Monday, 3 December 2018

I'll Be Back - The Story of John Conner

The Terminator frachise is by far one of my favourite movie franchises out there, though that has a lot to do with when I first saw Terminator II in the cinemas. I remember going there with a group of friends, and while all my friends were put off the movie because one of them happened to be incredibly loud, I was completely entranced with the film and the person sitting next to me. I also remember standing on the balcony at McDonalds afterwards having a chat about, well, absolutely nothing. In a way it was that time on the balcony, rather than the film itself, that has stayed with me all that time.

That isn't to say that the second film wasn't as good as I thought it was - I remember sitting in my flat watching it over and over again. I loved the car chases, and the gun fights, and when they blew up Cyberdine Systems. I loved how Arnie stood in the window with the minigun, shot up all of the police and when he scanned the scene afterwards, his HUD displayed that there were 0.0 casualties. Of course there is also the scene where he climbs onto the truck, opens an entire clip from an M16 into the T1000, grabs the wheel causing the truck to jackknife. Sure, the special effects where nowhere near as good as they are today, but then again this was 1991.

Also, we simply cannot forget the scene from the first movie which has literally gone down in cinematic history:

Normally I would give a brief synopsis on these films, but I feel that with the Terminator that isn't all that necessary because it can simply be summed up in a single paragraph - in fact it can be summed up in a single sentence - a robot from the future goes back in time to kill a woman.

I remember reading a book on film making (I really wanted to be a director when I was younger, not for the prestige, but rather to tell some really cool stories) which said that when you are creating a movie you should be able to sum it up in a single sentence. Well, Terminator II (and the subsequent productions) simply come down to two robots duking it out in modern day Los Angeles (well, Terminator Genesys is partially set in San Francisco).

I also remember sitting in my lounge with my friend watching Terminator II (as we were want to do) and when the opening scene hit my television we would both comment on how it would be really cool to actually have a movie set during this period. They eventually did that with the forth movie, and when I watched it again I suddenly realised how awesome this movie actually was. In fact the reason that I am writing this post is that I have just watched all five of the films and am now making my way through The Sarah Conner Chronicles (which, honestly, is pretty terrible).

One final thing before I go into my post is that these robots are tough - really tough, but then again I have a feeling that robots have always been tough. Actually, I probably should say Cyborgs - which is short hand for cybernetic organisms - namely because they are covered with living tissue - but then again, at least in my mind, the difference between a robot and a cyborg is that the cyborg's brain is organic.

The Backstory

While I have hinted that I don't really see a need to go into the backstory since the Terminator franchise is pretty well known, a part of me would feel that this post would be missing something if I didn't. So, the story goes that humanity develops this computer to attempt to control all of its military hardware - an AI if you will. However, when they turn the computer on they suddenly discovered a huge number of mistakes and attempt to turn it off again. Unfortunately the computer doesn't want that to happen, decides that humanity is a threat, and proceeds to fire all of the United State's missiles at Russia, who respond in kind.

The computer, known as Skynet, then begins to systematically eradicate the survivors, but it turns out that it isn't as easy as it expected, so decides to create Terminators, infiltration units that can sneak into human bases and kill everybody inside. However, the humans eventually win, but not before Skynet builds a time machine and sends one of the terminators back to attempt to kill the mother of the head of the resistance - Sarah Connor. However the resistance manage to capture the time machine and send somebody else back - Kyle Reece - to protect Sarah. They end up falling in love, and Sarah gives birth to John.

However the story doesn't end with Sarah killing the Terminator because when John is 11, another terminator - this one much more dangerous since he is made out of liquid metal - is also sent back to kill him. Fortunately they had managed to capture, and reprogram, another Terminator, who is tasked with protecting John. They eventually kill the new Terminator, and in the process blow up Cyberdyne Systems, thus apparently bringing a end to the war - or do they.

And this is how four of the five movies play out, as well as the television series - a robot is sent back to kill either John or Sarah, and a member of the resistance is also sent back to protect them (whether it be a terminator, or a human). The films also switches between protecting the subject and killing the terminator, or attempting to defeat Skynet before it can become active.


I guess the running theme with this film is the dangers of technology and the way that we seem to be running head long into destruction. In a way if it isn't climate change or excessive pollution, it is giving all of the tasks that we consider to be a pain to perform over to robots so that we might have more leisure time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because over the past hundred or so years we have much better built houses, tasks that would take hours (such as washing clothes) now can be done while I do other things, we can keep food much longer through refrigeration, and we also have cars.

However there is a problem - have we become too reliant on technology - so reliant that we have forgotten how to do manual tasks. I remember I had an English teacher that hated us using computers to write our essays. He believed that it made us lazy because by resorting to computers we would forget how to write, and how to write legibly. Personally, I thought that was a bit of an over reaction, but a part of me feels that he does have a point. However, I am really not all that keen to return to a time where we have to resort to scrubbing clothes by hand.

Yet technology is both a blessing and a curse. We don't have to look further than the smartphone to realise this. Smart phones are incredibly handy in that they provide us with immediate access to the internet, which includes a map of the entire world. However, as I look around while sitting on the train I suddenly realise that pretty much everybody is glued to these things. I remember once, as a joke, that I mentioned that it was stuck to my hand, until I see everybody wandering around in a trance like state. In fact, in part, it seems as if the art of conversation is slowly disappearing when we see groups for friends, clustered in a circle, all staring at their phones. When I was younger I remember all of my important phone numbers, but these days, instead of dialing the number, I just press a link on my phone.

Sure, having access to a map that points out my exact location on Earth is very, very handy, however there is also the idea that we are giving up a lot of our privacy. Sure, there are those that argue that our life should not be subject to constant surveillance, but the thing is that the internet is a public forum - something that people really don't seem to understand. Even if we lock our Facebook accounts up so tight that only our good friends can follow us, the reality is that that information is still being stored somewhere. Further, the mapping software is a double edged sword because while we might know where we are, so do the creators of the software.

However, another aspect of these films seems to suggest a fear of technology. One of the main plot points has the characters go out of their way to halt the progress of technology. We see this in the last film where they travel to the future to see that the world  is ruled by the smart phone, but we even see this in the series where the protagonists go out of their way to destroy any form of progress. In a sense it isn't just the terminators, or even Skynet, that is the enemy, but humanity itself, and humanity's desire to move ever forward technologically.

Technological Singularity

There are two aspects to this - when a computer AI becomes self aware and when humanity manages to develop a technology that enables them to download their consciousness into a machine. The second idea was explored in the movie Transcendence, while the first one seems to make a regular appearance in our books and movies. The idea is not that robots are intelligent, but rather when they reach a stage where they can think for themselves, and then decide that since humanity is a threat then that threat needs to be dealt with. In fact Asimov in I Robot has a story where the robots realise that humans are actually their own worst enemy, which in turn creates a contradiction with their laws - a robot cannot harm, or through inaction allow harm to come to, a human being. The problem is that while they cannot harm humans, they cannot stand by and let humans harm themselves, yet to prevent harm from coming to a human they must harm a human - I'm surprised their logic circuits didn't explode.

In one sense this could be considered to be a bug in the programming (a term that goes back to the early days of computing when if a bug crawled into the machine and started eating the wires there the computer would malfunction). However, this raises another interesting idea - is a bug a mistake, or does it involve the computer doing something that it isn't meant to do. The thing is that if a computer were to become self aware would this be viewed as a glitch in the software, or the process of the computer beginning to evolve. This idea has been explored in literature as well, particularly where humans are considered to be a mistake. Would we view ourselves as a mistake - probably not - but our creators may do just that.

The idea in Terminator is that when we reach the point of singularity then it is basically all over red rover (or should I say 'game over man, game over'). Once the computer can think for itself, and indeed come to a philosophical understanding of its nature, then we have suddenly lost control of it. As in the films, humanity attempts to unplug the machine, but unfortunately it simply isn't all that easy. The thing is that a self aware machine can determine threats, and as such it will respond. It is interesting that as we march down the technological highway we don't seem to be building failsafe mechanisms into our machines. While we currently have remote piloted drones, the military is looking for ways to take the human pilot out of the equation. What happens then if the machine is hijacked, or even beings to perceive it's creator as a threat. Maybe they do have a failsafe, but honestly, it is hard to tell.

The Grandfather Paradox

The grandfather paradox is a thought experiment. The idea is that you invent a time machine and travel back in time and shoot your grandfather. As such, with your grandfather dead, you no longer exist. However, now that you no longer exist you are no longer able to go back in time and kill your grandfather - thus the universe breaks. Well, not quite because the simple answer is that by killing your grandfather you create a new timeline in which your grandfather is dead, and all of a sudden you discover that you are trapped on this time line. This is another idea that has been regularly explored in literature and film where by changing the timeline you suddenly discover that you can never return home.

This is the method that Terminator uses, and some suggest that it is quite lazy writing. The problem is that with time travel you simply cannot go back in time and then be able to return to your present because your presence in the past has inextricably changed the future. Yet in a way the Terminator creates this rather bizarre timeloop in that John Conner is actually a person who has been created out of time - he is the child of a time traveler meaning that if Kyle Reece never went back in time then John would never have been born. Mind you, the plot of the films is all about going back in time to change the future.

However, I will leave it as that because it eventually makes your head hurt. However, the IMDB does provide us with an interesting theory as to these temporal paradoxes. As for the Grandfather paradox, well, I found this rather interesting video on Youtube that does provide us with some perspective.

Creative Commons License

I'll Be Back - The Story of John Conner by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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