Until the Eighties, most Science Fiction films, and in particular the ones in which the machine is a robot, cyborg, or some combination of human and machine, favored the evil machine story and reflected the ambivalence and caution toward machines that had informed the Science Fiction film since Fritz Lang created the evil robot, Maria (the original material girl) in Metropolis (1926). These films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), Westworld (1973), The Demon Seed (1977), Alien (1979), and, finally, James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Terminator (1984), the genre's last solid rendition of a truly evil machine. The machine in T1, like Skynet, the Artificial Intelligence that created it, is bad to its alloy bone.
The separation of humans from machines in popular culture began to close in the 1980’s. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), more physical damage is sustained by replicants than by people, the replicants have pitifully short life spans, and, in fact, all of the women in the film are replicants. Scott's film stands Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on its head. Dicks’ novel is about a bounty hunter who is so human he is capable of empathizing with the ruthless machines he hunts down and destroys. That capacity almost destroys him. Fourteen years later, in Blade Runner, the machines are more human and compassionate than the humans. It's the machines who recite poetry and philosophy and who have "seen things you people wouldn't believe," and it's pain that keeps Roy Baty alive long enough to redeem the bounty hunter, Rick Deckard. In Robocop (1987) the human, torn down and reconstructed with machine parts replacing limbs and organs, sustains massive injuries in his first encounter with a killer robot. And, in Cameron and Hurd's Aliens (1986), their sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the robot or "artificial person" is ripped in half by WATCH OUT! A XENOMORPH! Cameron and Hurd's word for a non-human life form. The humans and the machines are on the same side, and, at the film's climax, it is the badly damaged "artificial person" -- his legless torso resembling a broken, plastic doll -- who saves the human child from being sucked into space.
By the time Cameron and Hurd released the sequel to their first Terminator film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the chasm separating people and machines was gone. T2, like The Terminator, is set within the context of an apocalyptic war between humans and machines that follows a 1997 nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The nuclear war begins when Skynet, the U.S.A.'s computer-based defense system, achieves self-awareness and attacks the Russians, hoping the human race will be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. In this, both films are consistent with each other, and with Dr. Strangelove, Colossus: The Forbin Project and other films of the Cold War era. And Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Terminator have the same basic plot. Skynet sends a Terminator from the future to kill Sarah Connor or her son John before John can be born, grow up, and lead the humans in their war against the machines. In both films, the humans send a warrior back through time to protect John and his mother. It is at this point that T1 and T2 diverge. In The Terminator, the protector is a human being, and the Terminator is a machine. In T2, the protector is a machine, and the Terminator is neither human nor machine. He is something else.
T2 is a brilliant rendition of the mad scientist myth. Three heroes, John Connor, his mom, and John's cyborg protector, hustle to stop the mad scientist before he can invent the basic technology that leads to Skynet. To stay alive, they have to stay out of the clutches of a new kind of Terminator who, though Cameron and Hurd call him a machine, is depicted, especially in his grotesque death throes, as essentially organic or worse. Unlike the Terminator in T1, who is a machine disguised as a man, the Terminator in T2 is an organic whole, not an assemblage of parts, and, although it's possible to read "machine" into his strength, agility and relentless focus, when he's consigned to a caldron of molten steel at the climax of the film, he shape shifts, writhes and bellows in agony like a monstrous animal or demon.
T2 is remarkably misanthropic and predictably iconoclastic in its assault on the usual people and institutions, including Ma Bell, bank machines, cops, bikers, foster parents and the city of Los Angeles, which is flattened by a hydrogen bomb. But T2’s rendition of the cyborg who is sent back through time to protect John Connor is heroic. And, just in case we can't follow the sub-text, T2 spells it out for us in a voice-over by Sarah Connor. Watching the cyborg and her kid, Sarah says: "Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."
In the film's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the cauldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron and Hurd use a series of close-ups to create a beautiful portrait of The Cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.
But there is more. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron and Gayle Anne Hurd gave us our first glimpse of a new, still unformed technology that might replace the machine as the not-us adversary upon which we project our worst fears. Having united human and machine through the myth of the cyborg, having accepted the machine model of human intelligence and anatomy to the extent that we understood ourselves better as machines than as animals, having realized that we are evolving, not into angels but into machines, we have joined with The Cyborg to face the uncertain, and, because our paranoia stays one step ahead of us, always dangerous natural and supernatural worlds. The myth of the evil machine is dead. We are ready to confront, in myth and in art, the potential of bioengineering and of our own over-heated subconscious minds.