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techno-ambivalence

April 28th, 2009

techno

There’s nothing particularly original about the “technology will doom us all!” narrative. In fact, as I suggested earlier, that old tale has been kicking around since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or, if you want to push it, I guess you could say it’s been around since Prometheus decided to be so generous with his fire. Countless writers have taken it upon themselves to warn us that we’re digging our own grave, what with our cell phones and MySpace and iPods, but that hasn’t seemed to stop us from plugging ahead anyway.

Terminator 1 follows strongly in this cautionary tradition. The message is clear and forceful: computers are bad. Get outside and play with your human friends and try to remember what life was like before toaster ovens.

But what I’ve always loved about the Terminator franchise is that this message gets a whole lot murkier as the series progresses.

See, by the time Terminator 2 rolls around, the robots might be the bad guys, but they’re also the good guys. Sure, the T-1000 wants to kill John Connor, but the T-800 is here to protect him. Machines are killing humans, humans are killing machines, and machines are killing machines. It’s all over the map, and any preachy lesson about the perils of a technology-driven society goes out the window. Sort of…

You could also argue that the message of Terminator gets deeper as the robot allegiances grow more complicated. Instead of a blanket message about technology being bad, Terminator argues that technology is just a tool, and it’s how you use it that’s important. It puts the focus back on us. At the end of the day, it’s the guy who builds and launches the nuclear bomb that’s responsible, not the malfunctioning computer he put in charge. As someone who makes his living on a computer, I like this message. It allows for all the positive aspects of technological developments, and the good liberal artist in me can’t help but smirk at the potshot taken at the military industrial complex (which of course conflicts with the smirk I get when Schwarzenegger blows stuff up with a rocket launcher, but that’s a psychological contradiction to explore at a later date).  

But more importantly than any political or philosophical message, it just makes for better storytelling. The “robots are bad because they’re bad” thing gets tired fast, but conflicted, ambiguous characters are at the heart of good drama. Terminator 2 isn’t the best entry in the series just because it has the biggest explosions and the best fights (don’t get me wrong, that’s a big part of it), but it’s the best because the characters have depth and they have the chance to grow and change.

So what does this have to do with Terminator Salvation?

Well I really, really hope that they continue this tradition. Now that the war is finally in full swing, it might be tempting to revert back to a simple good/bad distinction between humans and machines. But of course this time we have Marcus Wright, who if anything looks more conflicted than any of the terminators that came before him. Also, considering the screenwriters behind this movie, I’d be shocked if we didn’t get some of the most complex characters of the summer (in an action movie about robots…)

Just one more reason why I’m jumping out of my skin in anticipation.

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