“I’ll Be Back”: The Conscious and the Unconscious in James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR

22 April 2012

In 1983, the year James Cameron’s film The Terminator went into production, three nuclear plants, worldwide (USA, Argentina, and Germany), each malfunctioned, for different reasons and at different times, sending panic across the globe.  Moreover, 1983 is the same year a young American girl, Samantha Smart, gained attention when she wrote a letter to the Soviet Union leader expressing her fear of nuclear war.  At the time, the Cold War was still on and the Soviets possession of nuclear power was a threat to its enemies.  Nuclear panic was ripe in the early 1980s, which makes it no surprise this nuclear mindset is at the forefront of Cameron’s science fiction adventure, The Terminator.

The Terminator (which released in 1984) begins in the future, 2029 to be specific (a year that, when all the numbers are added up, 2+2+9, equals unlucky number 13).  The world has been devastated by nuclear weaponry and exists in a constant state of war.  A terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), which is a highly advanced, intelligent, killing machine, gets sent back in time 40 years, to 1984, with the mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman who will give birth to a son, named John.  In the future, John will become the heroic leader of the post-apocalyptic society, thus the terminator wants to kill Sarah so John will never be born.  Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a cyborg assassin, is also sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah and defeat the terminator.  The entire film takes place in, roughly, two days, which are full of action and adventure as Sarah and Reese fight off the terminator together.  Eventually, the pair defeats the assassin, but, sadly, Reese does not survive the final fight.  The film ends with a pregnant Sarah driving her jeep into a literal storm, which symbolizes nuclear war of the future, which she now knows about and is prepared to face.

Cinema is a rather amazing, and wildly popular, medium of art in today’s world.  Figuratively speaking, cinema is a melting pot, of sorts, for ideas, understanding, and emotion; it is not any one person’s creation, but a sort of community art.  Simplistically, writers pour ideas into film scripts, directors provide their own ingredients when mapping out the camerawork and visual spectacle, actors add another layer, editors contribute even more, and, finally, the audience puts the finishing touches on the film by receiving the art, allowing the art into society. This simplified equation does not even account for the hundreds of other people—costumers, producers, lighting designers, executives, motion picture censors, etc—who influence the film, therefore placing their literal and metaphoric fingerprints on the piece of art.  Thus, the finalized film holds two things: 1) the conscious ideas of all these contributors; the ideas and understandings that all of the individuals who touched the film knowingly and intentionally infused the film with, and 2) the unconscious ideas of those same people; the things these contributors did not realize they were infusing the film with.

As mentioned earlier, fear of nuclear devastation, be it accidental or as a result of nuclear war, was high during the early 1980s.  It was a conscious decision by all the people who worked on The Terminator to confront this fear in the film:  the narrative of the film is depressed and violent, the colors used in the set designs are bleak and dark, and the rapidity of the cuts during the numerous action sequences is anxiety producing and frightening.  Yet, the film also tries to offer hope in confronting nuclear fear.  For example, Sarah’s shirt is a vibrant pink, which is a striking contrast against the darkness around her.  Also, she survives the terminator attack and becomes pregnant with the child we, the audience, know could save the world from complete devastation; her survival gives us hope.  These are all conscious and calculated moves by those involved in the film’s production to inspire hope in the audience; a hope that allows people to bravely carry on in the face of nuclear threats, much the way Sarah bravely drove into the storm at the end of The Terminator.

Yet, while examining the conscious efforts of those influencing the filmmaking is interesting, to a point, what is, perhaps, much more interesting is what may have slipped into the film from the unconscious minds of those involved with The Terminator.  What is striking about the film is how poignant it continues to be in today’s world, nearly 30 years after it was made, which suggests the unconscious ideas that slipped into The Terminator were not ideas about the then-present state of the world in the 1980s, but ideas about what was looming in the not-so-distant future; ideas about terrorism, war, and a foreign enemy so removed from the Western world, and, therefore, such a threat to it, that it must be blown-up, dismembered, crushed, and annihilated for the Western world to be victorious.

From one perspective, the terminator is a terrorist, no different than terrorists from al-Qaeda in today’s world.  Although al-Qaeda is believed to have been formed in the late 1980s, and therefore non-existent when The Terminator was in production, the threat and fear of an organization like al-Qaeda was absolutely palpable in the years leading up to its official formation, and therefore the years The Terminator was in production.  The most terrifying thing about today’s terrorists is the self-sacrifice inherent in their culture; a terrorist from al-Qaeda, evident by the 9-11 attacks, sacrifices his or her own life to instill terror in and destruction upon the enemy.  The terminator is the same type of being.  Cameron captures the terminator take a scalpel and cut open his wounded arm to correct a glitch in his mechanic configuration. Shortly after, and perhaps the most difficult scene in the film to watch, standing in front of a bathroom mirror, the terminator takes the scalpel to his eye and pops his eyeball out; blood pours into the sink below and a bloody eyeball falls into the water.  The scene is so difficult to watch because this terminator appears human, blood, sweat, and all, yet he so unfeelingly mutilates himself in an unyielding attempt to continue his killing mission; this act is truly terrifying. Moreover, the terminator takes blow after blow from Reese and Sarah, eventually losing his skin/outer layer, just before being dismembered in the fatal explosion that claims Reese’s life.  Yet, even in pieces, the terminator carries on his killing mission.  As a crawling torso, head, and arms, the terminator continues to come after Sarah, who eventually traps the terminator and successfully crushes him.  The terminator symbolizes modern-day terrorists in the self-sacrificial programming and unrelenting fixation on violence, terror, and, ultimately, death.

Looking at films retrospectively for what slipped in from the unconscious mind is far from an original idea.  German Expressionist films of the late teens and early 1920s are now studied by film historians.  During its heyday, the Expressionist movement in film was consciously trying to, at the surface level, express the fear and sadness present in Germany post its defeat in the Great War (World War I).  However, unconsciously, scholars now see that nearly every single German Expressionist film has a male dictator-like figure who takes control of a community, using fear, and instills death and torture on that community.  Clearly, the Expressionists of 1919 who made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did not know Hitler would evolve into the dictator he did; in 1919, Hitler was just beginning his political rise.  Yet, the inclination and fear that a dictator-figure could rise was obviously present in the unconscious minds of Germans during this time, evident by the type of antagonist presented in the film.  Cinema seems to be an outlet for the unconscious, and when looked at retrospectively the unconscious influences that slip into a film(s) reveal a greater awareness about life, danger, and others than consciously available to those involved in the film’s production.

The Terminator clearly has unconscious influences in it that have come to make more sense as historical events of the last 30 years unfolded.  Yes, the film is about the nuclear fear, consciously at the forefront of everyone’s minds in the early 1980s; yet, there is so much more to the film.  Inclinations of dangers that did not even exist during the early 1980s slipped into the film, and these things, these unconscious infusions into The Terminator, are what make the film invaluable and ever-popular today.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 22/04/2012.

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