The Terminator (1984) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) make great bookends to neoliberalism. Terminator is about the rise of neoliberalism: a woman is hunted down by a representative of the future, a future manifest in a machine hidden within human flesh. This future seems unstoppable until, in the final scenes the fleshly machine is destroyed by the more honest Fordist machines of an American factory. As an allegory of neoliberalism, this is utopian, as the future of outsourcing and just-in-time production that the terminator represents was already on well on it’s way to being established by 1984; and by being utopian, it’s also reactionary, because it mistakes Fordism, a temporary compromise with capitalism, for something desirable in itself, and so focuses on an unwinnable and anyway unworthy defensive struggle, rather than thinking of new ways of going beyond capitalism. Of course (and I think this is what has given The Terminator such a lasting legacy), the film is quite aware of this, ending with Sarah Conor aware of the inevitability of the neoliberal apocalypse, and searching for ways to prepare for it.
Terminator: Salvation, on the other hand, takes place firmly after the apocalypse, and was released in 2009, when, indeed, the neoliberal apocalypse had already happened. It isn’t exactly a perfect film, with its focus on explosions taking up time that could have been put to better use telling us, really, anything about the main characters, but it’s a lot better than Terminator 3. It’s temporal location may explain why, except for the last 20 minutes or so, Terminator 3 doesn’t have any of the resonance of the other films: it’s set before the apocalypse, but released in 2003, at which point I don’t think anyone thought apocalypse was avoidable; the film is, really, just marking time.
(A digression inspired by watching Zombieland the other day. What I like about the film is its presentation of the post-apocalypse as amusement arcade; apparently, you only need to walk a hundred yards to find a Hummer full of weapons, or Bill Murray’s house full of food and fine wine. Obviously in one sense this is ridiculous; if there’s no-one working at the power plant, it will take more than flipping a couple of switches to get the theme park rides back up and running. But there’s also something right about this; our apocalypse isn’t an apocalypse of scarcity, but one that leaves us scavenging in the wreckage of superabundance. I also like the way no-one in the film uses their real names, as if the apocalypse has wiped away bourgeois subjectivity.)
The post-apocalypse of Terminator: Salvation is a more conventional in its portrayal of economic and environmental ruin, but what strikes me as interesting is the role that industry still plays in it. You might expect the world produced by a murderous artificial intelligence to be more immaterial but, in a partial reversal of the first film, in Terminator: Salvation, industry is now firmly on the side of the machines. The choice to locate Skynet central in the Bay Area is clever; what is, in our world, the home of post-industrial Web 2.0, becomes, in the film, the real of post-Fordist capitalism, the nightmare factories of China and other free trade zones. And we see that, like neoliberalism, Skynet still has a use for human beings, even if only as bare life to be fed into its machinic labs. But Skynet is presented as so material in the film that it seems to have neglected its immaterial dimension; surely an omnipotent AI would not have a security system that is as easy to hack as John Connor finds Skynet’s to be? The film is perhaps still caught up in the liberatory fantasies of the late neoliberal period, in which the internet was imagined as uncomplicatedly a site of freedom.
The end of the film perhaps complicates this, as John Connor is saved by the robot that does not know it is a robot. I had thought, and hoped, at one point that they were going to go further with this blurring of the human-machine boundary: would it not have been a better ending if the actual John Connor had died in the attempt to free the prisoners from Skynet, but the humanoid robot had decided to continue Connor’s work by taking on his name, with the result that the “John Connor” who started the whole series by sending Kyle Rees back in time to save Sarah Connor, would have been himself a Terminator?