, what I hate and why). There are some interesting philosophical ideas in James Cameron‘s The Terminator: time travel, ontological paradoxes, free will, and destiny; all in a story about a giant robot assassin who travels thru time to perform an abortion. And the sequel upped the stakes while delving deeper into the themes of fate/free-will duality, what it means to be sentient, and mankind being responsible for its own destruction. On a seemingly unrelated note, you know who I can’t stand? James Cameron. Don’t get me wrong, I like a few of his movies ok, and his special effects are always good, but I think he’s way overrated.

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Exhibit A…

All Cameron’s movies (that I’ve seen) seem to have a conflict between pure good and pure evil, at their cores. In his Terminator movies, it’s given a theodical slant. For those who didn’t take an intro philosophy course, theodicy is the attempt to justify the existence of evil in a world with a kind and loving God. There are really two basic stances when it comes to the “problem of evil”: metaphysical Libertarianism; the belief in absolute free will, and Determinism (or Predeterminism, or Fatalism); that the future is set in stone.

Anyway, Cameron played on this fate/free-will scenario by making Skynet into a vengeful God cleansing the earth, but instead of a flood or plagues, it sends an army of giant, indestructible, metal skeletons carrying machine guns. He also states, as Sarah Connor put it, “The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It is a message of hope, the will to live despite overwhelming odds.

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And it is totally fucking stupid given the world of the movie. The movie’s universe is a Deterministic one, the fact that Kyle Reese has to go back in time to father John Connor proves that there is some level of fate. But its message is a (metaphysically, not politically) Libertarian one; “No Fate.” To me, it seems like Cameron’s two Terminator films have a very obvious, some would say heavy-handed, philosophical undertone of Compatibilism, also called Soft Determinism, which states that free will and fate are compatible. This is a very common belief among western religions and in my opinion makes no sense whatsoever. Compatibilism makes the following arguments: God has an unalterable divine plan (which is mentioned every time someone dies young or bad things happen to good people), and being omnipotent, knows everything you ever did or ever will do. But you have free will. Therefore if you sin you go to hell to be punished… even though your sinning was part of God’s divine plan… which is unalterable.” I apologize if it’s hard to follow but that’s kinda my point, it’s the bullshit philosophy of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Anyone who can do the mental gymnastics necessary to make that argument can’t be reasoned with using logic; they’re just desperately trying to justify two infallible, yet conflicting dogmatic statements. My favorite answer to this “problem of evil” is the Epicurean paradox: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” To me, either there’s free-will and people can be punished for their actions, or there is destiny; we all play our roles as written and there’s no need for divine punishment, because you don’t make your choices. I don’t particularly care which view you take, but you have to take one.

So, when Terminator 3 came along and said “Fuck everything the first two films tried to say! Everybody’s gonna die, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it!” I was delighted. At its core, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a $200 MILLION middle finger to the everything Cameron espoused. That’s pretty fucking great.

I’ll be the first to admit that the movie itself is pretty damned terrible, its acting is wooden, its dialogue is bad, its campiness isn’t cute, and its jokes aren’t funny, but you have to look past how the movie was executed and consider how it must’ve been conceived. John Connor was traumatized by the events of T2, drops out, turns to drugs, and hits rock bottom. When a T-800 comes back and saves him from yet another super advanced evil Terminator sent by Skynet, he realizes he only delayed his fate. So he awkwardly teams up with his future wife, and the T-800. When John learns he dies in the future leading the fight against the machines, he cleans up enough to try and stop the genocide. But his motives aren’t altruistic, he doesn’t want to save humanity, he just wants to avoid becoming a leader. The pair (and their pet Arnold) try to stop the new T-X  and convince Skynet’s creators of its malevolence, but arrive after it was activated, and thus self-aware. It’s too late. John convinces the military officials to give up the location of Skynet’s core so he can go there to stop the machines, but he’s tricked; there is no core, they were sent to a secure fallout shelter. They beat the T-X, but Skynet launches its assault. After Judgement Day happens, the pair is contacted by a survivor militia group. When asked who is in charge, John says he is, cementing his position as leader of the human resistance, which will result in Skynet sending Terminators to the past to kill him, starting the cycle over again. PURE GREEK TRAGEDY.

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With that in mind, T3 (for its many, many faults) plays out like myths of King Oedipus. John Connor’s hubris drives him to deny his destiny, thereby causing it. Granted, I dislike Oedipus Rex,  but that’s just because I think gods’ punishing a mortal for trying to escape an undesirable destiny is Almighty Dickery… but that’s why I don’t worship Zeus. Actually the whole series plays out similar to the Oedipus story because of the ending of the third movie. Sarah Connor (King Laius/Queen Jocasta of Thebes) hears a prophecy from Kyle Reese (the Oracle at Delphi) about her son John (Oedipus) so she sends him away to a foster family (King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth). The T-1000 (Sphinx) gets defeated. Sarah dies thinking the prophecy was averted (Oedipus and Laius at Davlia). The 3rd T-800 comes back but refuses to answer John’s questions/orders (the blind prophet Tiresias). John, in defiance of fate (the gods), tries to stop the rise of Skynet (the pestilence that fell on Thebes) only to fall face first into the truth of the prophecy; he’s leading the human resistance (discovers he killed his father and married his mother). Granted they don’t always happen in the same order, and there’s no incest, but it hits many of the same plot points. I haven’t seen Terminator: Salvation, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles, so I don’t know if it ties into Seven Against Thebes or Anitgone, but somehow I doubt it.

So not only did Rise of the Machines prove itself to have better philosophy, than the first two films, and make the story into an homage to classical mythology, but it also prevents an obvious paradox, and is a more satisfying ending than T2: Judgment Day did. For all the praise it received, and as memorable as Arnold lowering himself into the molten metal was, that ending would be completely unsatisfying for the series. The audience was left with an open can of worms;  if Skynet can send more machines back in time, why not kill him as a baby? why not kill his mother as a baby? why not send multiple Terminators back in time? etc. Like all paradoxes, it gets worse if you think about it, I mean if they never sent back the first Terminator, John wouldn’t be born because Kyle wouldn’t have gone back to father him, and Cyberdine wouldn’t have gotten the CPU and arm referenced in T2 to create Skynet, etc. Hollywood may not have learned this lesson, but it’s a bad idea to make a sequel that ends with more questions raised and no resolution. T3‘s cementing of Determinism in its universe voids all those paradoxes; they had to happen to start the cycle.

Just because it’s a bad movie, doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely necessary. Think about another trilogy of a very good movie, followed by a great movie, followed by a merely good movie: the Star Wars Trilogy. If it ended after Empire, it would have been terrible. Yeah, it’s the best movie in the trilogy, but it’s a terrible ending for that story. It ends with Vader alive, Luke finding out about his father, and Han frozen in carbonite; would you be happy if that was it? Fuck no! you need Jedi otherwise the series sucks because it builds you up and abandons you. T3 is exactly the same. The details aren’t as important as the endpoint. The movie needs to exist and it needs to end with Judgement Day. Without it, you’re left with a pile of ontological paradoxes and unanswered questions.

So I probably angered a lot of Cameron fans, not to mention Philosophy majors, with this post. Tell me what you think. Do the paradoxes in Cameron’s films not bother you? Does RotM ruin the franchise for you? Does everything I said get completely retconned by Terminator: Salvation? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted January 7, 2013 by atomicsam in Film, Guest Posts

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