Tuesday, December 29, 2009


"Haven't you figured out why you can't kill people?"

I watched Terminator 2 again last night. That movie never ceases to entertain and it is one of the best made movies of the last fifty years in terms of technical achievement and excitement. James Cameron did a fine job crafting an entertaining film with few flaws.

One of the only flaws is the casting of young John Connor. There's a reason Edward Furlong's acting career hasn't really gone anywhere: he's awful. Just a bit more care and effort to find a better actor would have helped this movie a great deal. As it is, I find myself cringing when he's on screen far too often.

Watching Terminator 2 I was reminded of something that has long concerned me in the script. It isn't a flaw in the movie as such, but rather a useful illustration to make a point about western culture and postmodernism. Here is the excerpt I have in mind:
Jesus... you were gonna kill that guy!

Of course. I'm a terminator.

Listen to me, very carefully, okay? You're not a terminator any more. Alright? You got that? You can't just go around killing people!


Whattaya mean, why? 'Cause you can't!


You just can't, okay? Trust me on this.
Cameron's screenplay helps illustrate the point even further with the stage directions that follow:
Terminator doesn't get it. John just stares at him. Frightened at what just almost happened. He gets a glimpse of the responsibility that comes with power.
For Cameron, this was a great scene illustrating how John Connor is learning to lead. For the viewers, nothing was accomplished.

Part of the fault is Furlong, who can't act: he doesn't seem afraid or thoughtful or like he's learned something, he just seems like a kid reading lines. Part of it is just Cameron's inability to tell the kind of story he's trying to. You never really understand how this kid is going to be some great leader of people that saves mankind. He simply does not display any sort of leadership ability beyond yelling orders with a scriptwriter's help of knowing just what to do. Reading the notes in the script you understand what Cameron was trying to tell in the story, but it just wasn't there in the movie.

But that isn't the point I wanted to make. My point is about John Connor's inability to explain his ethical position to the Terminator.

John Connor doesn't know why you aren't supposed to kill people. He just has always heard it and presumes its true. The movie never explains why it is wrong to kill people. I don't actually have the problem some did with the Terminator shooting people in the knees, that's perfectly reasonable for the machine to do given its design and programming, and the "he'll live" line was darkly funny.

The Terminator is a machine, a computer. It "learns" in that it adapts its programming and reactions to what happens around it, to better infiltrate and kill. It cannot understand why it shouldn't kill people: not only is that what it was designed to do, but it is the most effective way to deal with the problem at hand. Living people call for help, attract attention, and come back later to attack you. Dead people do none of this. In sheer cold logic, murdering people in the way is perfectly reasonable.

John Connor has been taught that killing is wrong by his mother, but he doesn't know why killing is wrong. Like the parents I wrote about in my essay on counterculture, she probably never knew herself. When faced with someone who actually wants an answer, he's stumped, he is incapable of explaining why. And the Terminator, although it will follow orders, will never just take someone at their word, not out of stubbornness, but out of simple machine logic.

Connor like most people has never tried to examine his worldview. For a child, that's not unreasonable, he has much to learn. He needs to learn how to think for himself and build his own conclusions based on fact, ethical absolutes, and reason. For now, simply obeying and believing authorities on ethical matters is sufficient. Yet the movie never does give any reason not to kill, not once.

Later on, the Terminator and John Connor bring up the topic again:
Killing Dyson might actually prevent the war.

I don't care!! There's gotta be another way. Haven't you learned anything?! Haven't you figured out why you can't kill people?
Well no, John, because you haven't given him a single logical reason why not to. You haven't even tried. You haven't argued the innate value of human life, or any overarching absolute ethical standard. You haven't tried to reason with the machine, you've simply insisted.

By the end of the movie Cameron would have us believe that somehow the Terminator has learned anyway:
SARAH (Voice Over)
The luxury of hope was given to me by the Terminator. Because if a machine can learn the value of human life... maybe we can too.
Yet there's no evidence that it learned any such thing. It followed John's orders and did not directly cause the death of anyone's life, but there wasn't any "aha!" moment, it never revealed a point at which it understood. It was simply assumed to have.

It is likely Cameron himself doesn't know why and simply buried that fact in spectacular stunts, explosions, and action. And in an action movie this wouldn't usually matter. Nobody expects philosophical discussions and deep thought in a movie filled with robots from the future and big explosions. Yet he brought the topic up, it is critical not just to the movie, but the whole series. And he complicates matters by bringing up the sinful nature of human beings:
We're not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean.

It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.
Now, why the Terminator was programmed to say that, one can only guess - likely it is simply one of those "voice of the author" moments where Cameron put his thoughts in the mouth of one of the main characters. Yet James Cameron again brings up ethical concerns without defending or supporting his position, yet he hints at a solution, I think: mom breaks up the fight between the two boys. Women will save us with their nurturing ways! I'm being a bit uncharitable, but given Cameron's political viewpoint it is not much of a reach.

So we have several instances where philosophy is brought up but not resolved. And it simply cannot be resolved by the unexamined man. Someone who has not thought about why they believe what they believe and the reasons behind what they assume is incapable of explaining any of it to another. So the Terminator's blank stare and repeated question "why" isn't just a mark of the uncomprehending machine, it is the audience's question as well. A question that is not simply unanswered, but unanswerable by the characters in the movie.

Why is it wrong to kill? Because an absolute, objective authority has said so. Wrong and right only have meaning and weight if they are given this by an authority with the power and right to make it so. A government can tell us what is illegal and legal, but only a greater authority than man can tell us what is truly right and wrong.

The reason for this is simple: what one man insists, another man can disagree with and neither has the power or authority to say they are more right than the other. John Connor says its "just wrong" to kill people. John Wayne Gacy says otherwise - which is right? In an ethical system without an objective, transcendent authority neither. Or both, depending on your viewpoint. The only way you can come to any sort of compelling ethical system without that authority is to simply insist on your way and have the mortal power to force others to go a long with you. They may disagree, but you can have the power to compel them to pretend otherwise, for a time.

And that's what's lacking for Cameron and the characters he writes: no transcendent authority. There's no one to say "this is right, this is wrong" and have the power to do so. If mere humanity determines right and wrong - especially based on gut instinct or tradition - then anything can be called right, or wrong. And in the end, that means nothing is.


lance said...

"Why is it wrong to kill? Because an absolute, objective authority has said so."

Good thoughts on the movie today. I feel much the same about Furlongs acting. But, I have a question that I would love for you to expound on if you would please. I think we know each other will enough to know I am not trying to be snarky or anything I would like to hear your position on this issue. When I read the quoted phrase above my thought is well obviously that is God. But, and freely I will admit that this is most likely a failing of mine, on the heels of that thought comes this.

"What about King David and Sampson and myriad of other figures in the bible who killed because God told them to?" Was the act still wrong and God forgave them? I know there is not an easy answer to this and I know you do not intend for this to be a theology and philosophy blog but I would love to see some discussion on this. I think many books and films touch on this question as well.

Christopher Taylor said...

It all comes down to the same basic point of who has the authority to say what's right and what's wrong. If there is one absolute, objective authority who we find our ethical bases in, then that authority serves for both right and wrong.

Thus, if that authority tells you to do something, you ought to do it - it is ethically compelling. If that authority tells you not to do something you ought to refrain.

Think of your mom when you were a kid. She'd tell you not to touch the stove, or not to pick up a knife. Then later on she'd tell you to wash the stove off or pick up a knife - was she being hypocritical or contradictory? Someone who didn't know what was going on or why might think so.

Yet because she was your proper authority she could tell you what you should and should not do, and sometimes that can conflict with previous directives. You ought not touch the stove when she says not to - because in her wisdom she knows it is hot and dangerous and you're not ready to handle that. Then when the stove is not dangerous and you're under supervision, its ok to touch the stove.

That's why God says "thou shalt not kill" (murder in the original language) then command the Israelites to kill the Caananites: he's the authority, He has that proper position and power, He knows what He's doing and why.

Consider the surgeon. It's wrong to cut into people, especially hack parts out of them. If someone had no idea what a surgeon was or what an operation was, he might be horrified that the surgeon knocked out some poor sap with gas, then hacked him apart and took pieces out.

And this blog isn't really about any specific thing; in fact I tend to focus more on philosophy and culture than any other single topic.

Eric said...

Interesting... having just taken the family to see Avatar last night (which I thought was a much better movie, special effects aside, than it is widely being given credit for), I think Cameron attempted to address this in the movie, although in somewhat non-absolutist terms. Have you seen the movie yet?

lance said...

Thanks CT, those are better thought out answers then I have heard most people give. You should devote a bigger piece to digging deeper into that.