Saints, Sinners, and Salvation
Editor's note: With Terminator Salvation opening in theatres this week, we asked Peter T. Chattaway—a self-professed Terminator geek—to write an essay about the spiritual themes in the franchise, which he has seen since the first film released in 1984.
Whenever people ask me what my favorite Christmas movie is, I tell them it's The Terminator—and I'm only half-joking.
The film, which celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year, is not exactly a religious movie or even a holiday movie on any obvious level. It's an R-rated sci-fi action film with plenty of violence, a fair bit of profanity, and a sex scene that was standard fare for modestly-priced B-movies of that time. And yet, there is something about the storyline, written by director James Cameron, that has always brought the Nativity to mind.
The story concerns a man from the future named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) who comes back in time to tell a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) four things: the machines created to control our defense systems will become self-aware; the machines will launch a full-scale war to destroy the human race; humanity will be saved under the leadership of Sarah's son John; and a cyborg called a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been sent back in time to kill Sarah so that her son John can never be born.
Kyle has thus been sent back in time to protect Sarah, and, although he does not know it, he will also become John's father. And so, in an admittedly imprecise way, the film concerns an Annunciation of sorts; and as the Terminator, bent on finding Sarah and killing her, kills everyone else who happens to get in his way, the film evokes parallels to the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem as well. Just as the birth of Christ took place against the backdrop of a cosmic war in which the final outcome was never really in doubt, so too the birth of John Connor is soaked in the blood of battles he is destined to fight.
(It is tempting to suggest that John Connor's initials might have messianic parallels, too—but they are also the initials of writer-director Cameron, so who knows?)
The sequels have complicated matters in a number of ways, as more robotic assassins and more protectors have come back in time to fight over the life of John Connor, but the biblical, mythic and religious allusions remain. The films—and the short-lived TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which lasted two seasons before it was officially cancelled earlier this week—have also reflected the increasingly sophisticated nature of the world, and how we perceive our place in it.
Take politics, for example. The original film came out in 1984, when fear of a nuclear apocalypse was all over the popular culture, from movies like WarGames and the Mad Max flicks to TV shows like Threads and The Day After. For young Christians like me, the fatalism of the era was amplified by the end-times themes that filled Christian music, films, and comic books at that time. In that climate, The Terminator suggested that, yes, a disastrous war would happen—but we would ultimately pull through it and survive.
By the time Cameron wrote and directed the second film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in 1991, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War was over—and so, this time, the franchise went in a more optimistic direction. With the assistance of a new Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) who has been re-programmed to help them, Sarah and her young son John (Edward Furlong) are able to destroy the lab that was fated to create the machines of the future. The apocalypse, we are led to believe, will never happen now.