There are lots of time travel movies. Lots of movies with robots, cyborgs and advanced human soldiers, too. But there’s nothing like The Terminator. How is it possible that one ‘tech noir’ movie from 1984 is so much more than the sum of its parts? What makes the underlying mythology so captivating? Could the reason be that James Cameron’s story was not based on wild imagination, but on an actual vision of the future?

It’s no coincidence that the Terminator franchise is still very much alive. Despite the half parody Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), future war borefest Terminator Salvation (2009), the mythos breaking Terminator Genisys (2015), and the cybernetic slap in the face and universal blockbuster flop Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). Even though these sequels tried everything to retroactively destroy the first and second instalments, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), THEIR MISSION FAILED.

The Nucleus

I remembered hearing director James Cameron talk about the origins of The Terminator, explaining he came up with the concept after dreaming about a metal skeleton, stepping out of a burning truck, or dumpster, or something. This was years ago, though, and I hadn’t been able to find any confirmation. Maybe the Mandela Effect was playing tricks on me? Turns out: I’d remembered correctly. Just a few weeks ago, an interview was uploaded to YouTube, in which he explains how and when he got the image that started it all:

‘I was in Rome. I was broke, I had a high fever. I was having these weird dreams, and I had this image of this kind of chrome skeleton. You know, death image, coming out of a fire. Kind of phoenix-like. And I just got up and sketched it. And around the nucleus of that, I started to create a story.’

Resonance

He was burning up, felt like being on fire, so perhaps his mind translated his fever into a literal fire in his dreams/nightmares. Perhaps. But what if he tapped into some energetic field by accident, and got a glimpse of a parallel universe, different timeline, or possible future? What if that’s the reason why the image felt so real and powerful, and he felt compelled to drag himself out of bed and sketch it? What if that’s the reason why the movie ultimately resonated and continues to resonate strongly with millions of people all over the world?

People usually explain away the resonance by pointing out that The Terminator speaks to a universal fear. A cold, almost invincible bogeyman, coming to get you at night. But there are plenty of movies with similar premises that never had anything near the same global appeal.

It’s All An Illusion

If the ‘death image’ was real – in a vision sort of way -, it doesn’t mean the plot of the movie is. The potential endoskeleton doesn’t necessarily have to have been a Terminator model, sent back through time, or anything like that. But the image of one stepping out of fire might actually become a reality. Just take a look at the prototypes of Boston Dynamics – an engineering and robotics design company. What seemed impossible forty years ago is already here.

In the interview, Cameron added something even more interesting:

‘The other idea was not to trust technology. Not to trust the fabric of reality. By the second film, you’ve got this woman who’s gone crazy knowing that the world is a completely fragile place and it’s all an illusion.’

It’s all an illusion? Basically, he goes from technology is bad to reality is not what we think it is in the same breath. How does this tie in with the Terminator mythology? It’s kind of a stretch to argue that we should distrust reality just because robots from the future might screw up a few things here and there.

So there must be more to the story. I wish the interviewer would’ve picked up on it, and asked him to elaborate. What did he mean exactly? It sounds like he’s got a more spiritual outlook on life than meets the eye. To be continued, James Cameron. To be continued.