Sci-fi Noir: The Terminator and Tech Noir | 10 Updates to Film Noir

Schwarzenegger | The Terminator

Once you’ve watched The Terminator, you’ll forever associate masculinity with Reese, a guy that built bombs for fun as a kid and selflessly puts his life in danger to save Sarah Connor, putting himself between her and the sightlines of a coldly intelligent, red-LED-eyed cyborg that walks through flames in the hunt for its quarry. You’ll feel much more worried at reports of robotic systems learning to backflip and drones getting loaded with killer AI. You’ll appreciate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s oft-quoted “I’ll be back.” You’ll want to know more about Harlan Ellison, a science fiction writer whose ideas were stolen for the movie’s plot.

In James Cameron’s The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger as an extra hard-boiled, tight-lipped, hi-tech robot, enters a dance hall in search of Sarah Connor, the mother of the leader of humans in a future war against Skynet, Artificial Intelligence with a chip on its shoulder against humanity. The dance hall where the terminator first tracks down the correct Sarah Connor is aptly called Tech Noir, important because the movie is scifi noir.

The Terminator attacks Sarah Connor in the Tech Noir night club

So, What is Tech Noir?

Tech Noir refers to the dance hall and the punk sensibilities of its patrons. The music playing in the dancehall, funny enough, is not techno but typical '80s pop rock. The lyrics "You've got me burning," repeat over and over in an effort to give some dark humor to a later scene where the terminator walks through fire. The soundtrack of the film, has an industrial, techno sound. If you've seen the movie, it shouldn't take all that much concentration to recall the percussive, anxiety-filled theme that plays every time Arnold appears on screen. But Tech Noir also provides a thesis for the film: technology has a dark side, killer AI in steel-framed bodies toting assault rifles.

But there’s more to the name Tech Noir. The Terminator is a modernization and remix of film noir. The Terminator as noir reflects advancements in technology and problems facing American society in the late 20th-century society: inner-city gun violence, the threat of nuclear attacks, women’s fear of victimization, corruption of public servants—i.e. the police, corporate greed (this is front and center in Terminator 2). But Let’s look closer at how James Cameron's movie follows and builds on the traditional film noir.

1. No Moral Certainty

Noir films are set in worlds lacking moral certainty. Characters are pessimistic, anxious, and deeply suspicious. A sense of futility, entrapment, and defeat pervades, underscored by scenes typically set at night or in dangerous places. The protagonists in film noir are driven by their pasts or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.

The Terminator, as sci-fi noir, communicates a sense of futility, putting the heroes in the impossible situation of running from a technologically advanced, steel-framed cyborg programmed to terminate its quarry. Why run from a machine that stands back up after getting hit by multiple shotgun blasts? And how do you run from a killer cyborg wielding "The .45 long slide with laser sighting." The machine provides a sense of entrapment. It’s smart, fast, and doesn’t have to sleep. You can trick it and get away for a time, but it will set another trap. It will find its mark. It will be back.

Consider as well that this robot has traveled through time to kill Sarah Connor. One instance of robots traveling through time suggests that terminators can travel through time as often as Skynet deems necessary. The knowledge that more terminators could be on their way to take up the hunt is more than a little anxiety-inducing. If one terminator can execute every policeman in a given police station in a matter of minutes, what havoc could an army of the things wreak? Also, the strength and ability of the terminators contrasts with the weakness and mortality of the humans it hunts.  

Though Reese and Sarah Connor are not themselves given to repeating the mistakes of the past, nothing they do can change the destruction of most of the human population. The robots will have their day.

2. Film Noir and Corrupt Societies

A typical noir society is filled with corruption and moral uncertainty. A mood of cynicism reflects the uncertainty of modern life. We live with the probability of atomic warfare, the use of stockpiled nuclear weapons as political leverage, and corrupt leadership in government. Film noir originally reflected the fragmentation of American society as a result of World War II, resulting in feelings of insecurity, alienation, and powerlessness.

Consider that the appearance of the terminator is as guarantor of the destruction of human society by nuclear war. This inevitable outcome of the military and political decisions of the US government speaks to the corruption of leadership and the powerlessness of the people in the face of that leadership.

Consider also that the police are not who you can turn to in The Terminator and you have pretty well laid out this aspect of the noir. If you can’t turn to those who are supposed to serve and protect you, who can you turn to? Who can you trust?

That question leads us into our next topic. You can trust . . .

3. Loner Heroes

The Terminator | Reese takes a break from fighting in the future

In film noir, the protagonist is a loner, troubled and introverted, pessimistic and hard-boiled. He is not the conventional confident film hero; he is average. He is often a war veteran or detective and is defined by his ability to survive and restore normality.

In our sci-fi noir, 
The Terminator, Reese and Sarah Connor double as the hero. Though they both share several of the characteristics of the noir hero, Reese has about half of these characteristics and Sarah has the other half.

While both heroes are loners, Sarah is troubled and pessimistic while Reese is introverted with a hard-boiled attitude, resisting an emotional response to violence.

Yes, Reese is a badass, but he’s not overconfident. He certainly doesn’t have an overinflated image of his role or identity, viewing himself as no more than a soldier taking orders. But in a weird turn, he takes orders from John Connor, a man he deeply reveres and a man who also happens to be his son, but, hey, that's science fiction for you. Of course, Sarah is totally average. She works as a waitress and has no superior achievements or characteristics.

Reese is the war veteran.

Sarah survives and restores normality.

4. The Quest

The Terminator | Sarah Connor

Noir heroes are on a quest. After tests, questions, attacks, and persecution, the noir hero will live or die. If the hero lives, he or she emerges from the time of testing with an altered identity. The story parallels the alteration of identity with unforeseen twists and turns.

Sarah Connor’s sci-fi noir quest is to live and, in living, move beyond the life of a complacent single woman. With every survived attack from the terminator, Sarah grows stronger. Though she begins the movie as a victim, by the end, her tribulations have increased her will to prepare for and survive the coming storm threatening mankind.

And if you've seen Terminator 2, then you know that Sarah continues to devote herself to surviving a future filled with killer robots.

5. External and Internal Worlds

Sarah Connor is pursued by the Terminator

The noir world is reflected externally and internally. The external noir world is found in the dark and often rough streets of the hostile city. Recurring settings within the city include nightclubs, cafes, and police station trafficked by villains, crooked cops, and hard-boiled detectives.

In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is pursued, almost without exception, at night. The darkness of night is the language of nightmares, underscores the protagonist's uncertainty of position, and emphasizes her exposure. For a young, single woman, the cover of night increases the likelihood of mugging, rape, and the like.

The Tech Noir night club marks the beginning of Sarah Connor’s flight. She makes several others stops along the way, including a police station, a low-rent hotel, a seemingly abandoned road, and finally an unpeopled factory.

The internal world of the noir is reflected in the traumatic memories of the heroes. Sarah Connor asks Reese, “Can you stop it?” revealing that she is traumatized, stricken by the fear of her nightmarish cyborg pursuer. Reese says, "I don't know. With these weapons . . . I don't know," revealing his internality is filled with doubts based on his experience with terminators. 

Reese has dealt with internalized trauma much longer than the woman he’s been sent to protect. Though he's tough and incredibly brave, he hasn't quite mastered his own fear; terminators pursue Reese in his dreams.

6. The Femme Fatale

The femme fatale is as beautiful as she is dangerous. She is a temptress that seduces the hero, luring him ever deeper into the danger of the noir world she inhabits.

The sci-fi noir turn here is that though Arnold could never be mistaken for a femme fatale in any time or space, the Terminator’s function is to take the place of the femme fatale as the antagonist of the noir. We can’t quite call the Terminator beautiful, but the machine inside the man is an instance of the technological sublime--the awe leading to terror of the unfathomable capability of artificial intelligence. Similar to the human response to beauty, the response to the sublime carries a sense of wonder. The robot inspires a level of awe because of its intelligence and inviolability. Different than the femme fatale, the terminator doesn’t lure anyone into danger with the promise of sex, but, like the femme fatale, is a sure promise of danger and also uses trickery, like altering its voice over the phone to set traps for those it seeks.

7. The Domestic Woman

Sarah Connor and Reese | The Terminator

In the typical film noir, the domestic woman functions as the opposite of the femme fatale. She is a wife or girlfriend associated with the home, nurturing, and rehabilitation.

As mentioned before, in The Terminator, Reese and Sarah Connor double as the hero. But Sarah plays the opposite of the femme fatale. She is the ultimate symbol of the home. As the mother of the leader of the human resistance to Skynet, her survival guarantees the survival of humanity. By the end of the movie, she has taken on a nurturing role toward Reese. Bandaging him and putting her arm around him, helping him walk when he is unable. In the final scene, she is pregnant, bearing not only her son but the future hope of all humanity. 

8. Confessional

The typical noir voice-over creates a confessional narrative, allowing the hero to cleanse his conscience. Through narration, the hero unveils the internal workings of his/her mind. The process of telling the story allows the hero to be rid of the power of the troubling memories they carry.

Only at the end of our sci-fi noir, The Terminator, is the confessional aspect of the noir invoked through Sarah’s recording she makes for her, as yet, unborn son, John Connor. Sarah tells her story as she drives away from the city, the locus of her struggle. Putting distance physically from her nightmarish experience is doubly emphasized by talking through the events. She is both physically and psychically removing herself from the place of trauma.

Sarah struggles with whether she should let her son know that Reese, a soldier he will later train, is her father and is also burdened knowing that John will not grow up with a father and that he will be forced to send his father on a death mission to keep his mother safe and get her pregnant. Sarah hopes that the love she had for Reese will take the place of John’s not having a father, saying, “Maybe it'll be enough if you know that in the few hours we had together we loved a lifetime's worth.” 

9. Visual Style

The Terminator | Claustrophobia

The visual style of film noir is claustrophobic, full of dark interiors restricted by the camera frame. The noir relies on night scenes, chiaroscuro, low lighting, and includes expressionistic scenes with nightmarish, grotesque, and exaggerated elements.

Though the action of The Terminator takes place almost exclusively at night. If it wasn’t dark enough already, the terminator cuts out the lights in the police station, preferring the darkness where its night vision gives it an advantage over human eyesight.

As for claustrophobia, consider the movie's end scene where space is confined to the metal walkways of a factory and finally the tight space of a hydraulic press.

The gradual destruction of the terminator’s human cover demonstrates the expressionistic sensibility of the noir. Nothing is more grotesque than watching Arnold cut his eye out. And the vision of the steel body of the terminator rising from the flame of a burning truck is pure nightmare material.

10. The Telephone

The noir traditionally employs the telephone as an image of desire. The telephone and the voice recorder allow individuals to overcome feelings of alienation and physical limitations of communication by connecting with others.

In our sci-fi film noir, the telephone similarly reads as an image of desire. The terminator immediately turns to the phone as a principal means of tracking down Sarah Connor. It methodically goes through the list of Sarah Connors in the phone book, using the listed address to find the various Sarah Connors and execute them. When thrown off the trail, it even sets a trap, posing as Sarah Connor’s mother to extract his quarry’s whereabouts. Because of a cultural crutch in America of relying on the telephone to satisfy the desire for connectedness to friends and loved ones, Sarah Connor believes the telephone offers safety. This exploitation of the telephone highlights the artificiality of replacing traditional connectedness with distant transmissions lacking a physical presence. 

Just think, this story was conceived at a time when you couldn't take the telephone with you. All a terminator on the hunt in 2019 would need is access to geo-positioning records for Sarah's cell, and then it's game over.

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