Existentialism and the Terminator

So, this has been a long time coming. I’ve been talking about my feelings about the Terminator movies (there are only two) for years to anyone who would listen (sorry). I once presented Terminator 2 to students as part of Nick Jones’s ‘Filmosophy’ project at the University of York, but 20mins wasn’t really enough to do it justice, and I wasn’t able to go into the more literary and visual aspects of the film. I also wrote a bit on the musical score over at the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse – I didn’t have space to discuss that, here, but you can go to GGSA to check it out.

But finally, finally I got my thoughts together and wrestled them into something that was more than a gush where I flail my hands and rant about lighting states. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

A transcript of the video is below, including full details of all texts mentioned, and I’ll be trying to get a podcast version up in the next few days – so if you don’t want to look at my ugly mug whilst learning about existentialism and robots, there are other options 🙂 .

Existentialism and the Terminator

Hi! I’m Ro Smith, and I’m here today to talk about existentialism and the Terminator, which is just one of my favourite topics in the world, OK?

I’m going to start with a little bit about me. I’m a philosopher and a science fiction writer and maybe the world’s biggest fan of Terminator 2. I’m currently writing up my PhD at the University of York, where I taught undergraduate philosophy for five years, and where I have, in fact, lectured on Terminator 2 as an existentialist masterpiece to actual real life students. I also have a background in English Literature and Media Studies and all of this has enabled me to really put together what it was that so moved me about T2 when I first saw it as a kid in the early 90s and couldn’t have put into words why exactly I loved it so much, but I did.

This video is about how existentialist themes are explored in the Terminator movies, why, and why I think this is so effective.

Whilst the Terminator has, in some sense, become a franchise, I take it that the first two films, written and directed by James Cameron, represent a cohesive vision and development of a philosophical thesis, quite separate from the later films, and the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a film that became an instant favourite for me as a young girl. I was too young to see it at the cinema, but even so, I connected to it on a visceral level – one that went quite beyond the fact that it was about robots and time travel and apocalypse (some of my very favourite things). At the time I was quite unable to articulate exactly what it was about the movie that touched me so. I just felt like it recognised something deep inside me.

One of the really wonderful things I have gotten out of studying literature and media and philosophy, is an understanding of what is going on in a true masterpiece that sets to work on one’s emotions, taps into some deep puzzle one has wrestled with, or expresses a deeply held belief. This is what Cameron’s Terminator films achieve. And I hope that in this video I will be able to show you that these are more than just action films, or Arnie films, or violent blockbusters. And for those of you who always felt like there was something special going on, I hope I can help you to piece together exactly what that is.

One need not dig into subtext to find the central message of the movies. It is John Connor’s message to himself, given to his father, passed on to his mother, and then repeated to himself, and by extension to us: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ And it’s the meaning and grounding of this thought that I’m going to explore.

On the off-chance that anyone attending this video has not seen either film, one can briefly summarise them as follows: a company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence: Skynet. When Skynet becomes sentient, its creators panic – they do not trust it to make decisions that will be in favour of humanity and they try to shut it down. In response, it uses its access to military systems to spark a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Human civilisation is destroyed. Skynet creates machines to hunt down and terminate the scattered survivors. John Connor leads the resistance, and he is targeted for termination. The machines having developed the capability for time travel, send a Terminator – a cyborg killing machine that appears human – back in time to kill John Connor’s mother before he is born. John seizes the time travel technology from the machines and sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Kyle Reese is killed, but not before he sleeps with Sarah Connor, John’s mother, conceiving of John himself. After a long and bloody pursuit, Sarah destroys the Terminator, crushing it in factory machinery.

In Terminator 2, another machine is sent back to kill John as a teenager. Sarah had raised him as a survivalist, but ultimately he was taken into the foster care system after Sarah was forced into mental treatment, her experiences of the first movie taken to be a delusion brought on by trauma. This time Future John sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him, and Sarah; John and the Terminator must work together against the new Terminator, the T-1000. John and the reprogrammed Terminator (a T-800 model) go to rescue Sarah from the mental institution, and find her in the middle of escaping by herself.

They do escape, but only just, as the T-1000 has predicted John’s moves. The power of the new terminator is daunting, and contemplating the danger to her son and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Sarah recalls John’s message to her from the future: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Taking their future into her own hands, Sarah takes the fight to Cyberdyne itself. John and the T-800 catch up to Sarah just in time to prevent her killing Miles Dyson – the scientist most directly responsible for the development of Skynet. Together, they destroy the lab, and, following an epic chase sequence, they destroy the T-1000 itself, and Sarah aids the T-800 in ‘self-terminating’ to prevent his technology from being recovered.

In terms of the philosophy of time travel, it should be stressed, none of this makes sense. The terminators only exist because Skynet is developed based on the technology left over from the original Terminator. This is what we call a ‘bootstrap paradox’ – no one actually creates the Terminators, but their existence in time is self-creating. The same is true of John Connor himself – he only exists because he sent his own father back in time to sleep with his mother. The plot is also subject to a ‘grandfather paradox’ – if successful, Sarah’s actions in destroying the technology that arrived from the future mean that there is no war, John is not leader of the resistance, so his life is not under threat, and there is no time travel, and Kyle Reese doesn’t go back in time to have sex with his mother. The traditional grandfather paradox has one going back in time to kill one’s own grandfather, but this has the same effect – John Connor is never conceived.

Nevertheless, the very things that make the plot metaphysically implausible are thematically effective. Both John and the machines are self-actualising, quite literally. And Sarah’s self-actualising decisions to reject a future she does not choose become all the more striking against an apparent backdrop of determinism.

Let us set aside the metaphysics of time travel, then, and turn to existentialism.

Existentialism is a school of thought which came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, especially in continental Europe. To many, it seemed nihilistic. Its thesis was that ‘existence precedes essence’, which is to say that there is no meaning to life, no significance to objects, no purpose that is predetermined. Meaning is not determined by God, or built into us by nature. This is existentialism’s negative thesis, and it shouldn’t be totally ignored. Sartre’s philosophical novel, Nausea, is named for the sense of sickening emptiness that can be provoked by confrontation with the brute existence of objects, the contemplation that the mere existence of things signifies nothing, the despair that can emerge from an understanding that there is no external force accountable for our actions or in charge of ensuring positive outcomes.

In a world that had seen the literal and metaphorical fallout of two world wars, the meaningless loss of life and destruction, the reduction of people and cities to ashes by the splitting of the atom – the breaking down of people into things – the bleakness of existentialist philosophy held a certain power for some. Whilst for others it was seen as overly negative – leading people into what was described as a ‘quietism of despair’, meaning that the despair at the lack of external purpose and meaning made people feel like there was no reason to do anything, no meaning to life at all.

Sartre’s famous lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ argues against this, and for the positive thesis of existentialism. That because meaning is not externally imposed, we are free to determine our own meaning, and to set our own life goals. This is intimidating, because it places sole responsibility for one’s actions upon one’s self. To blame God, or one’s genetics, or other people for one’s actions is to live in Bad Faith. To live in good faith, one must own one’s own actions, concede that one always has a choice, and that choosing one course of action over another is to give that action value, to recommend that action to other people. Good and bad are not lost simply because they are not determined by God or Nature, they are determined by people acting and recommending those actions to others, and in choosing to act only in ways that one would willingly recommend to others.

Sartre writes that the first principle of existentialism is ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so’, because it is us who decide who we will be, and we do so by our actions, and those actions matter because they determine a future – for oneself and others who must live in that future.

Which brings us back to our discussion of Cameron’s Terminator movies, and their literal and metaphorical message: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Surely it is no accident that this is so closely mirrors Sartre’s words. ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself’, ‘no fate but what we make for ourselves’.

Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in the parking lot chase scene.

TechNoir Lighting State No. 1: dark, shot through with often-strobing light.

These two aspects of existentialism – the bleakness being unable to find meaning and purpose in the world, and the positivity of self-determination, making one’s own decisions the determiners of meaning and purpose – are woven throughout the fabric of these two films. The far darker – again, literally and metaphorically – first movie, The Terminator set out to create a new genre: TechNoir – a technicolour film in which lighting states were as symbolically significant as those employed in the film noir genre; which called on the same sense of stark bleakness, and which also played on the word ‘tech’ as used to mean technology. This is a self-determining act of Cameron that creates meaning for the film, and for us, as other people exposed to that action.

Sarah Connor rides to work, oblivious of her fate.

Lighting State No. 2: sunshine.

Shot almost exclusively at night, stark neon lights in the darkness evoke the darker world of Kyle Reese’s future, lit only by its laser fire. A dark world indeed, where the only light is designed to kill you. And this is a brutal film with a high body count. It’s very title, The Terminator, is the figure of death, and not a death with an afterlife, the death of simply termination. Of stopping. Finality. The only bright, sunny lighting states are associated with Sarah Connor, at the beginning of the movie, before she has been forged by her experiences, with her fluffy 80s hair and tie-dyed pink T-shirt – pink that will look more like blood stains towards the end, as she fights for her life in the dark.

Sarah Connor from the epilogue, pregnant, asking directions at a gas station.

Lighting State No. 3: sunset.

When the light comes back again it is sunset, which will be the dominant lighting state for Termintor 2. Sarah, literally pregnant with the future, having self-actualised in choosing to trust Reese, in sleeping with him, in killing the machine, sits in a jeep. She is literally and metaphorically going somewhere, but we don’t know where. That is for her to determine – we are not privy to her future, as it has not been determined yet. All we know is that a storm is coming.

The scene of carnage outside Cyberdybe systems after Sarah & Co. attack.

Terminator 2, Lighting State 1: Night shot through with white and/or flashing lights.

Terminator 2 has three main lighting states. It has the dark-night-with-with-harsh-strobing-lights of the first movie, again recalling the doomed future of death and lasers. It also has a stark white light, associated with the clean technology of Cyberdyne and the empty clinicalness of the mental institution, in which others try to force their meanings and purposes upon Sarah, denying her respect for her rationality and ability to decide her own future. In this lighting state, the imprisoned and controlled Sarah is symbolically linked to the not-yet-conscious, controlled by others

Sarah Connor in the mental institution.

Terminator 2, lighting state 2: clean, sterile, white light.

Skynet. And, as mentioned before, there is the dominant lighting-state of strong, warm, orange light. Even when it isn’t sunset, it looks like it is. It feels like it is.

We constantly feel as though we are on the edge of night, but not there yet. It’s a lighting state full of possibility – on the edge of light and dark. It captivates the sense that the future could go either way, that it is yet to be determined. The bright white light of Cyberdyne and the mental institution do not carry the usual codes for ‘good’ and ‘safe’ that white and light usually do,

Sarah Connor stands in the sunset light, holding a gun.

Terminator 2 Lighting State No. 3: eternal sunset.

because they banish all shadows. There is no uncertainty. All is determined. They turn people – self-actualisers – into deterministic machines, devoid of free will.

In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ he contrasts human beings, for whom existence precedes essence, with articles of manufacture, whose essence is determined by humans. A knife is a knife because humans design them for a purpose: to be used to cut things. Yet, equally, such articles lose their essence in the absence of humans to use them.

Terminator 2 brings the question of articles of manufacture vs self-determining minded beings to the fore. Skynet was a self-actualising AI, but always off screen. But in T2, Sarah removes the inhibition placed on the T-800 against learning. The T-800 is allowed to explore its own self-actualisation, and in doing so it comes to affect those around it; to build relationships. The T-800 may not have the ability to self-terminate, but he’s capable of bringing the matter to the attention of Sarah Connor – that her brief fantasy of having a father figure for John cannot be allowed without consequences for the world. That is a moral action, and action that affects others, and that recommends a moral stance to others.

It’s significant, too, that the advent of John Connor, the messiah-figure, on screen does not rob Sarah of her self-determination. These two movies put a woman at the heart of the action. In both films a woman saves the day, and it is, after all, Sarah to whom the message is directed, who ponders the philosophy that there is ‘no fate’ but what we make, and who decides that it is not enough to act reactively to defend her son, that she must attack Skynet herself.

This, too, is in keeping with the philosophy of existentialism. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work, The Second Sex explores at length what existentialism means as a philosophy for women. Women whose ‘essence’ does not lie in their biology. Sex and gender are distinct, and even though Sarah Connor’s sex – represented by her ability to reproduce – is central to the plot, her femininity is fluid. Her transformation from a soft-haired, feminine waitress in pink to a hard-bodied, single-purposed warrior woman is iconic, and one of the most striking in cinema history.

It is also so presented as to be completely believable.

Moreover, she overturns the dominant horror trope of the 70s and 80s, where the virginal woman is the lone survivor. Sarah may survive where Kyle dies, but she does so after a rather explicit, but not exploitative, sex scene. Absolutely no shame about sex, here. And no sense that the action is being led by expectations, or, again, externally imposed purpose.

Rejection of film tropes is another form of rejected fatalism. A rejection of the narrow boundary available for the fates of women, but also for the fates of people of colour, too.

I’m going to presage this next section by emphasising that the films are not without their problematic aspects, and I will get to those, but I just want to talk about their positive aspects first, and how these relate to our theme of existentialist thought.

Bearing in mind that these are films from 1984 and 1991, it’s significant that both films feature atypical black male characters, and the second film features what appears to be a stable, happy black family. This is in contrast to tropes of dysfunction in the presentation of black family groups – single mothers, abusive or absent fathers. The Dysons are functional, intelligent, wealthy suburbanites, quite in contrast to the common presentation of black people as poor, violent, uneducated and disruptive. Miles Dyson is an authority figure in his work place, but he is also mild-mannered. He is a respected innovator in his field. He is a man around whom history turns. It’s quite an exceptional character, even today, where Barack Obama has been a Kennedy-like figure in terms of historical significance and popularity.

Moreover, in the first movie we have another kind, intelligent black authority figure, in the form of the chief of police. A long step away from the comedy-sidekick that remains a common role for black men to play today.

And these men have agency. Miles’s movement from terrified victim of Sarah Connor’s attack to acceptance and owning of the responsibility of his actions – of a particularly heroic act of good faith, where he might have been forgiven for saying that he could not possibly have anticipated the events that would follow from his work at Cyberdyne – is only second in heroism to the manner of his death – his self-sacrifice in following through, not only to save others, but to own that responsibility.

Whatever you might say of his death (and we will) it is not a cheap death.

But… he is yet another dead black man.

Arnie’s terminator also dies a hero’s death, but at least he gets to wait until the end of the movie to do it. The black man in the team of legends – the legend Kyle Reese was so desperate to meet, Sarah Connor; the super-human cyborg possessed of impossible strength; and the Christ-like Messiah, John Connor – Miles Dyson doesn’t get a legend, he doesn’t get extraordinary power. Miles Dyson gets human weakness, frailty, and the guilt of damning the whole human race.

There are other people of colour – the latino survivalists Sarah and Co. flee to. But no other main characters of colour.

By similar lights, for women, Sarah Connor is great, but she’s basically holding the candle for 52% of the population. Sure, we have Miles’s wife, who exists mostly to represent the kind of mother Sarah could have been. And there are some women amongst the survivalists. Along with Sarah’s friend from the first movie. Who has basically just has sex and dies. That’s about it. And the focus on strength-through-mothering is a problem shared with the other great female led films of the period: the Alien movies. Not that representation of mothers as strong is a bad thing, but for a long time the only area in which women were allowed to show strength was in protecting their children, tying a woman’s value to her reproductive function. Her strength an expression of the unnatural force with which a woman can respond when called upon by the bonds of motherly love. A lack of other strong women in the Terminator films means we have no opportunity to see women present strength in other ways.

Equally, good luck finding any LGBT characters. There are some interesting questions raised about alternative family structures, possibly an aromantic and asexual mother-father bond between Sarah and the T-800, but that’s about it.

Nevertheless, the foundational message of the movie is powerful. That we are all in charge of our own fates. Nobody goes to their deaths simply because they are a certain type of person. And even if death is unavoidable, you can choose how you die – Miles’s dignity (however problematic the circumstances) is inspirational. We are all on a journey – a black-top highway at night. We don’t know what we may come across along the way, but we have the freedom to decide which way we are going.

This is the quintessential existentialist message, explored and expressed through every aspect of the Terminator movies, and I commend them to you. If you haven’t watched them, I hope that this video will have persuaded you to take the time. If you have and you loved them, I hope this goes some way towards explaining what was so powerful in them.

Thanks for listening. I’ve been Ro Smith, and this has been Existentialism and the Terminator.


Cameron, James (1984), The Terminator, Helmdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions

Cameron, James (1991), Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western Studio Canal

de Beauvior, Simone (1949), The Second Sex, H M Parshley (trans.) for Penguin (1972); Andy Blunden (transcribed 2005), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm

Friedman, Josh (2008-9), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Bartleby Company, C2 Pictures, The Halcyon Company, Warner Bros Television, 20th Century Fox Television

Sartre, Jean-Paul (2000), Nausea, James Wood (int.), Robert Baldick (trans.), London: Penguin Classics

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1946), ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Walter Kaufman (ed.), Philip Marriet (trans.) for Meridian Publishing Company (1989); Andy Blunden (HTML mark-up), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm


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8 Responses to Existentialism and the Terminator

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  4. Abram Aguilar says:

    Miss Smith I just watched your essay on Terminater And Exsitentialisim and I must say, it was a pleasure to watch. So much to think about I loved it and thank you. I look foward to any future lectures. Are you on Facebook or Twitter? I’m not familar with kinja and hesitate to add yet another social media account to my already growing list. If not then may I suggest starting onee in order to better converse with some of your more stubborn American fans. If not thats ok I will try to follow your work however I can.

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  6. Rhube says:

    Thanks for watching – sorry I didn’t see your comment until now. WordPress usually lets me know when I have a new comment, but it seems to have failed me in this case.

    I am on Twitter and on Tumblr, but the less said about Facebook the better. I’m Rhube on Twitter and on Tumblr – links and other details are on my About page, where you can also find links to work of mine published elsewhere.

    Hope you’re not looking for too much of a debate, though – conversing with stubborn people can be stressful for me! But I do appreciate your interest!

  7. Pingback: Rhube’s Music for the Apocalypse, No. 4: Four Minute Warning, by Mark Owen | The Rhubosphere

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