The Long View 2003-11-17: Arnold's Apocalypse

Unfortunately, the planned Governator series was canceled following [another] revelation of martial infidelity by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which is a pity, because I thought the whole idea was quite funny.

Schwarzenegger's career, and the Terminator movies, represent largely ignored parts of American culture and political history. Absurd! you say. Yes, it is absurd if you only look at the popularity of the movies or media attention Schwarzenegger gained as Governor of California. What is interesting here is how Arnold's rise to stardom and political power has a lot to do with the largely unexamined role of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Since steroids have played a big role, but we haven't really admitted they have played a big role, so we don't really want to talk about it. When I was a kid, I heard a lot about how any day now, women's records for the 100M dash were going to be the same as men's. Then drug-testing came to the Olympics, and the trend lines stopped converging. No one every talked about it again.

If you look, you can see this same pattern elsewhere. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example of how it works.

Arnold's Apocalypse

It's unlikely that I would have rented the video of Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines if the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had not been about to be sworn in as governor of California. The film was short on political subtext. Arnold the Good Robot does say, "We need a new vehicle," when the roof of the stolen hearse is swiped off in a chase scene, but it would probably be over-interpreting the text to read that as an allusion to Candidate Schwarzenegger's promise to repeal the vehicle-tax increase.

Nonetheless, the movie was strangely charming. At one point, the Arnoldbot remarks that he is an obsolete model, and the film does not flinch from showing that the actor and the franchise are too old for this kind of thing. There are moments of genuine wit, as when Arnold reaches into the pocket of his newly stolen leather jacket in search of sunglasses, and extracts a pair that Elton John might favor. The multivehicle collisions were too complicated for me to follow, but no doubt they were good of their kind. The major fight scenes are between Arnold and an evil dominatrix robot (played by Kristanna Loken), who is also from the future. They rip up whole floors of office buildings, and they are as funny (and non-threatening) as Punch-and-Judy puppets.

The story, however, continues to be about John Connor (Nick Stahl), the future savior of the human race who is now a young man, and his future wife, Kate (Claire Danes). In any other plot summary, Kate would be called a love interest, but in this film Arnold simply arrives from the future and announces that these almost-perfect strangers are destined to have children. The voice-over commentaries by the Connor character express his visceral repulsion at the thought that the future might be predetermined, even as he acknowledges that in fact it seems to be so.

This is the film in which the future actually arrives. Skynet takes over the world's interlinked computer systems and launches its nuclear extermination campaign against the human race. The plot is facilitated by the fact that, today, we easily imagine AI software with no physical location; in contrast, when the first Terminator movie premiered in 1984, the Web did not yet exist. John Connor and Kate are misdirected to a deserted defense center by Kate's dying father, who tells them Skynet is based on a supercomputer there. In reality, Skynet is everywhere, and he just wants to put them out of harm's way. At the very end of the film, pleas for help start to come into the center from civil defense offices across the country. Connor starts to coordinate them. Arthur grasps Excalibur and draws it from the stone, somewhat to his own consternation.

This is a Strauss & Howe moment. Indeed, at the risk of sounding like the folks at Metaphilm, one could expand on the allegorical significance of T3 for the relationship between the generations today. John Connor was raised by his mother, and he points out that Arnold the Robot (or the incarnation of him in the second movie) was closest thing to a father he ever had. That's a parody of a certain kind of Babyboomer father for you: largely absent, even when he has visitation rights, but liable to visions about the future, and driven by inner certainties that scarcely take note of the people around him.

One might also note the timing of the film. The development of T3 was halted by 911, in part because the producers wondered whether there would ever be a market for this kind of mechanical carnage again. There still is, apparently, but it's not what it was; in any case, Mr. Schwarzenegger has taken up another line of work. Nonetheless, T3 could be said to represent the historical moment when the film was conceived. Even as the script was being finalized, a long-foreseen catastrophe arrived, after a decade of neglect and denial.

The people who have to handle it are of an age with the characters in the movie; and there are few John Connors. No one told them the world could be like this. At any rate, their teachers didn't. Films, sometimes, offer a more reliable sense of the possible.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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