Monday, September 26, 2011

After Work

All of the Terminator films except for the third one have their climactic scene set inside of a factory. That is the place where the killer robots (pardon: cybernetic organisms) are crushed or melted down or obliterated in a thermonuclear explosion. But factories are also where the Terminators are forged. These golems of the post-industrial age are born in factories just as humans – and especially first-world humans – are locked out of them, laid off, made redundant, outsourced, terminated. And so, albeit on a crude, literal level, the Terminator films are also stories about the de-industrialisation of America, a decades-long economic and social transformation that lacks a recognisable set of cinematic referents simply because blue collar work was hardly ever featured in the nation’s films to begin with.

The factories of the Terminator films are already depopulated. Unlike the research facilities that are guarded  - in Judgment Day - by their own paramilitary security forces, these are buildings without so much as a night janitor. In The Terminator, Connor and Reese waltz into one such factory and initiate an automatic production sequence simply by flicking a random series of switches on a console, thus setting in motion a series of whizzing robotic arms and appendages whose overt purpose is to remind us of the dehumanisation of work and invite us to consider the small step that supposedly separates replacing the odd worker from killing all humans.

Unpacking Hollywood technophobic fantasies is never straightforward, and mostly pointless: of course James Cameron’s rage against the machine is a glaring paradox, just like the condemnation of simulations by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix is a glaring paradox. The underlying messages are never subversive, the social analyses always absent. These are stories that are ground out of the raw material of literature and philosophy by a semi-industrial process – think of the heavy and contested debt of both The Terminator and The Matrix to their various respective sources – and that carry trace quantities of more coherent artistic visions and more serious reflections. But what Hollywood also does, more than any other single global cultural site, is to reify fantasy, that is to say define each year what counts as real imagination. This can be observed for example in the press releases of the companies that make the software used in post-production, which are all about setting and re-setting the always shifting benchmarks of verisimilitude.

So, even at its worst, American apocalyptic cinema engages in the culturally significant task of imagining what the end of the world or the decline of particular social classes might look like, and mobilises to this end a formidable technical and creative apparatus. Additionally, a franchise like Terminator allows to observe within a single storyline the evolution of the means of producing such a fantasy over time – to be precise, the twenty-five years that separate the original Terminator to Salvation. On this, some scattered observations.

Firstly, there is the most obvious transition from mechanical to digital effects, and from low to high budget, and its failure to improve on the aesthetic of the original. I’m parting ways with k-punk here, who has expressed admiration for Salvation’s ‘CyberGothic’ – there was nothing to my mind in the last instalment that improved on the low-tech, low-budget flash forwards of the first Terminator, or that expanded on the image of future Earth as a corpse-strewn waste land that populated Kyle Reese’s memory and Sarah Connor’s nightmares in instalments one and two. And this is not just not very imaginative of the film-makers. It’s also not very imaginative of the machines.

Consider the factory where the final confrontation in Salvation is set. There is a suitably sombre moment when John Connor realises that he’s standing on the factory floor on which the Terminators are built. These are early models, T-800s. He knows them well, and so do we. One of them is a computer-simulated and, in all fairness, entirely credible version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of 1984. The others are endoskeletons that have yet to come on-line. But what’s more notable about this factory is that it looks like it was designed by humans: it has stairs and elevators and doors, hydraulic piping and large wheels for opening and closing valves manually. So whereas on one hand the machines appear fiendish in their, well, machinations, always looking for new ways to infiltrate and deceive the resistance, they are baffling failures at creating environments in their own image. The ‘Moto-Terminators’ (an innovation of Salvation) are a typical example: these androids ride armoured motorbikes that they actually have to control, meaning that if the rider is unseated or killed the bike itself is rendered useless, for it has no intelligence of its own. Furthermore, the occasional point-of-view shots from inside the Terminators’ brains indicate that they visualise data in Arabic numbers and select options from sets of commands in English; but of course it’s not just human symbolic language but the very idea of a ‘computer screen’ for somebody to look at that is entirely redundant if you happen to be the computer.

What is most striking about the world of the machines is all this vestigial humanity, all the inherited tics that our mind children appear unable to unlearn. What was the point of becoming self-aware if Skynet was just going to take over and be like us? For that matter, why wage all-out war on humanity? On this point, The Matrix rather more intelligently suggests that the best way for machines to enslave us would be to run a programme that looked and behaved exactly like late capitalism. The takeover by means of the greater and greater mechanisation of labour is an outdated scenario that later Terminator films need to keep playing out simply because it’s what the future looked like in 1984, when the android or replicant seemed the most likely successor to the human race. Nowadays the synthetic other looks rather more like a financial instrument than a robot.

But here’s another question: why is the T-800 anatomically correct? And by the way, we can infer that it is because none of the people who briefly see it naked when it travels to the past ever shout “look, a giant naked man with no penis!”, but the approving glance of a waitress in Judgment Day, above, is the only proof positive – it’s not as if Arnie’s schlong is ever in view. Nonetheless: the T-800 is an infiltration unit, but only insofar as it needs to appear human for long enough to come within shooting range of actual humans. We also know that all T-800s look alike, meaning the disguise would only go so far if you happened to survive the first meeting with one of them.

Still, even if we speculated that Skynet gave the T-800 a penis just to stick with the design, or on the off chance that it might some day have to exterminate a nudist colony, it would be another one of those incidental, vestigial attributes, but also one that calls attention to the fact that the machines do not seek pleasure. On this point it might be worth reminding ourselves that the eighties were not only the decade of the killer robot but also of the sexy robot, meaning not just Blade Runner’s Roy, Pris and Rachael, or Kelly LeBrock’s character in Weird Science, but ones that would get naked right down to the chassis in the works of illustrators such as Hajime Sorayama, without forgetting Donna Haraway’s infinitely more layered but still resolutely pleasure-seeking cyborgs.

None of these creatures remotely resemble Skynet and its machines, whose business time is strictly regular business time: meaning the fulfilment of whatever mission might be at hand, with the corporate and military senses of the word both in play. Clare Danes’ character in Rise of the Machines quizzes the reprogrammed T-800 about this, asking it if it cares about the well-being of its charges, to which the reply is:
If you were to die I would become useless. There would be no reason for me to exist.
The liberated machines have simply turned inwards the utilitarian principle on which they were once built. And so comes the answer to Philip Dick’s question: these androids don’t dream.

If the machines are strangely maladjusted to the world that they inherit, so too are Sarah and John Connor to the world that fails to end: having trained for the post-apocalypse, they cannot adjust to society this side of the catastrophe. And so they drift, gaining a fleeting sense of community from their association with a gang of Mexican outlaws – whether criminal or revolutionary, is left unclear – but always coming back to the country where they are routinely incarcerated or lumped with the clinically insane.

She used to be a waiter. He’s an occasional road gang worker who lives off the grid and is caught stealing drugs from a veterinary clinic. Their ritual insistence that ‘there is no fate but what we make’ is belied by the fact that there is plainly no future for them in human society and that they don’t believe in the possibility of social change. And so when Sarah dies of cancer, one year after the scheduled end of the world that she had managed to defer in Judgment Day, she asks that her ashes be scattered but her coffin be filled with assault rifles and grenades, for the fight against the machines that might yet come, and the revolution that never will.

One last image. By the time the second Terminator film was made, in 1991, the steel crisis was two decades old, yet a vat of molten steel is to this day one of the stock images of industrialisation and a symbol of our capacity to manufacture things. (A current Hyundai ad campaign emphasises this.) In Judgment Day, it becomes the means of undoing progress, of literally forgetting the advances that we can speculate about but have yet to pass: it is the place where the T-1000 comes to die, shrieking horribly and shape-shifting as it flails about in its final spasms, the embodiment of the nightmare of a future without work, a future that doesn’t need us.

The Terminator (James Cameron, USA, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, USA, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, USA, 2009)

This has just come to hand: Aaron Bady on first seeing The Terminator in 2008.