Film * James Cameron * Attempted Apocalypse Prevention * 1991
Note: This article doesn’t really follow the template I generally abide by. It fully assumes you’ve seen this movie nine thousand times like me. Of course, if you’ve never seen it I don’t know what to tell you other than you’ve failed as an American.
This opening is brilliant. First shot: Los Angeles freeway, sweltering, smoggy, clogged with humanity and machines. That’s what defines our post-modern civilization, that shot, right there. Cut to a kid on a swing set, and isn’t that cute, but even now the smog and haze is omnipresent, it informs the post-industrial automobile age that Los Angeles epitomizes, and even when we’re supposed to be witnessing the innocence of playful youth, we’re surrounded by this oppressive haze. Of course, these are the two images that are immediately juxtaposed with a permanently dark post-nuclear cataclysm in which Los Angeles is forever carpeted with the rusted husks of vehicles and the rotted shells of millions of dead humans, torn asunder by laser light and bitchin explosions. There’s your choice. The sweltering, smothering present day Los Angeles, summed up in a traffic jam and a dilapidated playground, or a hellish future of enormous mechanized death on tank treads. Neither option sounds particularly inviting, and while we ponder just what the fuck we’ve done with the gift of industrialization, we get to watch the aforementioned playground burn while the opening credits flash past and the mechanical drums pound that iconic beat, and then clank. Full stop, truck stop.
Terminator 2 is a film of moody infrastructure. The film is as much about that fucked up city of 1991 Los Angeles as it is about time traveling murderous robots bent on taking over the world. Take this early scene, when we first meet the T-1000, draped in the eerie blue glow that permeates the entire film. The camera slowly pans around, giving us a full view of what? An underpass alleyway, all graffiti and strewn garbage, a microcosm of chain link and concrete pillars. As the film progresses, we are given a snapshot cross-section of L.A.’s diverse, vast, artificial landscape. There are scenes that take place in shopping malls and office parks, a chase leads from the stacked, soulless concrete of a parking garage to the enormous and barren concrete canals that criss-cross the city. Another chase leads out of an institution back into another parking garage, and of course the culmination in an abandoned steel mill, birthplace of fire and machinery. There is no respite from the urban nightmare here, like there was in the first film (when there is a brief rest from the madness in a cabin at Big Bear) or will be in the third (camping fun time with the chick from My So-Called Life). There is a brief stopover in the desert, but even that rural wasteland is littered with dead machines. Everything is artifice on a vast scale, and the only time there is a pause in the relentless pursuit of the non-stop death machine, the heroes must take refuge in an abandoned garage, or the McMansion of an upper-middle-class computer engineer. Nature is dead already, the concern of the characters within the film is of humanity and humanity alone.
We begin this tour of pre-Apocalyptic Los Angeles in the blue darkness of a forgotten underpass wasteland, but the movie will bounce back and forth between scenes of filth and decay and the clean white planes of a sterile, antiseptic society. Here then, as to not linger with the graffiti and garbage, is the shopping mall, which at least attempts to produce the latter while at the same time embodying the spirit of the former. The Galleria, here shown as a hive of activity and fluorescent lights, humanity mingling and brushing against each other surrounded by glass and orderly displays of merchandise, is the epitome of shallow consumerism, and is comprised entirely of bright light and clean lines. Even the video game arcade here is clean and organized, despite the sheer number of children running around unsupervised, and never mind that back when there were such things as video arcades, they were almost always filthy cesspools of dank and cigarette smoke. From here the chase begins in earnest, the Terminator a grim avatar of chaos in black, and leads immediately into the barren back hallways of the mall. These utilitarian corridors form the backbone of the shopping mall entity, and are awash in harsh lights, unadorned cinder block walls, and Pepsi logos. The roses the T-800 drops during this scene provide a splash of dramatically ironic color, but also serves as a bracing contrast of organic life against this lifeless, whitewashed backdrop. Then some violence happens and boom: back into the brown hazy crush of the city. The chase weaves through utilitarian traffic, muted browns and dusty blues tossed aside by the aggressive black of the attacking semi-truck. Heavy machinery figures significantly into this film, which shouldn’t really be a big surprise considering the future the narrative assumes, and semi-trucks in particular play a significant role in displaying the sheer force and power of industrial technology. John Connor, nimble on his little underpowered dirt bike, takes to the vast warren of concrete canals, as he is most comfortable within their cast-off chaos. These canals are taken for granted by the citizens of Los Angeles, and are therefore forgotten, good for little else than collecting garbage, handling the occasional flood, and providing ample space for skateboarders and graffiti artists to ply their trades. John is at home here because he is at home with chaos, and expects to be safe in the forgotten underbelly of the city, an expectation which is undermined and destroyed in slow horrifying motion as the unrelenting death machine obliterates infrastructure, destroying an overpass, and closes in. The chase continues, and the backdrop whirrs past, destroying any notion of order and cleanliness. The day is nearing sunset, hazy orange and casting silhouettes of a SoCal forest: palm trees, eucalyptus, power lines, and razor wire. Eventually Arnold on his big bad Harley shows up in (more) dramatic slow motion, not even standing out amongst the sheer scope and scale of the Los Angeles wasteland, and momentarily saves the day. In the end, infrastructure wins out over the aggressive machine, and celebrates concrete dominance with a spectacular explosion. Okay, time out, stop the bike.
The next scene of importance is the Sarah Connor breakout scene, and I would like to be the first to welcome you to the repressive bastion of the American urban wasteland, that warehouse of formal incarceration, and isn’t it funny how much The Institution shares aesthetically with the previously seen Galleria shopping mall? The same barren corridors awash in the blaring fluorescent lights that keep America alight, the same whitewashed vastness of unadorned walls, and the only thing missing is the Pepsi. In its stead we have stainless steel elevators, metal-caged windows, and Sarah Connor being a fucking badass, barefoot sweatpants beast mode, and wait, never mind, they totally have Pepsi here too. Product placement notwithstanding, watch Sarah Connor in this scene enough and you realize that she is the true agent of action in this film. She brings the sheer organic urgency of a protective mother to an otherwise barren environment, littering the bleak white tiles with the spattered blood of a fallen pervert orderly, whose primary crime wasn’t being gross but keeping Sarah from her son. In the Galleria, the Terminator crushes the organic red of the roses underneath his mechanical boot, here Sarah splashes the antiseptic whites of the Institution with the blood of an agent of repression. Then, she expertly navigates the bureaucratic maze of stainless steel bars and white polo shirts and before too long the scene is punctuated with the clipped blare of the electronic alarm. Somehow, this whitewashed nightmare is a place ostensibly created and maintained to foster wellness in the people interred here. Dr. Silberman is supposedly acting in the best interest of society at large by keeping Sarah Connor, who is presented as a complete wackadoo even to her own son, behind these unadorned walls and stainless steel bars. Of course in her escape we instinctually perceive the madness in this. Of course humans can’t feel well in such an environment. Of course sterility and antiseptic whiteness obviate a healthy, fertile environment. Of course too much stainless steel is bad for the soul, considering the main villain doing all the chasing and murdering in this movie is an androgynous chrome robot. Sarah Connor, then, manufactures her own escape to break free from the very society she aims to save from the technological dominance of a mechanical society run amok. That she is aided in this escape by another, slightly more archaic, agent of this mechanical society adds an additional wrinkle to this notion. Machines are neutral, after all, even if they began as murderous agents of a ruthless computer intelligence, and at what point does a technological society pass redemption? When they create sentient artificial intelligence, or when they willingly build and live in cities like Los Angeles?
I suppose we could ask Miles Dyson. Yeah, rough transition, shut up, but the movie is still rolling here, and now we’ve come to the one-percenter-revenge-fantasy portion of our tale and there are a few things to point out before we roll right on into the final chase, which is like forty minutes long. Basically, we are told that the key to Skynet and Judgment Day is this guy Dyson, who is some science dude who finds himself in the middle of a cyclical logic loop (all his work is based on the crushed chip from the first Terminator, yet he’s the reason the Terminators exist, wait, what?) and is therefore responsible for thermonuclear annihilation. This is the part of the story where the time travel premise begins to crumble under its own weight (it’s cool, Lost will come along later and somehow do an even worse job with it), so let’s just ignore all that for a moment and focus on this guy’s enormous house. Holy shit, right? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even know what to do with a pool that big, let alone all those rooms for like three people. Anyway, rich people, who even knows. The point is, Dyson’s McMansion is a stark contrast to everything we’ve seen thus far. Yet despite the apparent discrepancy, the setting rings every bit as true to the urban wasteland theme as the barbed wire and concrete underbelly we’ve previously been exposed to. We’ve seen images of John Connor’s rough upbringing, both in the enormous desert rust-pile, surrounded by crazy Mexican banditos or whatever, and in his low-rent suburban foster upbringing, surrounded by stucco, parachute pants and Axl Rose. Contrast the living conditions of the savior of humanity with that of the great destroyer, Miles Dyson, in his glittering terra cotta and plate glass castle. John’s life is lived close to the ground, animal and organic, in that his first and only priority is pure survival. Sarah, the engine of change, has ingrained this in him, and her teaching is reflected in the places that he has grown up. This isn’t to say that suburbia is somehow liberated from the incursions of inorganic hegemony as opposed to the other places shown in this film, quite the fucking contrary, but as a setting Connor’s foster home is at least in a neighborhood that reflects the fundamental disorder of organic life. Meanwhile, Dyson is a product of late 20th century Los Angeles. Well, the fortunate product anyway. Despite the materialistic trappings, however, there doesn’t seem to be much worthwhile going on in the heart, mind, or soul. Sound familiar? This is pretty much an L.A. cliché, but as in all quality works, this gets subverted here. Dyson, it turns out, isn’t an amoral monster. Clearly he isn’t ashamed of the lucrative nature of his work, but at the same time it is obvious that he is driven purely by his love and enthusiasm for his work, his science. His humanity is rewarded, after taking a bullet and watching as the T-800 does his freakout move (in which he rips his skin off, flexes his crazy robo-arm, and says “now listen very carefully” like the badass he totally is), by the transformation of his hard-earned palace in the hills into a bombed out hobo camp, complete with flaming trash barrel. Sarah Connor, the organic maelstrom, has pulled one of the Los Angeles elite into her orbit. Miles Dyson destroys his own home, because he intuitively understands that in blazing the path toward technological superiority, he is ultimately responsible for murdering what is left of the organic instinct.
So what is left to do but blow some shit up? Now our quartet of heroes approaches the heart of darkness, Cyberdyne itself. It’s like Dyson’s home stretched out to its logical conclusion; the birthplace of Skynet, the Terminators, and Judgment Day is an endless vista of sterility. Functionally this makes sense. After all, they deal with microchips and other science biz, and that stuff is sensitive. Aesthetically, however, it is one of the more inhumane environments imaginable, rather like The Institution the building is all featureless white and stainless steel. It may sound like I’m harping on the same point here, but seriously, when Security Guard Two walks into the bathroom to find Carl bound and gagged (and left in plain sight, apparently), take a gander at those urinals. They’re square, stainless steel, robo-urinals. Between that, the ultra-utilitarian desk with one phone and one (annoyingly post-modern) lamp, the three CCTV screens, and the rows of fluorescent lighting reflecting off of the stainless steel everything, Cyberdyne is the culmination of the film’s tour of modern American wastelands. However, it doesn’t take very long for this place to undergo the same transition to chaos that Dyson’s house did, mostly thanks to Dyson’s redemptive humanity. I mean granted, he does try to puss out before he is shamed by a whiny 14 year old wiener, but hey, he eventually succeeds. Meanwhile, here comes the repressive arm of the Los Angeles Establishment: the LAPD. They converge on Cyberdyne in absurd numbers, presumably because the T-800 is a confirmed cop killer, and unlike Ice-T, is actually a threat to the fabric of Los Angeles society. In addition to supporting their fallen members, which is almost human, goddammit, and doesn’t that almost derail my whole analysis, the swarm of LAPD to Cyberdyne also serves the function of allowing Sarah Connor to blow the holy living shit out of as many kinds of the technological and repressive societal aspects of late 20th century civilization as possible. And I’ll be goddamned if it’s not one of the most satisfying scenes of wonton destruction ever put to film. Plus, there’s the extra added bonus of knowing that there are no actual human casualties put at the feet of our mechanical hero. Yes, Dyson is a heroic sacrifice here, but he is cut down by the repressive arm of “civilization.” In response, Connor and the T-800 lay waste to both infrastructure and the opposition’s ability to pursue and detain, without taking human life. Connor’s actions are the only real solution to the otherwise inevitable outcome of complete submission to the infrastructure of a mechanical society. Either submit and allow Skynet to exterminate humanity, or you blow that motherfucker sky high. Anyway, Sarah Connor has pretty much reduced another bastion of post-modern Los Angeles infrastructure to flaming rubble (and okay, you’re right, it was a team effort, but I think we can all agree that without Sarah’s presence, John and the T-800 would be chillin’ in Cabo, waiting for the Apocalypse with some Patron and sunshine), and now the Terminator is going to continue his rampage amongst the repressive arm of the regime, using their own tools of submission against them. Despite that awesome explosion that just happened, it’s almost as satisfying watching the T-800 shoot LAPD SWAT officers in the chest with tear gas canisters. Well, at least if you’ve got a healthy anti-authoritarian streak in you. Considering the success of this film, it wouldn’t be particularly hard to argue that a large percentage of people have exactly that. Fuck the po-lice indeed.
Now we are almost done, and here is the city at night. After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, the T-1000 has resumed the chase, although he has taken the guise of yet another aspect of authoritarian power, in this case, LAPD helicopter pilot. Is there a more potent image of repression than the stark white light of a police helicopter, shining down from on high behind the invisible black thunder of the machine? Probably, but shut up. In this case the erstwhile ghetto bird is the agent of destruction in a chase to determine the outcome of humanity’s future. Fitting, then, that the chase takes place on a freeway, that oppressive ribbon of asphalt, steel, and concrete that so dominates L.A.’s landscape, and even more fitting that this particular freeway runs through what’s left of the Los Angeles industrial sector. The chopper, firing deadly bursts from above, dips and weaves under and over various aspects of modern automotive infrastructure while the backdrop is comprised of the stark steel spires of an oil refinery, amber lit and menacing in the night. Everything that has made L.A. a vast, festering sea of mechanical civilization is on display here, and before too long the chase will enter its final phase, beginning with yet another semi-truck wrecking havoc with its surroundings, this time the steel and iron maze of a foundry.
Make no mistake, the film reaches its climax within the red hot womb of machinery by design, for this molten hellmouth deep within the industrial wasteland is the one place in Los Angeles that actually spews forth new infrastructure and machinery. It is the forge of the city. As these two avatars for the technological ascension and evolution of artifice beat the living bejeezus out of each other in what appears to be a Nine Inch Nails video, the sheer scale of industry is pressed up on us. Random chains and hooks hang from naked steel girders and ladders to nowhere are showered in sparks. It’s like the fetid steampunk version of the Winchester Mystery House. Yet the film has to end here. For one, the setting fulfills the basic aesthetic promises made throughout the film. Each chase burns through bleaker and bleaker visions of late 20th century America until finally we’re surrounded by the foul harbinger of the desolate irradiated wasteland that Los Angeles is fated to become. Of course there lies the rub, and is the second reason the film must culminate here. How else are you going to kill that fucking thing? I mean, yeah, the T-1000 is frail and every time it gets shot it flies around like a tweaked out mime at a cut rate Ren Faire, but goddamn if it’s not resilient. The T-1000 is technological death nearing perfection (although the Terminatrix from the abhorrent T3 is at least hot while Terminatoring, so I guess that’s a step up). The only way to destroy the thing is to return it from whence it came, which in this case is a flaming cesspool of molten steel. Which, eventually, our heroes do. And then it squeals and morphs in a way that is almost supernaturally evocative, but I guess as a semi-sentient arm of an advanced intelligence, it’s probably kind of bummed about failing in its mission. So, our heroes are triumphant, evil is punished, all is well. Right?
Not so much, it turns out. We already know by the fact that John Connor still exists that someday the bombs will fall and Los Angeles will transform instantly from a wasteland created by humans into a wasteland created by machines. However, the film is as much about the city as it is than what the city will become. Los Angeles encapsulates America better than any other locale (that’s right, New York, you can go fuck yourself, L.A. is far more in tune with the beat of what makes this country tick than your 19th century ass could ever be). The city and everything that went into creating it: concrete, glass, asphalt, hard-working Mexicans, entitled white people, barbed wire and chin link, palm trees and smog, stucco and stainless steel, all form the basis of what America has become. By virtue of the ending of the film, there is at least an attempt to find solace in uncertainty. Like maybe things will turn out! However, given everything that has preceded this moment, it is pretty clear that Terminator 2 has firmly made up its mind that we as a people are well and truly fucked.