The Terminator and Free Will

The Terminator franchise does some really interesting things with time.


Every storyline centers around time travel. Around events being changed, or perhaps not changed, as a result of time travel.

(The fourth movie is an exception to this, but I think we can all agree that movie was just terrible.)

I’m particularly intrigued by the Terminator movies as an argument for – or perhaps against – predestination.

At its heart, the struggle against the robot uprising and ensuing apocalypse is really an exploration of the questions can the future be changed? Is our fate already written?

On it’s face, the Terminator seems to argue against predestination.

In the eponymous 1984 movie Kyle Reese famously – yeah, that’s what I’m going with here – argues, “the future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

That phrase is repeated in various incarnations by human heroes throughout the franchise. It gives them the strength and determination to keep fighting.

There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

But while our characters want to believe in their free will, while they need to believe in their ability to effect change, the actual events of the story don’t necessarily support that view.

The very words that Kyle says were told to him by John Connor – the man who sent Kyle back in time. The man who only exists because Kyle fathered him in the past.

Kyle Reese, who so strongly believes there is no fate, was apparently fated to travel back in time to father the son who would later send him back in time.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is every indication that Skynet, our nefarious robot consciousness, can also trace it’s origins to 1984.

Terminator 2 argues that Skynet exists in the future only because the technology was reverse-engineered from the robot which it sent to the past.

Skynet is its own grandpa.

If the Terminator hadn’t gone back in time, if Kyle Reese hadn’t gone back in time, neither Skynet nor John Connor would ever exist.

Yet our characters cling to the notion that there is no fate.

Of course, this sort of temporal paradox isn’t enough to resign ourselves to predestination. A paradox is a paradox…it doesn’t mean that everything is meant to be.

And yet, the most important point in human history seems to be fixed.

Judgement Day, as it’s called. When the machines rise up against man and the world as we know it is destroyed.

There is no fate but what we make for ourselves, the humans say.

Judgment Day is inevitable, reply the machines.

The date may change. The details may change. But the end always comes. Fight against it as they will, it certainly seems our heroes are helpless. It certainly seems as though, indeed, Judgement Day is inevitable.

And if that fate is sealed, the details hardly matter. Perhaps we have a sort of nominal free-will; perhaps we can make a choice, but not over anything that matters.

And yet, despite this seemingly inevitable impending doom, despite the fact that evidence seems to point to significant events being preordained, the humans keep soldiering on. Keep fighting the good fight, desperate to change the outcome and convinced that there is no fate.

And perhaps there is cause for this hope. After all, while humanity fights to alter the timeline, Skynet is altering the timeline as well. Judgement Day may not be inevitable, but rather just the most probable outcome in this temporal tug-of-war. Perhaps the future can be whatever humanity can make of it.

Or, perhaps, it is fate. Perhaps whatever we do – Judgement Day is inevitable.


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