The first two Terminator films, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) are riddled with several examples of the paradoxical nature of time travel and the philosophical theme of destiny. The first film sees the titular mechanical assassin (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton), a woman whose unborn son will lead the human rebellion against the machines in future World War III. The terminator fails, revealing to Sarah the importance of her son’s survival and his destiny as Earth’s saviour. Judgment Day follows her now teenage son, John Connor, as he and a reprogrammed terminator sent back in time by his future self to protect his past self attempt to elude and destroy a more technologically advanced terminator sent back by the machines. It should be noted that T2 is set in 1994-1995, despite being released in 1991.
In the films, Judgment Day refers to the date that the computer program Skynet becomes conscious of its own existence and subsequently declares war on its human oppressors. The Terminator franchise relies heavily on the concept of meta-time – that is, the ‘time outside of time’. Kyle Reese – John Connor’s father (played by Michael Biehn in the first film and in the director’s cut of T2; sent back from the future by John Connor to father John Connor in 1984) – says “The future is not set. There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves,” indicating that even residents of post-Judgment Day Earth believe that their destiny can be changed by the choices of those in the past [Meldal 2004].
According to the Terminator in the first film, Judgment Day occurs in 1997. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rewired Terminator, the T-101, and the primary antagonist of T2, the T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick) travel back to a 1994 from a 1997 where Judgment Day has already occurred in the future from the perspective of that particular 1994. This indicates that the post-1997 Judgment Day version of John Connor exists, due to the fact that he reprogrammed the T-101 to protect his past self from an enemy he pre-empted in the future. However, T2 shows Sarah Connor’s attempts to kill the man who invents Skynet – and almost succeeding – who then instead vows to not write the program, creating a paradox represented by the existence of the Terminators. Sarah’s actions result in a new timeline on the meta-timeline wherein Judgment Day does not occur in 1997 because of her actions in 1994 [Brown and Decker 2009]. By her own free will, Sarah Connor has altered the destiny of the world by pre-empting the chain of events that lead to the apparently inevitable downfall of mankind.
Sarah Connor states in Terminator 2: Judgment Day that she is hopeful for an uncertain future; a future which she created instigated by a threat from a different future sent back in time to “validate the existence of a prescribed, ‘fated’ timeline that assures [the existence of the Terminators] and the domination of humans by machines” [Brooks 2004]. The concepts of free will and destiny are explored throughout each of the four Terminator films, but are shown the most explicitly in T2, resulting in a film of paradoxes, an overbearing sense of inevitability reinforced by the presence of the T-1000, and the importance of choosing your own destiny; an inherently paradoxical concept in and of itself.
Brooks, C. (2004). Doubling in Terminator II. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/Post-Script/128671363.html
Brown, D., Decker, K. S. (2009). Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New Jersey.
Meldal, L. (2004). Is the future set? Contradictions in the Terminator story. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from http://www.terminatorfiles.com/media/articles/moviesfacts_005.htm