• Tenth Time is the Charm
    Read Now
  • Notes on an Uncontrolled Cinema
    Read Now
  • On Becoming Machine: James Cameron's The Terminator
    Read Now
  • Memory, Photography and performing the ‘human’ in Blade Runner
    Read Now
  • That Beautiful Treacherous Thing: An Interview with Ashim Ahluwalia
    Read Now
  • Gulzar's Mirza Ghalib: Reality, Realism and Allegorical Liberty
    Read Now
  • General Review
    Read Now
  • An Absence of Ritual – A Report on Mumbai Film Festival 2014
    Read Now

On Becoming Machine: James Cameron's The Terminator

 | Essay |

  BY C S Bhagya

Inspired by a nightmare about “a metallic torso dragging itself from an explosion while holding kitchen knives” (Keegan), Canadian director James Cameron’s film The Terminator follows the story of the eponymous antagonist—a cyborg assassin teleported back from 2029 to the film’s present day Los Angeles in 1984. Programmed to kill a woman named Sarah Connor, its intention is to perform a sort of a “retrograde abortion”[1] of her unborn son John who, later in the film’s narrative timescape, will grow up to lead a successful resistance movement against the Terminator’s creator Skynet – an advanced, self aware order of intelligence whose vicious backlash against its human creators will result in it usurping their power after triggering a nuclear holocaust against mankind.

This 1984 film, following in the tradition of its 1982 science-fiction predecessor Blade Runner, mutates genres, vacillating between action thriller and sci-fi horror; while Blade Runner was an explicit homage to the film noir, The Terminator’s intra-filmic repertoire of imagery and thematic patterns embodies hybrid elements of noir and futuristic science fiction motifs, albeit only developing a half-formed engagement with the former as The Terminator’s aspirations toward noir is limited to a cinema frame overwhelmingly dominated by  dimly-lit settings, long sequences shot mainly at night, suspenseful encounters with men and machines in confined spaces, all amounting to a “dark and disturbed urban environment” (Baser and Baser) – an essential feature of noir cinema. In an essay titled “Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film noir”, Jeremy G. Butler observes that, “Men are the ostensible heroes of most film noir.” They are also,

conventionally the protagonists, but there is seldom anything ‘heroic’ about them... The noir protagonist is alienated from a combustible, hostile world, driven by obsessions transcending morality and causality... The obsessive noir protagonist is drawn into a destiny he cannot escape; he is impelled toward his fate by exterior forces beyond his power and interior forces beyond his control. (qtd. in Baser and Baser)

The two male foci of The Terminator, Kyle Reese, and the Terminator itself, both deliver on the film noir’s demand for men as its “ostensible heroes”. Although the film’s fulcrum is more Sarah Connor than either Reese or the Terminator – as it is owing to her pre-eminence in the narrative that a sequence of events begin unravelling with a seemingly unstoppable momentum – both are alienated from Sarah’s world in the sense that they are completely alien to it, and their insertion into this alienating world instigates its wholly comprehensible hostility. Both the “protagonists’” actions are informed, almost solely, by what has been destined – by a future which has already ensued to which they belong – and both men are ruled by their obsessive undertakings. If the Terminator embarks on its mission of “terminating” Sarah Connor with a terrifyingly single-minded devotion, Reese’s efforts to sabotage the Terminator’s mission are equally determined, the nature of their tasks such that all norms of morality are deliberately circumvented and all logical notions of causality consequently skirted. Conversely, though, the film, in a crucial scene chronicling Sarah Connor’s first fraught encounter with the Terminator, making a conscious departure from pure film noir, coins the phrase “tech-noir” (in the film, the name of the night-club where Sarah, having just discovered that someone’s out to kill her, makes a frantic phone call to the police and waits for help) – later to be appropriated into genre-terminology with reference to a filmic genre where aspects of the film noir and science fiction leitmotifs are irreducibly blended. 

In corollary to genre, landscapes in science fiction, too, are especially revealing, according to popular English novelist and writer JG Ballard. Famed for works like Crash, Empire of the Sun and The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard wrote mainly within the realm of science-fiction, his oeuvre encompassing, largely, meditations on “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental development” (“Ballardian”). In an article titled “Time, Memory and Inner Space”, Ballard remarks that,

[...] speculative fantasy, as I prefer to call the more serious fringe of science fiction, is an especially potent method of using one’s imagination to construct a paradoxical universe where dream and reality become fused together [...] Without in any way suggesting that the act of writing is a form of creative self-analysis, I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seem obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn from the narrative. [...] The dream worlds, synthetic landscapes and plasticity of visual forms invented by the writer of fantasy are external equivalents of the inner world of the psyche, and because these symbols take on their impetus from the most formative and confused periods of our lives they are often time sculptures of terrifying ambiguity. (Ballard)

If the same exegesis on landscape in fiction were to be applied to landscape in film a propos The Terminator, it would be pertinent to note that the filmic landscape is essentially, as mentioned before, a darkly sinister urban setting. It is bustling with people, at times – while Sarah works or walks on the street, or when Reese and Sarah are on the run tailgated by the Terminator and closely followed by a posse of police cars – or closed-off from the commotion of the city’s commercial or entertainment hubs in momentary relief from the Terminator as Reese and Sarah bide time in shadowy culverts or small motels on the outskirts of the city. In the film, in an interesting juxtaposition of genre and content, the Terminator’s near-invulnerable stoic metallic physique seems to set the tone for the contour of the cinematic landscape which is dominated by bulky bikes, cars and trucks, labyrinthine and claustrophobic inner terrains of factories hemmed in with lumbering, lethally insensate machinery. The soundtrack for the film, too, was written to animate and amplify the figure of the Terminator: Brad Fiedel, the music composer for the film, described the objective of the soundtrack to be an attempt to reflect the idea of “a mechanical man and his heartbeat” (Fiedel). In a sense, the landscape/ the cinematic setting seems to radiate from the central trope of the Terminator in a drawn-out thematic inflection akin to the manner in which the contained silent scream of the figure central to Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting radiates to its surroundings within the painting. To fully impute and assimilate the metaphor of Munch’s Scream vis-à-vis The Terminator and its setting, it might prove fruitful to examine Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s observations on the Munch piece. Žižek, commenting on Munch’s Scream, muses specifically on the exceptional status of the voice of the figure in the painting, elaborating that,

[...] in it, the energy of the hindered scream – which cannot burst out and release itself in sound – finds an outlet (one is almost tempted to say: “is acted out”) in the anamorphotic distortion of the body, in its unnatural serpentine windings, and of the coast and the water beyond the bridge – as of these spiral lines are here to materialize sound vibrations, in a kind of effect of conversion of the hindered sound into a distortion of matter. (Žižek 133)

Thus, Munch’s Scream is essentially an essay on anxiety, particularly a form of anxiety which may be incapable of finding an outlet of expression into the exterior, and, its resolution curtailed, causing the anxiety to break out of the agitated subject in an undulation not easily retraceable to its origin. While, in The Terminator, Munch’s Scream may work as an apt illustration for the anxieties the film is channelling under its overlay of generic content, that is, a specifically anti-technological hysteria which gets embodied in the Terminator, the painting also works as a useful metaphor to understand the subtler nuances of science-fiction in general, especially in works which create space for a more intricate treatment of themes like trans-humanity, mechanisation of the human and fear of instrumentality. Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a case in point. In the novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter commissioned to “retire” (read kill) six escaped and fleeing Nexus-6 model androids, when confronted with the task of killing one Luba Luft, an exceptionally gifted android opera singer, contemplates on Munch’s painting which he chances upon on his way. The painting, Deckard observes, depicts

 [...] a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man of woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. (Dick 83) 

Another bounty hunter Phil Resch accompanying Deckard – torn by conflict at that particular instant since his identity is in question (whether he is human or, perchance, an android) – gazes at the painting intently and remarks, rather unfairly, that he thinks, “this is how an andy must feel” (Dick 83).

The tenor of this charged, albeit brief, moment of reflection reveals that the human protagonists nurse an inherent fear of that which is mechanised, and if that which is mechanised has an apparently human guise this fear is all the more intensified. Its tacit repression by the collective social unconscious may only serve to defer it to a later point of enactment in terms of a violent expulsion. Moreover, what emerges from this exchange is also the fact that most forms of expression of this compounded fear typically transpire in trajectories which dissipate the fear by extrapolating it from an ambiguous internal locus to an exterior manifest location. Unable to comprehend the android’s inner machinations, the human subjects dislodge it from their “human” frameworks of comprehension by dismissing them as non-empathetic, inhuman figures, deflecting their own fear of the inscrutable mechanical Other onto the body of the Other, by process of which the body of the Other becomes the patent receptacle of the human subject’s hysteria. Thus the android which is supposedly an equivalent of the figure in Munch painting “contained by its own howl” is not the android per se but a lateral inversion of the ossified terror of the human subject projected outward. Philip K. Dick’s portraiture of the human/ android gulf in the book is a powerful demonstration of an instance of a fundamental breakdown of communication between the Self and the Other; the human subject (the Self) failing, inevitably, to comprehend the android (the Other) in terms of itself, completely objectifies and antagonises it, forgetting entirely that the Other is the Other’s own self, too, utterly irreducible to the Self. The crux of the dilemma that such conflicts between human/ non-human Other present is summed up in the novel’s title “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. The possession of sheep – or any sentient (not manufactured and mechanical) animal – is emblematic of empathy for the humans in the novel. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where establishing a clear distinction between the human and the non-human is a matter of great gravity, these distinctions based on an innate ability to empathise which the androids are supposed to lack. Thus, owning and caring for an animal is empathy made visible, a new kind of social status. But, by positing the question whether androids dream of electric sheep, Philip K. Dick diagnoses the  pathological human compulsion to violently impose the norms of the human onto the non-human Other, which shouldn’t have to behave in ways exclusively acceptable to humans – against its own nature, whatever that might be – in order to be allowed the license to exist.  Thus, the question of the title is not simply a scientific question but an ethical-existential one. Philip K. Dick seems to question, with a trace of whimsicality, if the non-human other has to desire what we desire, dream of what we dream, conjecturing, instead, that the very nature of their dreams might differ so radically that it will always already have eluded all our desperate efforts to understand. Furthermore, in formulating the title as a question rather than a statement (“Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”), Philip K. Dick also makes suspect the act of dreaming, usually considered so critical to being human (for Freudian analysis, for instance, dreams are a direct channel into the unconscious) and seems to imply that to even presume androids dream, or expect them to dream (even if of objects in their own realm of understanding) may be an equally violent, reductive act.

In a similar vein, the Terminator in Cameron’s film is the machine turned to the threatening, non-human Other; in the figure of the Terminator, the abstract notion of technology is made corporeal, both to provide a tangible form for the human fear of redundancy and instrumentality when confronting a swift-paced technological overhaul of the urban landscape, and for the same tangible form to serve as site of attack. The direction of human revolt against a gargantuan, threatening, formless non-human Other is concentrated in a concrete target. Karl Marx, in exploring the possible relations between man and machine in the post-industrialised cityscape dominated by factories, posits that,

In one, the combined collective worker appears as the dominant subject [...], and the mechanical automaton [i.e., the machine] as the object; in the other, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are merely conscious organs, co-ordinated with the unconscious organs of the automaton, and together with the latter subordinated to the central moving force. The first description is applicable to every possible employment of machinery on a large scale, the second is characteristic of its use by capital, and therefore of the modern factory system. (Marx)

Marx’s contention in “Productive and Unproductive Labour”, that, “Capital employs labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is a personification of things and reification of persons,” (Marx) is extrapolated and the troubled nature of the relationship between man and machine emphasised in The Terminator. Thus, in an inversion of Marx’s reified factory worker, the Terminator is, essentially, an anthropomorphic personification of the antagonised machine.

Alongside the figure of the Terminator, the character of Sarah Connor is a conflation of the Judeo-Christian theological strain that underlies the narrative of the film. Sarah is “the chosen one”, but chosen not as the warrior who leaps into battle, as epic heroes go, to play the role of the saviour of the people she represents; she is chosen in the manner of the Virgin Mary who was to be the mother of Christ the Saviour. Sarah is seemingly “the chosen one” fated to give birth to future legend John Connor – saviour of mankind from the onslaught of the machines. In contrast to the virgin conception, though, there’s nothing immaculate about the conception of John Connor who is born out of the brief coming together of Sarah and Reese – her assigned protector from the future – as the film blatantly totes a reaffirmation of the proliferating pop-cultural missive that love trumps all. 

The crux of the story hinges on a time paradox – Reese is teleported from 2029 to present day Los Angeles 1984 to stop the Terminator’s mission of killing Sarah Connor. Reese is here to protect Sarah, who, for Reese’s generation in the future is already “the mother of the future”. It is in a distinctly Oedipal turn of events that the future John Connor sends Reese, and Skynet the Terminator, to the present, and here Sarah occupies the role of a modern day Jocasta who is later impregnated by Reese. But it is not just Reese or the Terminator who are themselves Oedipal, but both constitute the metonymic extensions of the Oedipal Future which cycles back through the time-space continuum to impregnate its past with the seed of its possibility. (Note that the imagery used in the film for time travel seem to be birth metaphors: both Reese and the Terminator irrupt into the present naked and crouched in a foetal position. Later in the film when Sarah asks him what it feels like to travel through time, Reese tells her that there’s, “white light, pain... it’s like being born, maybe.”) The future, as it is clearly evident, is enacted upon the body of Sarah Connor, and the film, for all its claims of glorifying Sarah’s character and her significance to the larger structure of events by constructing her as someone who’s crucial to preserving the future for mankind, offers her only a limited function. She is important only insofar as she seems to be fated to give birth to John Connor (and, in the later films, act as his guardian), her own heroism constricted to fulfilling the stereotypical feminine role of the nurturer, so much so that the Terminator’s mission to kill Sarah is referred to by a character in the film as a “retrograde abortion”, implicit in the definition that Sarah is reduced to solely her potential to give birth – a womb.

Consequently, in the light of the Judeo-Christian themes that haunt the film, the visage of the Terminator, as the film progresses, transfigures into what seems to be a rehash of the image of death (more precisely, the Angel of Death), the chase of the Terminator metaphorically signifying death’s dogged pursuit from the clutches of which no mortal can escape. When it acquires the form of a skeleton with pinpoints of red for eyes, the Terminator is immediately reminiscent of one way in which death has been popularly imagined: the image of the Grim Reaper, which, having originated somewhere in the 15th century, came to be commonly depicted as “a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood” (“Death (personification)”). While the trope of the Reaper appears to have coalesced from an inventory of representations deriving from a schema of the pastoral, the Terminator is a more modern adjunct – the Grim Reaper recontextualised into a schema of the technological. 

The cutting out of the eye of the Terminator is the first step in the regression of the cyborg from possessing some external semblance approaching the human to merely an animated machine on a mission to kill – to pure data, or, simply, an animated version of the abstract notion of evil. As vision is considered crucial to experience and conceptualised as an extension to subjectivity, it is tempting to read this act of cutting out the eye as a highly significant move – an undoing of the embodied subject – if we are to concur with Katherine Hayles’ observation in her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics, that “the suggestion of embodiment lingers in the idea of focus, the ‘scene’ created by the eye’s movement” (Hayles 38). Besides, the image of the eye is particularly charged within the semiotics of science-fiction cinema: from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the recurring image of the eye evokes notions of the all-seeing-eye of providence. Also reminiscent of 1984’s Orwellian trope of the oppressive, endemic gaze of Big Brother, the eye is a mnemonic of the panopticon, and it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to hypothesise that the Terminator’s eye, too – functioning as a computer projection of an inventory of pre-programmed instructions on behaviour and information, with an inbuilt, photographic ability to retain a record of events – doubles as an insidious extension of the far-reaching, invasive gaze of the future tyrant Skynet. But, in the context of The Terminator, the move doesn’t seem to amount to more than a fleetingly allusive gesture: the Terminator discarding its human exterior eye-onward seems to only have an effect on the onlooker (both within and outside the cinematic frame, i.e., an affect aimed at perturbing both the characters inside the film and the audience), but not on the internal configuration and behaviour of the Terminator itself. The scene, alluding to one of the most famous scenes in the history of horror cinema – the eye slitting scene in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou – doesn’t build on the reference to provide greater insight into the workings of the cyborg, and similarly, the film too, doesn’t fully investigate the complexities of the man-machine interface. Instead, it presents only an atrophied, Manichean dissection of the consternation generated when approaching a possible teleology of man verging on the machine in an era of technology, and the consequent anxiety of imminent change and disrupted definitions resulting out of an intense disquiet at the act of becoming. 


Ballard, JG, “Time, Memory and Inner Space”. The Women Journalist Magazine (1963). JG Ballard: Non-Fiction. Web. 11th March 2013.

“Ballardian”. Collins English Dictionary. Ballardian. Web. 11th March 2013.

Baser, John. J, and Stephanie L.M. Baser. “The Outer Limits of Film Noir”. Film Noir Studies. Web. 11th March 2013.

“Death (personification)”. Wikipedia. Web. 11th March 2013.

Dick, Philip K., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Web.

Fiedel, Brad. Other Voices Documentary (The Terminator Special Edition DVD). 2001. MGM. Web. 11th March 2013.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics. 25-49. London:    The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Web.

Keegan, Rebecca Winters. The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. New York: Crown, 2009. Web.

Marx, Karl. "Machinery and Large-Scale Industry." Ch. 15 of Book I, Capital: A Critique of  Political Economy, 1867. New York: Vintage-Random, 1976. Web. 12th March 2013.

Marx, Karl. “Productive and Unproductive Labour”. Theories of Surplus Value. Web. 12th March 2013.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Why Does the Phallus Appear?”. Enjoy Your Symptom!. New York: Routledge Classics, 2008. 129-167. Print. 


1. Immediately after Reese is taken into police custody in the film, the criminal psychologist replays the recorded video clip of Reese’s interrogation to a few police officials and Sarah, referring to the Terminator’s mission as a “retrograde abortion”.