The Colonial Undertones of 'Terminator: Genisys'

The new Terminator movie picks up on sci-fi's imperialist dreams while jamming in as many winking references to the earlier two films as possible.

by Noah Berlatsky
Jun 30 2015, 9:15pm

Still from 'Terminator: Genisys' (2015). Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Terminator: Genisys is about the future invading and colonizing the past. Like all the other Terminator films, it's a kind of reverse imperial nightmare, in which the bound and docile computer servants rise up and destroy their masters in an orgy of nuclear fire. The underclass we have subjugated has risen up and seized the machinery of death. And as Kyle Reese declares of his evil robot pursuer in the first Terminator film, that underclass "can't be bargained with! It can't be reasoned with! It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!"

Michael Biehn's crazed, over-the-top delivery as Reese nicely captures sci-fi's longstanding paranoid terror: the fear not only of death but of just retribution. It's not an accident that the machine takeover in Terminator is referred to as "Judgment Day."

In its colonial concerns, the Terminator series picks up on sci-fi tropes stretching back at least to War of the Worlds , in which H. G. Wells explicitly compares what the Martians do to Europeans to what the British did to other peoples. "We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races," Wells writes. "The Tasmanians... were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years."

Still from 'Terminator: Genisys' (2015). Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Note that while Wells sympathizes with the Tasmanians, he doesn't hesitate to call them "inferior." And "inferior" in this case, specifically, means backwards, farther down the evolutionary scale—trapped in the past. John Rieder in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction points out that in Wells's time, anthropologists saw people like the Tasmanians as prehistoric holdovers. The past wasn't just a temporal phenomenon—it was spatial. You could visit the colonies and travel back to a primitive past: Ships to Australia, or Africa, or the Polynesian Islands were effectively time machines. In keeping with that theme, Wells's Martians were presented as having enormous, super-evolved brains—a vision of humanity's future development, come back through space-time to destroy their own past.

The parallel here with Terminator: Genisys should be fairly obvious. The film opens with an extended sequence in the robot-controlled future, where the former computer servants have seized control, and humans are hunted down and put in camps. (Mostly white) anticolonial freedom fighters led by John Connor rise up to throw off the yoke of oppression. The (formerly) subjugated are imagined as futuristic monsters, while the (onetime) subjugators are seen as scrappy atavistic holdovers: "Old but not obsolete," as good Terminator Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course) repeatedly says.

Pops, though, does his good Terminator thing in the past, not the future. The time-traveling technology, used in all the Terminator films, is here spread around liberally. Scads of humans and robots making multiple time jumps to 1984 (the date of the first Terminator film) and then to the near future, 2017. Rather than a line between invaded past and invading future as in War of the Worlds —or the other Terminator films—Genisys scrambles all the terms.

1960 Edward Gorey cover to 'War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells

Wells used parallels to position Europeans as both invaders and invaded. The irony in War of the Worlds is that futuristic Europeans are turned into the backwards colonized peoples. Genisys dispenses with the irony in favor of a gleefully decadent messiness. Filmic trickery allows old good Arnold Terminator to confront his younger evil doppelgänger robot self. Who is the future and who is the past, here? And just to turn the futuristic lug-nut further, both good and bad terminators are designed to infiltrate human society. The servants actually, literally, inhabit the skin of the colonizers—or is it the colonizers inhabiting the skin of the colonized? How can you tell the difference?

Still from 'Terminator: Genisys' (2015). Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

To some extent, you can see Genisys as riffing on Wells's colonial metaphor. John Connor, the resistance leader and the hope for a human future, is synthetically replaced at the cellular level by terminator technology and becomes John Connor, robot clone, hope for computer master operating system Skynet. The freedom fighter is the Man—or the Man is the freedom fighter, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it seems like an illustration (parodic or otherwise) of our longstanding desire to view ourselves as scrappy underdogs even as we target distant lands with our superior weaponry and superior tech. Skynet in 2017 manifests as a holographic child, whining that humans are trying to kill it and using that as an excuse to institute a final solution. The über-powerful are always imagining themselves under assault—just like in the reverse-colonial daydreams of Wells, or Terminator.

It would be giving Genisys too much credit, though, to pretend it is really thinking all that deeply about colonialism, or about anything for that matter. The first two Terminator movies seem to believe, at least, in their own anxieties. Terminator presents a genuinely terrifying vision in which our mechanical catspaws become unstoppable, vengeful destroyers; T2 deftly conflates postindustrial anxieties about obsolescence with nuclear Cold War nightmare.

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Genisys pretends to care about the same fears, but really it just leverages them as exercises in branding. Suspenseful pacing and apocalyptic vision are cheerily sacrificed for as many winking references to the earlier two films as possible. Genisys feels like a Disney theme-park take on the series—"Terminatorland: You'll Be Back"—right down to the boy-gets-girl-and-rides-off-into-the-landscape ending. "No fate" is a hollow slogan when you get the same damn conclusion as every other film in the multiplexes.

Still, there is something refreshing about Genisys's naked hackishness. Wells's colonial anxieties, warnings, and moralisms are shamelessly diced up for tropes. Here, imperial adventure is dulled into nostalgic corporate comfort food. But isn't it fun to imagine oppression and invasion and freedom-fighting ? Genisys insists. Things blow up, the weak defeat the strong—or is that the strong defeating the weak? Either way, colonialism is served up as empty-headed entertainment for all on the big screen—and for that matter on the nightly news, where our various foreign misadventures grind on for our viewing pleasure without logic or much American emotional investment. The callous stupidity of Genisys isn't exactly profound, but at least it's honest.

Terminator: Genisys is in theaters on July 1.

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