Tuesday 17 February 2015

The T2 Family Model 101 - Brothers, Mothers & Significant Others

Time-travelling body-building cyborgs on motorcycles - that's what the Terminator is about, right? That's why Salvation was boring - too much worthiness from Christian Bale and not enough Arnie on a Harley.

Well, no. You could argue that James Cameron's films explore free will versus determinism or our morbid paranoia with nuclear apocalypse or the amorality of technology and unchecked scientific endeavour. But their prevailing concern, most notably in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is that of family.

Or more specifically, broken family. The traditional harmonious family unit doesn't really exist, but from the intimate mother-father-son model to the desperate brothers-in-arms Resistance fighters to the Skynet production line, the world is full of familial connections. The 1984 original gave us the premise of a machine sent back in time to eliminate the human enemy, striking their leader at his most vulnerable, before his conception. Though convoluted, there is a certain logic to this conceit - destroy your enemy by terminating the family line. That leader, the future John Connor, sends back a protector for his mother, who (spoiler!) turns out to be his father. Leaving aside the paradox, by the end of the first film we are left with Sarah Connor, alone after a one-night-stand with a burden unimaginable to the carefree scooter-riding girl who couldn't balance her chequebook at the beginning of the movie. She alone carries the knowledge of the coming war and drives prophetically into the storm, the lone 'mother of the future'.

John's bee-in-a-bottle Honda is juxtaposed with the
deep throatiness of the Terminator's V-twin, and
while the former quickly succumbs beneath the
wheels of the T-1000's pursuing truck, the Harley
carries them to safety.
T2 picks up the story a decade later with Sarah incarcerated and John living in suburbia with foster parents Todd and Janelle Voight. The house and neighbourhood seem idyllic  - sun streams through the windows onto the piano, children play in the street, Janelle collects the newspaper from the front lawn while avoiding the sprinkler. A secure environment for a developing child then, though we quickly see John rebelling against it. He counters Todd's demand that he listen to his mother with a defiant "She's not my mother, Todd" before taking off on his whining motorcycle. Father figures are doomed in this universe - the best they can hope for is a heroic or redemptive death. Unfortunately neither awaits Todd - his lack of paternal sympathy or urgency ("What? What? Wow, it's an emergency - hang on! I'll get right on it!") provides justification for his shocking demise at the hands (or, more accurately, the stabby metal hand) of the T-1000.

Cut to Pescadero State Hospital: 'A Criminally Disordered Retention Facility' where we join Sarah doing pull ups in her cell. Sweating and sinewy, she is a different woman from the one we witnessed driving into the storm a decade ago. She has assumed the role of warrior mother since the original film and we are told of her history of violence as the doctors examine her as a prowling, caged beast. We later see her fully assume the militant Terminator role (as discussed by Cameron himself) when she launches a solo pre-emptive strike against Miles Dyson, the computer scientist whose work unwittingly leads to the rise of the machines. Only the sight of Dyson's wife and son running to protect him rouses Sarah's humanity and a realisation of what she has become.

Sarah's transformation from the first film to the second is quite extraordinary. Gone is the bouffant '80s perm and the girlish voice; we see her disdainful eyes through knotted strands of hair as she growls at Dr Silberman through the cell door window.
The family dynamic can be seen even before John and Sarah's respective introductions. Schwarzenegger's arrival mirrors that from the first movie and establishes a familiar continuity - he's the same make, same model and follows the same procedures. Though first-time viewers may have been unaware that Robert Patrick's T-1000 was the villain, we see in him the same methodical approach to his objective. His arrival at the Voight's residence echoes the original Terminator's arrival in suburbia, though this one avoids crushing any toy trucks (don't worry, he wrecks his own later). This, along with his personable discourse with the Voights demonstrates he is the refined son of Skynet, less brutish and with greater social facility. The T-800 acknowledges to John that his counterpart is more advanced, though we constantly see evidence of their similar programming through tactics and behaviour ("The T-1000 would definitely try to reacquire you [at home]." "You sure?" "I would.") The duality between these two 'brothers' creates a sense of family from the very beginning.

Boys will be boys. A little fraternal
competition is healthy, no?
The father-son dynamic between the boy and his bodyguard is obvious and quickly established. However, we also soon witness a role reversal as the child provides the machine with a moral education. Though skilled in the mechanics of protection, we are constantly reminded that the Terminator is uneducated in basic concepts of emotion and language. When John tells him to 'put the gun down' he interprets it literally, placing it on the concrete beside his feet. He responds childlike to being told he mustn't kill people. "Why?" he asks, repeatedly. John's protests are acknowledged and accepted but their reasoning still eludes him, even later as they race to stop Sarah from murdering Dyson. As a species whose nature he identifies is to destroy itself, the benefit of denying that base instinct is not apparent to a machine constructed with one sole purpose - to terminate life.

Although the machine is cast as the paternal figure, John is tasked with teaching him the meaning of that role. As they drive away from the city together, John tries to help him assimilate more successfully socially with some language lessons, providing him with the zinger he later employs against his upstart sibling ("Hasta la vista, baby.") The trio drive not in a carefully product-placed Ford Mondeo but quite explicitly in a clapped-out family wagon. This is significant in a movie that set a new standard for Hollywood tie-in promotion. Despite the high concept sci-fi, discussions take place in the most ordinary and familiar of settings - back streets, telephone boxes, gas stations, cars. They chat while driving into the desert to meet Enrique Salceda, a mercenary and old friend of Sarah's living in the sticks with his family and a secret weapons cache. We see John and the Terminator interacting as Sarah looks on, pondering how this absurd solution to the family dynamic is ironically 'the sanest choice'. The machine's lack of humanity is the very thing that makes him the perfect father, 'the only one who measured up' to her uncompromising expectations.

After their departure Enrique's fate isn't made clear in the finished film, though a planned-but-unfilmed scene would have had him ultimately joining Reese and Dyson in the ranks of absentee fathers after an interrogation from the T-1000.

The crisis meeting between the families Dyson and Connor
takes place appropriately sitting around the dining table.
Following Sarah to the Dyson residence, we encounter the closest thing to the 2.4 architypal family in the entire film. Dyson, unknowing architect of the apocalypse, is a family man whose faults lie in his workaholic tendencies. A scene from the special edition highlights his altuistic motives in developing the computer chip ("Imagine a jet airliner with a pilot that never gets tired, never makes mistakes, never shows up to work with a hangover...") but his work still drives him away from his family and ultimately to destruction. He is redeemed through triggering the explosion that destroys Cyberdyne, but his children are left fatherless.

Having defeated the troublesome younger brother and averted Judgment [sic] Day, the movie ends with John's 'parents' physically wrecked but victorious. Sarah's closing voiceover tells us she believes the Terminator has learned 'the value of human life'. He does come to understand kinship and loss by the end of the film, though acknowledges that he is unable to experience those himself ("I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.") Whether this signifies that he now knows why killing is wrong is unclear (he is, of course, a terminator) but he recognises why humans value life. He and Sarah share a limp handshake before yet another father figure nobly sacrifices himself for the good of the family.