The Terminator films have been described as true masterpieces of science fiction, employing equal amounts of brains and brawn in a winning formula. While still unashamedly catering to the male market, they have always had more appeal than the mere action sequence; themes of time travel and human relationships attract those who want more than Arnold Schwarzenegger punching someone’s teeth in. Alternatively, the films could be said to be pseudo-intellectual attempts to snare a higher box office return. Either way, James Cameron successfully sold the franchise through both The Terminator and its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Cameron had nothing to do with the latest installment, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, to the film’s credit. Director Jonathan Mostow has broken with the previous mood in a new aesthetic. Under his hand, the relationships between man and machine—as well as man and woman—are colored in what could be called Freudian tones.
The lead female in the earlier Terminator franchise was Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a woman thrown into chaos when she discovers that she is to birth the man who will lead humanity in a war against machines. She is an average individual who grows into a remarkable warrior through her brushes with the Terminator. By T2, she is an angry and frustrated character because she has languished in a mental institution while her son John lived a delinquent life beyond her control.
In T3, we discover that Sarah Connor has died of leukemia. The lead female role is assigned to Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). When we meet her she initially resembles the T1 Sarah: she is a veterinarian who lives a mostly normal life with a loving fiancé and a somewhat estranged father. Kate is embroiled in the film’s conflict when she receives a surprise visit from old school friend John Connor (Nick Stahl), now grown up and living on the lam. The circumstances of their initial encounter are salient to her character: she traps John in a cage as he is stealing drugs from her practice. She places him in a position of powerlessness while she remains free to pace around and interrogate him. Kate is a woman in power over a man, a sharp contrast with the bewildered Sarah Connor of T1, who was forced to rely on Kyle Reese for protection—and ultimately sexual fulfillment.
The tables are eventually reversed. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) locks Kate in the back of a veterinary van for much of the film’s first half, and she is thus imprisoned by her job and by the two male protagonists. When freed, she attempts to flee John and his mechanical benefactor, but finds that she is predestined to become a figurehead in the conflict. Despite her initial appearance of empowerment, Kate is a slave, directly to destiny and indirectly to John.
We are told that even though Judgment Day was averted through the destruction of CyberDyne in T2, it is inevitable that Skynet will gain self-awareness and launch an attack on humanity. John Connor is no longer the only one who needs protecting: Kate is to be his chief lieutenant and the mother of his children, and is thus included in the Terminator’s mission to save humanity. Kate and John become a figurative dyad, a link strengthened when their relationship develops.
The foundations of Kate’s sexuality and womanhood are found in John Connor; when she first recognizes him, she recalls Mike Krypke’s basement, where “all the kids used to go and make out.” The first kiss she ever received from a boy was from John in that basement. Even though she is initially antagonistic, there is an almost Shakespearean predictability about the flourishing of their relationship. But before there can be consummation, Kate is required to prove her worth to her man. It seems that she is not John’s “type.” We are never told what his type is, but there is evidence to suggest that, like his biological father, he must only let himself be attracted to women exhibiting masculine qualities.
Figurative connections between John, Kate, Sarah, and Kyle are the vehicle for a Freudian intersection between the three Terminator films. In T1, Kyle Reese, one of John’s comrades, travels back to the past to impregnate Sarah Connor with John. T2 sees John find a father-figure in a Terminator, while Sarah tries to act as the primary caregiver and passes down as much military knowledge as she can.
What is interesting about this scenario is that John is essentially fatherless. This can be read as both a revision of the virgin birth (as John is destined to become a Messiah figure), and as a twist on the Oedipus complex, in that he has no father to contend with for his mother’s affections. The father-competitor has been replaced by the authorities, which may explain John’s juvenile delinquency in T2.
T3 returns to the events of the first film by placing Kate as a reborn Sarah Connor, who hooks up with Sarah’s son. The circumstances become clear as Kate slowly embraces her destiny, at one point causing John to remark, “Nothing. You just remind me of my mother.” One could construe this pairing as a secret realization of the Oedipus conflict, as John is (we presume) able to sexually conquer his mother-figure.
Set in opposition to Kate Brewster is the new Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken). She is a stark contrast to previous Terminators from the franchise. The original T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is a seemingly unstoppable male juggernaut who represents the pinnacle of violent masculinity: a “man” above the law, unable to feel pain, able to do whatever he wants—most of said wants involving ballistic weapons, motorcycles, and other midlife-crisis imagery. Double-coded against this powerful maleness is his complete lack of sexuality, despite the famous time-portal scenes where he appears completely naked.
This same Terminator becomes a curious father-figure in T2. Here he is pitted against the new T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a still-potent male who doubles as a murderous Proteus who can assume any human form. This instability of appearance resonates more holistically with the asexual “killing machine” character of a Terminator.
The most sophisticated Terminator yet combines both prior models into a single individual, a woman. This may be an attempt to unite a powerful Amazon with a more traditional image of the woman as Selkie, a shape-shifter who is impossible to catch. Notably, she immediately surpasses both of her predecessors, demonstrating the superiority of machines when it comes to brute force.
Like other Terminators, the T-X lacks any kind of sexual emotion, but the machines have apparently discovered that human men are susceptible to the wiles of women. When she emerges from the time portal, she is standing among mannequins in a fashion shop window; moments later, after she appropriates clothing and a car, she literally inflates her breasts to seduce a policeman. But all such signs of the temptress are soon lost as the T-X commandeers vehicles and chases her targets with a relentlessness more than equal to her predecessors.
The T-X, interestingly, compromises where the T-1000 and the T-800 failed. She no longer carries an inhuman detachment from her violent actions. Instead, she demonstrates a kind of anger and hot determination at different points throughout the film, reacting to situations with what looks almost like emotion. She also smiles fiendishly when she accomplishes certain goals (“I like your car/gun”). This is clearly a marketing issue on the surface, but it also serves to identify the T-X with Venus, the devious goddess of love who is embodied in such characters as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra.
As with her mythological counterpart, the T-X is sly, sexy, and ultimately above those she manipulates to accomplish her goals. In keeping with the modern sexual milieu, Connor christens this latest Terminator the “Terminatrix,” a moniker highly suited to the T-X’s fusion of beauty and violence. The dominatrix reference is furthered during one particular fight scene when the T-X is seen to swivel head and limbs until she is wrapped around Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in a highly sexualized grip. She also has the ability to control other machines via use of a slender, needle-like probe. A Freudian interpretation of this particular facet of the T-X would explore such ideas as penetration and penis envy, but that may be reading too far into an isolated plot device. It is nevertheless fitting that her death involves a grenade-like power cell being jammed into her throat, similar to a case of autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong.
The importance of the T-800 character has been somewhat reduced in T3. He retains much of the role he had in T2 as guardian of John Connor and other protagonists. In contrast to John, he has to be active round the clock to protect his charges, and whereas John is the one trapped in a cage, the T-800 is the one making them.
The biggest motif by far to be found here is one of impotence and obsolescence, particularly when framed against the interactions with the T-X. It is no accident that Schwarzenegger is playing the now-outmoded T-800; it was a theme played out in T2, and the additional irony of Arnie’s fading career is obvious in this film.
In particular, the T-800 is presented as having been superseded by the female T-X—a machine that is not necessarily stronger, but far more resourceful and tactical. The consistent victories won by the T-X parallel a “battle of the sexes” in which the old patriarchal institutions are being defeated and supplanted by a newer, smarter, savvier movement (echoing the rise of feminism and the push for equality for women in the workplace). Moreover, the aging T-800 is frustrated at every twist and turn by the T-X’s ability to anticipate his movements. He must engage in unorthodox tactics to gain any headway in the fight scenes. Such frustration can be identified with a more generalized notion of the elderly male coming to terms with the loss of youthfulness and vigor that he sees flaunted in the younger generations—not necessarily in a sexual sense, but across all faculties of his life.
The interplay between male and female in T3 is surprisingly complex for a film of its genre. Kate Brewster is the empowered woman, Sarah Connor incarnate, John’s Oedipal love interest. Against her is the Terminatrix T-X, who represents an Amazon with man problems and a knack for sexual violence. Between the two parties stands the T-800, who is getting too old to be any good to anyone. To resolve this sexual conflict, the has-been man destroys both himself and the ultimate woman, leaving Kate and John to go forth like Adam and Eve to multiply in a brave new world of man against machine.
The conclusion is somewhat ambiguous; perhaps it is Mostow’s way of acknowledging the uncertainty of gender in the twenty-first century. More likely, it is just a hook for the possibility of Terminator 4.
Ben Atwood lives in Sydney, where he is a second-year psychology student. That’s why he knows about the Freudian stuff—really, it’s not a pervert thing at all.