History of the Future: Terminator 2

Event Details

On March 15, 2023, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades. 

The film was introduced by Dr. Aviva Dove-Viebahn. Read her introduction below.

Terminator 2: The Evolution of a Sci-Fi Icon

Dr. Aviva Dove-Viebahn

One of my favorite stories about the Terminator franchise is that no one really imagined it was going to be such a huge success or spark one of the most popular action movie franchises of the 80s and 90s—maybe even of all time. Sure, director James Cameron and his co-writer Gale Ann Hurd, thought the idea was a great one—since they came up with it!—and of course they worked tirelessly to get it financed.  But the first Terminator film, which came out in 1984, has the feel of a B horror movie, or what Cameron has described as a “sci-fi slasher flick,” because that’s what it was meant to be. Cameron says that they “saw it as a low budget guerrilla-style production, [with] aspirations to do something that was somehow world-class within those limitations.” So, the film had a mid-range budget, 6.4 million, and surprised pretty much everyone when it became a runaway hit, earning over 78 million at the box office and making Cameron a household name. It’s no wonder then that expectations were high for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which had a budget of 100 million, huge blockbuster aspirations, and spectacular CGI and special effects for its day.

In oral histories of the film, Cameron and Hurd acknowledge how Sarah Connor was always meant to be an “unlikely hero,” which is part of the appeal of the first two films. Hurd reminisces that they always liked “the idea that heroic people are the ones who [you] least expect to be heroes. There’s a tradition of male characters who go to war, who are in the boxing ring, who rise to be the corporate titan, you name it. But Jim has always found women to be the more compelling parts to write. Culturally, they’re the ones who feel less equipped, because that’s what society tells them.” Subsequently, the Sarah we meet in Terminator is a somewhat flighty and carefree waitress who is thrown into a horrifying fight for her life when a cybernetic assassin from the future, the T-800 Terminator is sent back in time to kill her before she can give birth to her son John, who is destined to be a military leader and help turn the tide in the coming war against the machines. John of the future sends his own father, Kyle Reese, back in time to protect Sarah, and the one night the two spend together before Kyle is killed results in Sarah’s pregnancy. Told she will be the mother of humanity’s salvation, Sarah is immediately forced into a role of survivor and, eventually, by the second film, that of a vigilante warrior spurred by Kyle’s descriptions of an apocalyptic future.

That brings me to my second favorite story about the Terminator franchise, which is that it started with a dream. In the early 1980s, Cameron, then an art director for B-movie legend Roger Corman, dreamt about a cyborg coming out of an apocalyptic fire, its skin melting away to expose its metal endoskeleton. And so, it’s no surprise that dreams and nightmares are prominent in thefilms. In T2, characters experience two types of dreams of the future. One, visions that are versions of something very real—stories Kyle tells Sarah, that then she envisions and recounts.  For Kyle, these stories are part of his real present and Sarah and John’s potential future, and it’s ironically a future Kyle wants to preserve (John as savior) and one Sarah eventually wants to prevent. That’s where we find the second type of futurity in T2. Sarah dreams of an imagined future: what will or could happen to her and John, to all of humanity, if she doesn’t stop the upcoming apocalypse. In the first film, Kyle comes back in time to protect Sarah so that their son, John, can be born in order to lead that future fight. In T2, Sarah decides that future isn’t good enough; she’s intent on stopping the apocalypse entirely, so that her visions of the future never come to be.

The way time works in Terminator is complicated, and sometimes downright implausible, especially if we look at the whole franchise—six films and a two-season television series.  For example, Terminator and Judgment Day are part of the same timeline, and the television show The Sarah Connor Chronicles takes off from the T2 timeline and then goes its own route. The subsequent three films, Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys, were not written or directed by Cameron and thus each reconfigure the timeline in slightly different ways.  In one, Sarah is dead and the film focuses on John and his future wife; another takes place entirely in the apocalyptic future; the last reinvents John as a villain. Then there’s the most recent film, the sixth, Dark Fate, whichreturns to the original timeline established in T2 but takes place thirty years later. Since this isn’t Marvel and there’s no multiverse here, we have to consider that each film imagines a new version of the present and future created through different choices made by the characters. And that’s the scary thing about decisions and time: characters’ choices have the tendency to ricochet, begging the question whether the apocalypse can actually be averted or if there are just different ways it might come to pass. What if John dies? Does that mean humanity will lose its battle against the machines? That’s implied by Kyle and imagined by Sarah, but there’s no guarantee. And, seeing as no one can actually see into the future (the people who know about the future only do because they’ve traveled into the past; they don’t know their own future), there’s actually no way of knowing whether humanity will ultimately win its war against the machines even with John as their leader.

Even between the first two films, everything has changed because of a series of decisions. Set a decade after her encounter with Kyle in Terminator, T2 finds Sarah locked away in a mental institution having spent the intervening years learning military and survival skills. The doctors think Sarah is psychotic because of her stories about the coming apocalypse, and the T-800 terminator, a ruthless killer in the first film, has now been reprogrammed into a gentle, sometimes unintentionally funny protector to John.  The only constant between all these timelines and their many dreams and fears of the future is Sarah’s role as a mother. In the first film, Sarah asks skeptically, “Do I look like the mother of the future?” By T2, she’s more than ready to prove that she can take on that role.  I want to take a minute to think about what it means to be “the mother of the future”?  We have all sorts of ideas about mothers and how they impact their children’s lives. In the first few years, mothers have tremendous direct influence, but often face dissent a bit later because of minor matters of bedtime and screen usage. Mothers simultaneously have very little power over a child’s future beyond that which she can immediately impact, a vanishingly small zone of influence as the child ages into adulthood. Mothers are subjected to all kinds of ideas about how they’re supposed to act. They’re both venerated and dismissed, depending on the circumstances, and categorized by many idioms that imply special maternal strengths and weaknesses: mama bear, tiger mom, mama’s boy, mother hen, mothers having eyes in the backs of their heads, etc. They’re also mythologized, especially as bearers of future heroes—and what is Sarah if not a myth of motherhood? Maybe even a myth of humanity and its preservation. If she’s the mother of the future, does that make her an ideal mother, a mother whose sole purpose is to birth a hero, or the mother-as-creator, someone who, by protecting John, literally creates and safeguards humanity’s future?

You can probably see the religious metaphor here: John as a savior and his mother’s pregnancy as symbolically immaculate (since Kyle comes from the future like a guardian angel and doesn’t technically exist yet in the present). The titles of half the films also make sure it’s hard to miss (Judgement Day, Salvation, Genisys). But beyond the religious metaphor, I’m more interested in the way Sarah as a mother is turned into a metaphor for our responsibilities towards future generations. There’s been a lot of discussion over the last thirty years about Sarah’s role as a mother (and, by extension, how Linda Hamilton’s muscular physique in the T2 deviates from conventional feminine ideals). Whatever there is to say about Sarah’s body, her physical prowess, or her abilities as a fighter, there is no question that T2 frames her as protector of humanity’s future via the survival of John. She is not an ideal mother in a stereotypically gendered sense; she is not nurturing or emotionally present, but she is unfailingly self-sacrificing—which is something, for better or worse, we often expect of mothers in today’s world: giving up their own present for the promise of their children’s future.  John is also coded as an embodiment of life, freedom and prosperity. By saving John, Sarah can save the world.

I trust most of you have seen this film before; even if you haven’t, the scene I’m about to describe doesn’t constitute any major spoilers. I want to use it by way of closing out this introduction just to illustrate the points I’m trying to make about the connection between humanity’s future and motherhood as symbolic of its protection. There’s a grisly scene midway through T2 —one Cameron deemed necessary despite its significant special effects expense when compared with its short duration. It’s one of Sarah’s nightmares of a world wiped out by nuclear blasts. In it, she observers a younger and more innocent version of herself playing with a toddler in a playground surrounded by other mothers and children. We might be tempted to see this scene as a memory of John’s toddler years, and yet we know that John never experienced a “normal” childhood, and the Sarah we see—happy, carefree—has not existed since prior to her pregnancy. As the nuclear bomb detonates, and the city and park around them explode into light and flames, the families catch fire and burn in front of Sarah’s eyes as she herself begins to burn, screaming and clutching the chain link fence separating herself from the others. Gruesome and terrifying, the imagery in the dream layers nightmare atop nightmare as the bodies, charred to ash in protective poses huddled with their children like the mummies that remained after the destruction of Pompeii, are blown away in a second blast that sends the dust and bones of the fallen into the air around Sarah’s screaming skeleton (another version of Cameron’s nightmare that started it all). When she wakes from the dream, she has carved “NO FATE” into a picnic table and seems more determined than ever to do whatever it takes to defeat the threats she faces, both direct and existential.

This scene then, and the film as a whole, begs the question what we can and should do to prevent a known or possible future nightmare—as well as how much our choices matter if events are already set in motion by the actions of our past selves. If you’re the mother of the future—real or symbolic—how do you protect that future when, like a child, it’s not entirely under your control? T2 asks us to consider those questions and more. It may be just over thirty years old. It may represent version of technologies of networking and artificial intelligence that we have long since surpassed as a civilization. But it’s still imminently relevant for the questions it asks about the relationship between time and possibility and the ways dreams and nightmares might inform how we envision humanity’s future and our roles in shaping it.   

Dr. Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at ASU who holds a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies and is an award winning screen writer. Dr. Dove-Viebahn has studied Terminator 2 and its deep cultural impacts as a cult classic film.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.