Facing the future

October 18, 2019

As Arnie says, no matter how many time-travelling baddies you fight, Judgement Day is inevitable.

Well, he did say, “I’ll be back.” No-one could have predicted, though, just how often Arnold Schwarzenegger would fulfil that line.


This month Schwarzenegger returns in his most famous role as ‘The Terminator’ with the release of the sixth film in the franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate. For many fans, this will mark the welcome return of a favourite science fiction saga that’s been building for 35 years. For others, it’s an opportunity to jettison dead-end storylines that did the franchise no favours.


In 1984’s The Terminator, Schwarzenegger was introduced as the virtually unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor. The unfortunate waitress was destined to become the mother of the resistance leader who would defeat Skynet, an advanced computer defence system bent on eliminating humanity.


In 1991 Terminator 2: Judgement Day introduced us to her teenage son John, this time protected by a reprogrammed Arnold. Together they manage to save the world, but 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines revealed their victory was short-lived. In 2009 the storyline jumped into the future, introducing us to the adult John Connor conducting his war against Skynet. 2015’s Terminator Genisys jumped back again, revealing John as a corrupted agent of the malignant computer system. But Terminator: Dark Fate plans to set the record straight.


Dark Fate is designed by franchise creator James Cameron as a direct sequel to Terminator 2, effectively wiping out the more bizarre storylines that followed. Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, the original champion of humanity, alongside Schwarzenegger’s much-aged Terminator. There are new time-travelling killers to combat, of course, but what hasn’t changed is the film’s goal. The Terminator series has been attempting to deal with an impending global catastrophe — ‘Judgement Day’ — since its beginning. How we’ve related to that horror, though, has altered over the franchise’s history, saying much about our own preparedness to face a reckoning.


In the original Terminator, there was no attempt made to avert the future. Humanity only hoped to survive the nuclear holocaust and the hell-bent machines created from its own hubris. By the 1990s, though, judgement is no longer a certainty. A young John Connor finds ‘No fate’ carved into a table top, and remembers his mother’s oft-quoted saying:


“The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”


And so the goal attitude shifts from surviving Judgement Day to avoiding it altogether. By the end of Terminator 2 our heroes seem to have erased humanity’s unhappy future. Yet Terminator 3 upsets that victory with the Terminator re-joining our past to deliver the bad news:


John Connor: “No, you shouldn’t exist. We took out Cyberdyne over 10 years ago. We stopped Judgement Day.”


Terminator: “You only postponed it. Judgement Day is inevitable.”


The troubled series of time-battles stretching over three more films seems to underline Arnie’s truth. So much so that in Dark Fate, Sarah Connor’s credentials now rest not on preventing judgement but pushing it off:


“My name is Sarah Connor. August 29th, 1997 was supposed to be Judgement Day. But I changed the future. Saved three billion lives. Enough of a résumé for you?”


But in reality, is Judgement Day something we’d really like to avoid? Doesn’t our whole sense of justice rest on the idea that someone will one day make the reckless as well as the diabolical account for their actions? If you don’t believe me, then why cheer when Skynet gets its comeuppance? Of course, you say, that’s just the big bad computer system, and good riddance to jumped-up toasters who don’t know their place. Yet the Terminator franchise never shies away from saying we all bear some responsibility in bringing about our destruction. The Judgement Day its characters face is not just the creation of military minds but those who let them wield their power.


This might just be a debate for science fiction magazines, except that Judgement Day can also be found in our history books. The Bible that records the life of Jesus also says it has a fixed place in our future:


“For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts chapter 17, verse 31).


Jesus’ return from a Roman cross reshaped the history of the world. Western civilisation has risen out of humanity’s attempt to come to terms with it. If this event is the guarantee of the Judgement Day to come, how much more likely will it shape every day that follows?

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