Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Fearing the Future in the Urban Environment
The Terminator was written at a time when North American society was still coming to grips with the number of urban serial killers and disturbed "spree" killers breaking out in major cities. For many people, urban environments had become -- and remain -- extremely frightening environments, with danger lurking around every corner.
Contrasted to this was the ambivalence and anomie of people more accustomed to living in those urban environments. Emile Durkheim defined anomie as, essentially, normlessness. In order for social norms to break down social complexities and the industrial division of labour had to break down traditional social value systems.
Anomie reduced the constraints on the ways one could pursue their goals. As some individuals became more and more predatory those who adhered to more traditional social norms could more easily be victimized -- whether it be through crime or ruthless business practices. That sense of victimization could manifest itself in various social problems, including domestic violence, societal withdrawal and suicide.
This anomie led to the development of truly frightening urban landscapes. Street gangs, transient substance-users and homeless people provided for an intimidating vision of a society gone horribly awry. The urban landscape was seen as hard on the mental health of its inhabitants.
The Terminator played off this concept of the urban environment. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cybernetic pseudo-character and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) are initially framed against the image of a serial killer knocking off Sarah Connors in the very order in which they appear in the phone book.
Even after Reese saves Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the Terminator's first attempt to kill her she regards him with suspicion. The social disconnect of the urban environment -- resulting partially from the supplanting of traditional social values -- sewed deep mutual suspicion in city-dwellers.
In The Terminator James Cameron suggests that the most frightening prospect of urban life isn't necessarily the other people living that life, but rather the ultimate result of the industrialism that led to the development of the urban environment. In The Terminator's futuristic and constantly-changing future, this is a computer capable of making the decision to destroy mankind.
Cameron mixed the latent terror of the urban environment with futurism, a philosophical idea that muses about not only the potentially threatening or dehumanizing capacity of technology. Futurism is prevalent in the modern wave of neo-horror films in which technology is used to terrorize the film's protagonists.
In most of these films the threat was purported to be not technology itself, but a malevolent force that instead manifested itself through that technology. The danger was not necessary technology, but the omnipresence of it.
In the flashback scenes of The Terminator, Cameron spins this idea. Technology remains threatening, but is no longer omnipresent. Children huddle together in an underground bunker and stare into a television set in which a fire has been lit -- watching it as children did before Judgement Day. There seem to be very few telephones, no computers, and very little electricity of any kind. When a terminator arrives to clean out the bunker of human life, the danger posed by technology arrives from outside, as opposed to from within.
In The Terminator, James Cameron combined a latent suspicion of the unintended consequences of technology with the latent terror that had long become a part of urban environments.
As the one Terminator film actually produced during the Cold War it's actually rather intriguing that the political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union would remain largely absent from the film itself. Those tensions wouldn't find a role in the franchise until the sequel.