Many people enjoy the “Terminator” film series because the action-packed futuristic science fiction films are fun to watch, thanks to breathtaking action, time travel and enthralling cutting-edge technologies. But there is much more to the series than such visual pleasures. “The Terminator” and its sequels also provide valuable lessons and “post-humanist” hindsight in this era of nuclear weapons that can annihilate human civilization in a flash. The movie especially appeals to the Korean mind because North Korea now possesses menacing nuclear warheads.
When I first watched “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in 1991, I was mesmerized by its profound insight and powerful criticism of our world, which faces Judgment Day due to the indiscrete competition among rival nations over manufacturing nuclear weapons. The celebrated movie also enjoins us to ponder, “What would happen if the world would engage in a nuclear war?”, “What if computers take over and destroy humans?” and “Can we alter the past?” In addition, the movie makes us contemplate critical questions such as “What are the true differences between humans and machines?” or “What should we do in order to avoid the total annihilation of human civilization?”
“Terminator 2” enlightens us about other crucial issues we now face. For example, in the movie there are no clear boundaries between humans and machines. Cyborg T-850 has human tissue and bones, so it looks exactly like a human being. Cyborg T-1000, which is a more advanced model, can freely assume human forms at any time. Made of liquid metal, he does not even need human tissues or bones. Since cyborgs in the movie are not distinguishable from humans in appearance, they can live among us totally unnoticed, like sleeper agents.
“Terminator 2” also illuminates how there are often no clear distinctions between good and evil. In the movie, the evil cyborg T-1000 dons a police officer’s uniform, whereas the good cyborg T-850 wears the garb of a motorcycle club. In this way, the movie deliberately subverts expectations, suggesting that appearances can be deceptive. Often it is only by looking at uniforms that people assume police officers are good and bikers are bad. In fact, good and evil can be reversed easily, if only we can penetrate past physical appearances.
In any society, there are those who wear the uniform of justice, pretending that they represent goodness. Deep inside, however, they may be evil in essence. And there are those who look like bad guys, and yet turn out to be good later. By the same token, cyborg T-850 plays the role of a far better father for John Connor than his biological father. T-850 also touches us by taking its own “life” to save human civilization. On the contrary, cyborg T-1000 is far more wicked and cruel than human beings. Although wearing a uniform of justice, it is an emblem of injustice. We should not be deceived by those who resemble T-1000.
After Skynet takes over the earth, John Connor leads the human resistance to fight the machines. Thus, Skynet sends a cyborg back to the past to stop John Connor from being born by killing his mother, Sarah Connor. When this fails, they send another cyborg to assassinate young John Connor after he was born. They fail again. It is only natural that you cannot alter the past because what has been done cannot be undone. Yet machines are so stubborn that they keep sending cyborgs to the past in order to terminate the future leader of the human resistance. They invariably fail and end up killing many innocent people instead. The machine’s obsession with the past reminds us of our ideologically oriented politicians likewise obsessed with the past. But what on earth can they accomplish by returning to the past?
In “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” Skynet in the future sends an advanced model cyborg, T-X, back to the past again to kill John Connor and his future wife, Kate Brewster. With the help of the good T-850, John and Kate flee from the pursuing T-X. Meanwhile, Kate’s father is a US Air Force general who is in charge of implementing a powerful anti-virus software called Skynet that would purge the worldwide cyberspace that has been infected by a computer virus.
As soon as the general activates Skynet, however, it takes over cyberspace and starts wiping out humans by waging a nuclear war on earth. The general belatedly realizes that Skynet itself is another type of deadly virus. But it is too late already. John and Kate are appalled to learn that Skynet has become cyberspace and the computer system itself and thus cannot be terminated. That is, Skynet has become a part of everything and it is too late to eliminate it. People naively believe Skynet can clean cyberspace by killing the virus. Now they belatedly realize that Skynet is a virus, too.
Such a thing can happen in any system or society. We should be aware that what we think of as an anti-virus software can turn into a deadly virus itself. Kim Seong-kon
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Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.