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

“No Fate” did not spring fully formed from James Cameron’s skull. It’s a messy doctrine from a narrative point of view, and from a meta-narrative point of view, it’s the undoing of the franchise.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)

terminator_3_xl_03I don’t want to spend too much time on T3, since it’s widely regarded by fans as an aberration to the “real Terminator” for a couple of main reasons: 1) James Cameron was not involved in the project and 2) “no fate but what we make” was replaced with “Judgment Day is inevitable.” The latter is a clear thematic and storytelling departure from T2, but the former reason actually plays perfectly into the determinism of movie economics argument that these sequels are virtually inevitable. Not even James Cameron’s absence could stand in the way of this sequel. There was still value in the franchise, and Arnold was still game. A sequel was going to get made. It was fate.

And it was made. And as the franchise was fated to eventually suck, it did suck. James Cameron at the helm might have delayed the onset of suck, but he was nowhere to be found for this one. Judgment Day, it would seem, is actually inevitable.

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES (2008-2009)

Terminator had arrived on TV, and though plenty of fans were nervous, everyone seemed to be relieved that the creators were setting out to undo some of the damage wrought by T3, particularly on this whole “no fate” business. Sarah Connor’s opening monologue from Season One pretty much sums it up:

Today we fight to stop Skynet from ever being created. To change our future. To change [John Connor’s] fate. The war to save mankind begins now!

I was a fan of this show. It certainly had its faults, but for the most part, it did make its own narrative fate by telling some unique stories about Sarah and John’s relationship rather than rehashing the same territory of T2 and T3.

But that wasn’t enough to stave off a particularly cruel twist in the story of “No Fate But What We Make.” As the show slid in the ratings towards cancellation, fans of the series conducted a grassroots campaign to convince Fox to keep the show alive:

This to me is the perfect example of how Terminator fans (like myself) really took the “no fate” message to heart. To them, the “we” in “no fate but what we make” refers to the scrappy band of underdogs (John, Sarah, and their human/cyborg protectors) who struggle to make the world a better place in the face of impossible odds. When you’re fighting to save a TV show with low ratings, it’s easy to see the appeal in this idea, especially when it’s the central message of the very TV show you’re trying to save.

But then it turned out that “we,” the scrappy band of underdogs,  could not make the fate of our choosing. Others–the millions of Nielsen households, the harsh economics of TV ratings and ad revenue–had made that choice for us. There is a fate other than what we make for ourselves. We don’t control everything.

Shit happens. Like, for example:

TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009)

That’s not entirely fair. Terminator: Salvation was shitty, yes, but it wasn’t a random act of shit happening. It was fate that brought us to this point. The fate that started back in 1984, the moment that T1 became a certified hit worthy of sequel. All franchises eventually deplete the well. Some can be rebooted, but I doubt Terminator can ever get the “true” reboot it needs to escape from the wreckage of the last two feature films. The weight of the mythology–robots with metal skulls and red eyes, time travel, the strength of the Sarah Connor character, and of course, “no fate”–are in total too burdensome for any future stories to truly break free.

Oh, and there’s the obvious final undermining of “no fate:” by setting the story in the future war, the filmmakers once again present a Terminator world in which Judgment Day definitely, unarguably happened. “No fate but what we make” was always meant to leave the future–the post Judgment Day, Skynet infested future–undefined and open to prevention. T:S defines the future and essentially throws “no fate” out the window. With a big robot arm that comes crashing through the ceiling.

In conclusion, I do want to clarify that although I have subjected Terminator and the “no fate” ethos to far greater scrutiny than I thought I would have originally, and that I come away with  a diminished opinion of “no fate” specifically, I still have the same level of love and appreciation for T1, T2, and T:SCC that I had before I embarked on this exercise. Sure, “no fate” and time travel start to fold pretty quickly upon Overthinking, but that doesn’t detract from a great story with great characters that an audience feels invested in.

Nevertheless, I do think that fans’ fixation on “no fate” as some sort of Terminator doctrine is ultimately self-defeating, and that the franchise as a whole, like most movie franchises, has been subject to powerful macroeconomic forces that led to its inevitable decline in quality.

Readers: what do you think? Am I making too big of a deal out of this? Am I stating the obvious when I say that “no fate” is a shaky concept in Terminator? Is there really no fate but what we make? Sound off in the comments. If you’ve read this far…then you really are The Resistance.

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

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    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.

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  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.

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  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @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.

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  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?

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    • Ronald Vaughan #

      I believe in Free Will….i.e.,”No Fate”.

      Events are pre-FIGURED by human minds…not pre-DESTINED by a Creator…though this God DID create the world…

      btw,where can I buy a replica (or original) of that VERY famous sign??

      Reply

  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    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.”

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  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?

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  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.

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  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.

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    • Kenneth #

      The truth never lied.

      Reply

  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)

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  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

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  11. lee OTI Staff #

    @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.

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  12. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @ 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.

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  13. Gab #

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

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  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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. :)

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  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.

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  20. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    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.

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  21. Michael Kennedy #

    No fate, but what we make.

    Life isn’t a movie.

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  22. Bob #

    It could just be an example of how we lie to ourselves in this way. The alternative is that we are just performing a task we were destined to perform, and then die.

    Kind of banal and existential, by contrast. In protest, topping yourself would certainly change that fate, but would be sort of a lackluster way to go out too, no?

    At the end of the day, it is a movie. Fun as it is, it may not be entirely applicable to our own lives, but if you can find something in there that enriches yours and your impact on others, then great.

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  23. Kenneth #

    Ok seriously, you people never seen Terminator 2? Well I think this a talk and page right? Come on, watch the movie.

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  24. Denise Higgins #

    I agree with the idea that there is only fate. The only thing is I don’t count any of the movies after T2. Quite a fun concept to ponder :-)

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    • Denise Higgins #

      Also, if it wasn’t fated, then why didn’t John disappear at the end of T2? Because it’s fated. Ok, no more posts haha!

      Reply

  25. Jen #

    I have read your article and can see your point of view on the “No fate” point of view not being viable.

    I would like to offer a different option.
    I chose to believe “No fate but what we make for ourselves” by choosing to only consider T1 and T2 as cannon, and the others as separate action movies that will not find a home on my shelf

    Reply

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