Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Terminator: Salvation & Modern Technology (featuring some spoilers...)

What I like about the Terminator franchise is each movie's ability to reflect a generation's relationship to technology.

In 1984, when the first Terminator film was released, the world was just finally beginning to resolve a 30-ish year nuclear arms race that left Americans with a clear-cut sense of "good," and "evil." The film's plot has an equally lucid separation of power, mapping West vs. East over Man vs. Machine: a Terminator robot is sent back in time from a machine-ruled, nuclear-ravaged future to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future's human resistance leader while the humans send back Kyle Reese to protect her. Together, the duo crush the Terminator robot, clearly implying the victory of American values of "love" and "honor" onto the humans who defeat the robotic, eastern-European-sounding Terminator robot.

"Terminator 2: Judgement Day," on the other hand, adds a contemporary twist. Released in 1991, almost 10 years after the first, as the technological floodgates of cell phones, computers, and the Internet began to be breached, T2 features a terminator robot sent back in time to defend John Connor from a new Terminator model sent back to destroy him. This time, John Connor and the Terminator 'bot become close friends: Man, Working Side-By-Side with Machines, vs. Machines...

"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," has a similar theme, as another Terminator robot is sent back to help John Connor fight yet another more advanced robot. Yet this film introduces a vivid concept to the 2003 audience: the persistence of the Internet. Although they defeat the time traveling machine monster, its essence leaks into the Cyberdyne network and now lives in "the cloud" where it is everywhere at once and impossible to track down and eliminate.

This past weekend saw the release of a new Terminator movie, "Terminator Salvation," and even possibly a new trilogy. So what did this film bring to the cultural table? Artificial Intelligence: a part human-part robot hybrid cyborg, designed by Cyberdyne to infiltrate the resistance post "Judgement Day," that doesn't know it is a robot at all. Instead of fulfilling its micro-processed mission, this cyborg, in the form of ex-convict Marcus Wright, somehow gains free will and decides to sacrifice his own human heart to save a dying John Connor.

Clearly, the fourth installment of the series is saying something (perhaps a bit obvious?) about the ubiquitous fusion of humans and networked machines. Yet I feel that the way this was played out in the Hollywood ending was, among others, the film's biggest disappointment. Instead of portraying something prolific about the modern grey areas of humans and machines, about the mixed identities of living in both the physical world and in digital spaces, about the technological identity crisis if, say, John Connor was saved by becoming, himself, a human-machine cyborg destined to save a race he is only "part" of in theory and in essence- instead of diving into all this, Marcus Wright destroys himself for John Connor's survival, in itself a kind of human triumph over machines that is exhausted over the last three films, proving, once again, that the good-old flesh and blood "human heart" is somehow dialectically opposed to networked machines who cannot, by nature, "feel" or "love."

So let's really think about this: is it really the "strength of the human heart" that separates man from machine??

UPDATE: Check this out-
"In trying to understand presence – the propensity of humans to respond to fake stimuli as if they are real – the researchers are not just gaining insights into how the human brain functions. They are also learning how to create more intense and realistic virtual experiences, opening the door to myriad applications for healthcare, training, social research and entertainment."

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