No Fate But What We Make: The Greatest Terminator Lie Ever Told

Sarah Connor and the FatesThese have been difficult days for me. As a die-hard Terminator fan, I went into a screening of Terminator: Salvation knowing that the movie was getting bad reviews, but still holding onto a sliver of hope that this latest installment to my beloved franchise would remain true to the “real” Terminator and right the many wrongs of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

As we all know now, the movie was a sloppy, shoddy disappointment (you can listen to me rant about its shortcomings in this podcast episode; I won’t retread that territory here). That disappointment was bad enough, but in the ensuing weeks after seeing Terminator: Salvation, an even worse thing happened: I came to the sad conclusion that a huge part of the Terminator ethos, the franchise’s mantra and guiding light, is one big fat lie:

“No fate but what we make.”

For years, I fooled myself into holding onto this phrase like some sort of holy writ, but now, at this nadir moment, I must recognize the truth: “no fate but what we make” is demonstrated poorly at best by the movies/TV shows–even in the greatness that is Terminator 2–and flat out contradicted by the meta-narrative of the franchise.

“No fate but what we make?” My ass.

[Before I dive into this, I will say up front that I don’t want to get caught up in the twisted logic of Terminator’s time travel. Plenty of others have covered that ground, and any attempt at trying to reconcile the effects of time travel on the various time lines presented in the movies and TV show always ends in a convoluted mess. This is not an Overthinking of time travel. It’s an Overthinking of the meaning of “no fate but what we make.”]

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

t2_sarah_polaroidIt’s interesting to note that the phrase “No fate but what we make” is never uttered in this movie. It’s in the original script, but was cut out either in production or in editing. Nevertheless, in the final version of the film, John Connor’s message to Sarah, as relayed by Kyle Reese, does contain the phrase “the future is not set.” But even at that moment, the birth of the franchise, this concept stands on shaky ground. The photograph of Sarah and the dog in the Jeep from the future is recreated in the present exactly as it would appear in the future. As if the photograph was just meant to be…by fate. Sarah Connor, in recording messages to her unborn son John, assumes that in the future, Kyle must travel back in time in order for John to be born and, in turn, for John to save humanity in the future. Again, sounds a lot like fate to me.

No fate but what we make? Only if the “we” in this case is the millions of moviegoers in 1984 that chose to make Terminator a hit movie instead of, say, Dune. The film’s only shot at advancing the “no fate” cause was lost the moment the film became a box office hit. This was the crucial point when the determinism of movie economics took over. Risk-adverse studios will take virtually every hit movie that lends itself to a sequel (and even some that don’t) and do pretty much whatever it takes to make that sequel happen.

Granted, there are some exceptions to the rule, but Terminator was not to be one of them. Its low-budget beginning gave plenty of room for the franchise to go in terms of effects and production value. James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger were both on board, but as we’ll see, the power of determinism of movie economics is so strong that even their absence couldn’t stop further sequel production.

From this point, a different kind of determinism took hold. Call it peak theory; call it the franchise life cycle; call it what you will. It is simply impossible to sustain a high level of quality for a movie franchise beyond a small handful of films, especially when its first installment is as unique and iconic as the original Terminator film.

The success of the first Terminator movie sealed the franchise’s fate. It would eventually come to suck. Big time.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).

t2_nofateBut we’re not there yet. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is widely regarded as a true cinematic achievement, a masterpiece sci-fi action movie. And part of the movie’s genius is the importance of “no fate but what we make.” It’s the perfect optimistic counterbalance to the titular Judgment Day, the nuclear holocaust that lies somewhere over the horizon. Compared to the first film, which uneasily and unevenly approached the “no fate” doctrine, the second film seemed to fully embraced the idea of “no fate.” For starters, the line “no fate but what we make” is actually spoken in T2 (and carved into a table with a knife), but more importantly, the plot focuses on the Connors and the Terminator blowing up Cyberdyne to prevent Judgment Day. To change the future. To make their own fate. And they succeed, right? Didn’t we get the thumbs up, A-OK at the end? Didn’t we get an oh-so-symbolic view of an open road as the last visual of the movie, showing that any future, any fate, could possibly be out there? Isn’t this all part of James Cameron’s master vision?

Not quite. The original script called for a “happy ending” to T2. They even filmed it. If you haven’t seen this before, be warned: this may permanently change your perception of Terminator and the notion of “no fate” as some sort of holy writ that sprang fully formed from James Cameron’s skull:

August 29, 1997, came and went. It’s the year 2027. John Connor became a Senator. Sarah Connor got old, though she still retained her habit of speaking ominously into a tape recorder. Clearly the original intent was to show one more time how “no fate” and “change the future” won the day, but in effect, it runs directly against that. This scene is closure and finality: the polar opposite of “no fate.”

I can’t find any documentation to back this up, but I’m pretty sure the open road ending won the day because it’s more conducive to sequels. It may seem ironic at first that the determinism of movie economics helped bring about the more effective “no fate” ending, but it’s actually quite fitting with the way that the Terminator franchise repeatedly undermines the idea of “no fate.”

[Continued on next page]

20 Comments on “No Fate But What We Make: The Greatest Terminator Lie Ever Told”

  1. Matthew Belinkie #

    Wow. Okay, I really dislike the “open road” ending of Terminator 2 (the Terminator in no way “learns the value of human life”), but it’s way better than the “happy playground” ending.

    It seems clear to me that in Terminator 1, James Cameron absolutely believes in fate. If the Terminator hadn’t tried to kill Sarah to prevent John from being born, then Reese wouldn’t have been sent back and John wouldn’t have been born. It’s your classic time travel story where trying to change the future has the opposite effect. Hell, she actually gets told what to name the kid.

    That’s why I have mixed feelings, intellectually, about Terminator 2. It seems sloppy. What gives Sarah Conner the idea she can change the future? She, of all people, should know she can’t. By Terminator 1 logic, blowing up Cyberdine should actual make Judgment Day POSSIBLE. That’s the ending to T2 I wanted – it turns out Cyberdine had a backup server, and since the company is now bankrupt, the government buys it for cheap. Surprise Sarah: there’s no changing the future.

    Mark obviously likes this idea of “No fate but what we make.” I actually DISlike it (in the context of this series). To me, Terminator should be about the sad inevitability of Fate. I like the end of T1 – pregnant Sarah, knowing the world is going to end in 1997 and there’s nothing that can stop it. It’s already happened, in a way. All she can do is prepare her son for the war.

     
  2. Jason Knox #

    I like to believe that the characters are thoroughly convinced themselves that there is “no fate but what we make.” Yet it is obvious to people who can see the story as a whole just how absurd that idea is.

    Humans have a very stubborn belief in the control we have over our own lives.I think seeing these movies unfold must be a small taste of what it is like for God to watch us go about our lives convinced that we are the ones in control.

    Humans hate the idea of not being in control, that fate could be decided externally without any human influence in it at all. John Conner in T:S, more than anyone, ought to know the inevitability of fate yet he still chooses to repeat the mantra “No fate but what we make” until he and even the fanboys believe it.

    I like to believe that the movies themselves consciously don’t buy into “No fate but what we make” but that they are movies about what happens to people who do.

     
  3. Matthew Belinkie #

    @Jason – Oooh, that’s good. I actually DON’T think the movies are that sneaky, but it’s a great way to look at things, even if the filmmakers didn’t intend it.

     
  4. L33tminion #

    I agree with Jason… or at lest find that idea intriguing. What if the entire series is all about the main characters being wrong about time travel, clinging to the “no fate” idea, despite evidence to the contrary, out of wishful (and desperate) thinking? You can fight fate… but can you win?

     
  5. Matthew Belinkie #

    At least half of all Greek tragedy is about characters who receive grim prophesies, stubbornly insist that they can change the foretold future, and end up directly causing the events. For instance, Oedipus hears he’s going to kill his father and marry his mother. But he firmly believes in “No fate but what we make.” So he runs away from home. He thinks he’s being smart. We all know how that turned out.

    And that’s the kind of ending I wanted for T2. Sarah Conner tries to prove the prophesy wrong, but she can’t.

    I’m no great fan of T3, but there’s one thing I like – the idea that Judgment Day is inevitable. John Conner tries to stop it. But all his actions lead to him being in a nuclear-proof bunker, ready to lead the Resistance. I actually really like the ending of that movie. He’s down there, considering killing himself, when the radio crackles to life with desperate pleas for help. And he picks up the microphone and takes charge.

    Like I said, T3 is pretty lame, but the very end of that movie is better than the very end of T2. Maybe. My brain won’t let me type such a wacky sentence without adding “maybe.”

     
  6. TheBrummell #

    Jason, I’m with you. And Belinkie’s comparisons to Greek tragedy are also good. I like thinking of the human characters in the Terminator series as desperately acting on the mantra “no fate but what we make”, but they unwittingly bring about their own tragic fates. They strive for a very understandable ideal – freedom from the terrible weight of immovable future history – but in vain. It makes for compelling stories, as you want the characters to succeed even as you know they cannot, that their mantra is a sad lie.

    To me, the above bit of Overthinking makes the Terminator movies better; even T3 becomes (slightly) less odious. But T3 saves itself in any case – no matter how bad that movie is, no matter how much you hate it, the image at the very end of the missiles rising from their bunkers ensures that the world encapsulated in the movie is utterly destroyed. Who doesn’t love it when the fictional people they dislike get vapourized?

     
  7. Gab #

    Good, so I wasn’t the only one thinking there was all sorts of room for Oedipal comparison as I was watching T:S. Whew.

     
  8. Johann #

    I’m not really a Terminator fan, haven’t even watched the first two movies completely. But I’m more with Mark on the “no fate” issue.

    I actually think the truth lies somewhere in the middle:

    I don’t believe in fate, I think I am at least somewhat in control of my life and where it goes. I’m no atheist nor agnostic, but I just don’t think that “God” (whatever it is) would have taken the time to determine a specific course of life for each and every one of us. That’s just too much work.
    But on the other end, we are of course not *entirely* free to shape our own destiny. For example, you can’t change what you are born into, the culture, the family, the body you have. That stuff has an effect on you and – to some degree – determines your “fate”. But – and that’s the thing – it doesn’t determine you 100%. There’s some room for your own decisions.

    I think this whole question of fate is so fascinating, because the truth in the middle is so difficult to pinpoint. You can’t measure it (as in “Life is 34% controllable and 66% fate”).
    So it’s much easier to take one of the extreme sides. Either one of the extremes has the benefit of certainty: You either are in control or you are not. That’s easier to handle for us humans than this messy mixture of self-control and environmental influence. And that’s the reason why we have this debate.

    Let me take an example from Terminator to illustrate this: So apparently in T1, as Belinkie stated above, Sarah Connor is faced with “fate”, in that she knows the machines will take over and all she can do is prepare her son for the war. That just doesn’t make much sense, if you look at it closely: Why is she absolutely not able to prevent the machines from taking over, but on the other side, she *can* prepare her son for the war. Both counts in my view as “changing the future”. It seems to me sort of random to say that there’s this one thing you can’t change, but she still can change the future in the sense that she can prepare and train her son.

     
  9. Sooty #

    ON the one hand the destiny card is clearly shown in all but one of the films (T2 is the only one that definitely says that the road is their and may fork at any time to a better road. However, the no fate idea is still clearly there as the Date of Judgement Day is DELAYED.

    However, in true no fate style the road has forked back. Just because the future is not set doesn’t mean that its going to end happily. The no faters who tried to keep the show alive would inevitably suffered at the ultimate fate of their show as i doubt it would be on TV forever (for a reality comparison)

    SO the future is not set as I see it, but personally I’d let it play out as much as the original (forgetting the part were knowing automatically bends the road) as possible until a certain point with a “better the devil you know” sort of attitude.

    But thats just me.

    (Also, again in true no fate style, this theory is by no means correct, just a possible tangent, after all, different braches can follow the same direction yes)

     
  10. rockjonny #

    i really liked the open road ending of t2, because i felt like their story wasn’t done yet. That does not mean that i dvds wanted a sequel though. I just liked the idea that whether judgement day came or not, the connors would always lead pretty interesting lives. And i loved the tv series. I thought it explored some really interesting ideas and asked some questions i don’t think either of the good films had asked about the real nature of the cyborgs. I just wished it hadn’t been cancelled. Why is it that people will go and watch a film you can tell is going to be terrible, but enough people can’t just pay attention to quality television

     
  11. lee #

    @Belinkie:

    “Wow. Okay, I really dislike the “open road” ending of Terminator 2 (the Terminator in no way “learns the value of human life”), but it’s way better than the “happy playground” ending.”

    The Terminator does learn the value of human life (his CPU is a neural net processor, a learning computer), but only in a binary, non-subtle way. He does NOT learn the value of human kneecaps (and other bones) or state property.

    @rockjonny: “Why is it that people will go and watch a film you can tell is going to be terrible, but enough people can’t just pay attention to quality television”

    I guess the short answer to this question is that a terrible summer blockbuster is still something of an event and a shared experience, whereas any given episode of a TV show is not. I’m pretty sure G.I. Joe and Transformers 2 are going to be terrible, terrible movies, but I’ll probably go see them just to share in the collective pop culture experience, as much as I’ll hate myself for giving my money to the companies that produced them.

     
  12. Matthew Belinkie #

    @ Lee – The last lines of T2 are: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

    This is a very silly thing to say. If John Connor had ordered the Terminator to torture and kill a whole class of kindergartners, it would have done it. No hesitation, no remorse.

    I completely fail to see how a machine obeying its programming gives Sarah hope for the future. It’s a dumb line, and Cameron should know better.

     
  13. Gab #

    @Belinkie: If Cameron should know better, maybe that’s one of the reasons it didn’t make the cut, then?

     
  14. Matthew Belinkie #

    @Gab – No, that’s the ending that DID make the cut. The other ending was worse.

     
  15. Gab #

    Crap, you’re right- it has been so long since I saw T:2, I forgot that she says it in the final cut AND in the scene up ^there^. Sorry.

     
  16. Sunshineyness #

    I’ve always said that the first Terminator film is a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Both Skynet and John Connor essentially send their father’s back in time in order for them to be whilst at the same time fight the last battle of the war.

    If Kyle never told Sarah that there was a great war coming than Sarah never would have trained her child (and I REFUSE to accept the “original father” theory. Kyle was ALWAYS the father. It’s a loop.) to be the great leader of man. Telling Sarah who John would one day become is what made her make him what he would become.

    I’ve always thought “the future is not set” was John fulfilling his fate. His mother told him the message, so he gave Sarah the exact same message. That was the moment that John accepted it. When John found himself smashing Skynet’s defense grid and seeing that they’d sent the machine back to 1984 it must have finally dawned on him: he now had to do it, accept that he was trapped in a loop and that he had to play it out exactly as he knew it had to. Telling Reese the message and sending him back was Connor’s final acceptance. Ironically, in order for him to fulfill his fate he has to tell his father that there isn’t any.

    I totally agree with the commenter above: this is the stuff of the best Greek tragedies. John Connor seeing the time displacement equipment and realizing what has happened is Oedipus tearing his eyes out upon realizing that even though he ran so far, did everything he could not to he still ended up killing his father and marrying his mother.

     
  17. ays #

    The terminator did learn the value of human life at the end, when it disobeyed John’s orders and decided it needed to be destroyed to save humanity.

     
  18. Florin Anghel #

    If you think a second about all this, they made the future. The Judgement Day came because of them. And by “they” and “them” I mean the people, the humans. So yeah, there’s no fate but what we make. We, the humans, together, not individually!

    Florin Anghel, out. :)

     
  19. Arthur #

    I believe the idea of “fate” in Terminator is very vague. First of all, what is fate? The general belief states that fate is something that unavoidably befalls on a person.

    However, in the movie Sarah Connor knew what was going to happen in future: judgement day. The knowledge she had allowed her to postpone, not avert it. But why? It was not up to her. If people who “released” Skynet knew what were the consequences of their actions, i think they would not do it.

    Pepole take actions throughout their lives.. Actions that will cause certain events in future. They all had a choice, and we all have a choice. That is why we sit for hours thinking when we are faced with a tough decision; we want to predict what will happen and direct in the most promising or beneficial way.

    We of course can not choose how we want to be born… or do we? There is no evidence to back up that statement, we can only believie that it is true. We do not know if someone had put us in our bodies or we were given a choice between million lives. It is all up to what you believe.

    The interesting concept that no one had yet noticed is that the Skynet reflects Sarah Connor. The machines knew the future, therefore they decided to kill John Connor. We fail to look at the story from the perspective of Skynet.

    The machines launched a nuclear holocaust because they believed that humans were hazardous for Earth, consequently, we had to be terminated. The machines were programmed to protect Earth, they did not take that assumption from anywhere. What if they were right and we would destroy Earth in future? We do not know yet how would Earth be like if humankind never faced Judgement Day.

    Well, if we would win the war with machines and later on destroyed ourselves, there is no fate. Why would God plan the extermination of his own creation? However, if machines would prevail, still there is no fate. We were destined to destroy Earth, we failed to do so; there is no fate but what we make.

    Ironically, if there is fate and we were destined to live, why bother? We do not need to fight, we will live anyway. I think I am not the only one who can see the stupidity of this ideology.

    The movie ended on a vague note, the war is not over. There is a chance that T5 will come out and it will show us if the movie is behind an idea of “fate” or “no fate but what we make”. If humans win the war and will live on, happy with their lives, the movie promotes fate.

    Personally, I refuse to believe that pople all around the globe were destined to live in pain or hunger; I refuse to believe people are destined to be born handicapped; I know Earth is a bad place, but I refuse to believe it is fate that makes it that way.

    I do not know if fate exists or we make our own decisions. Maybe, it’s both…

    At the end, it is down to what you believe.

     
  20. Matthew Belinkie #

    Wow, so speaking of cringe-worthy Cameron alternate endings, I just saw the alternate ending to Titanic. Really:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m9-8wqws74

    When the old lady goes to toss the gem off the boat, Bill Paxton sees her, and they have a little standoff where she utters these words: “You look for treasures in the wrong place, Mr. Lovett. Only life is priceless, and making each day count.”

    Now I’m sort of convinced that EVERY James Cameron movie has a cornball alternate ending out there somewhere.