Hacking Your Inner Program: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

I love it when I find a great message hidden in a strange place and today’s episode of Think Spiritual is no exception. Let’s examine some spiritual elements found in the 1991 mega-hit, Terminator 2.

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Hello Spiritual Seekers and welcome to yet another episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts. As usual, I’m your host, Mark, and today Think Spiritual Podcasts is going to take another step on its Hero’s Journey and have a transformation moment. Well, it’s not a huge transformation, it’s more like a time of focus and clarity.

It’s getting very close to being the one-year anniversary of the podcast and I think I could really consider this entire first year as the “Belly of the Whale” stage for the podcast. I think the podcast now has a definite direction and will lead me places I never expected it to.

Throughout this last year, it seems that the Hero’s Journey has become my primary focus. And if you go by my conversation with my friend, Jay, on his Death by Foui podcast, I think the Hero’s Journey is something I have developed a very strong passion for. Even I can hear it in my voice and demeanor throughout that podcast.

One note about that podcast, I was quite excited and talking far faster than my brain could process, so I definitely botched some of my facts about Joseph Campbell. That was somewhat embarrassing, but I’m still in the process of learning about him and the Hero’s Journey in general, so I’m quite likely to get a few points wrong here and there.

Anyway, I am finding that I have little desire to stray from the topic of the Hero’s Journey because I am beginning to believe that the Hero’s Journey is a deep foundation laid within every person’s soul and that it has taken all of human history, thus far, to even begin to comprehend it. And once we do comprehend it, once we fully, as the entire human-race, comprehend and adhere to it, I just have this feeling that it will unlock new avenues and new stories for the further development and/or the evolution of human beings.

Does that sound lofty and far-fetched?

Yes, it probably does.

But I actually do believe there is truth in what I am saying.

Because I caught another glimpse of it in a place I never expected to see it: in the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Ever since I began my Hero’s Journey series on Think Spiritual Podcasts, I have been looking at movies from the Hero’s Journey perspective. I have been analyzing just how far primary characters get in the process: just how far do they “make it” after taking up the Call to Adventure?

And I’ve learned something interesting in the last few weeks: many of our most beloved characters that we so look up to are incomplete heroes. They don’t finish their journeys. They become stuck in endless loops of behaviour or they abandon their causes or they become symbols to someone else’s cause or it turns out they are a pawn in a larger game predestined to merely sacrifice themselves for the masses.

We need to see more heroes finish their quests, become masters of their world and their self and to then pass their mantles onto another. Believe it or not, this happens more often in animations for children than it does in “grownup” movies. Kung Fu Panda and Cars and Coco to name a few of my favourites.

This is why I was so excited about Thor: Ragnarok. Here was a hero that made it to the end of the circuit! The hero that mastered the inner and outer worlds, the hero that defeated death and gained the freedom to live!

And this is why a bit of a perspective twist led me to understanding that good old Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the T-800 Terminator character from Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a better hero than we realize.

Had I not ended up sick a few weeks ago I kind of doubt I would have viewed T2 anytime soon. It was 3 in the morning, I couldn’t sleep and the movie showed up in my Netflix feed. Okay, sure, I’ll put it on.

And as I started to watch it I began to wonder who the main character of the film really was - this is part of the perception switch that I mentioned. Well, the main character is obviously young John Connor, correct? So, I began to apply the Hero’s Journey steps to him...and hit a roadblock.

Yes, in storytelling fashion, the steps of the Hero’s Journey applies: John ignores the Call to Adventure because he believes his mother is crazy and that the terminators aren’t real and that he won’t be a great resistance leader. But then the T-1000 appears to kill him and the T-800 rescues him (John’s Supernatural Aid). He Crosses the Threshold when his legal guardians are murdered and he’s on the run from the T-1000. He enters the Belly of the Whale when he rescues his mother from the asylum. And the Road of Trials takes him into the world of being a terrorist and fugitive and fighting to prevent a future that hasn’t happened yet.

And, really, that’s as far as John Connor makes it in this film because, ultimately, John Connor isn’t a hero yet. John Connor is predestined to be a hero and he is on a collision course with that destiny. He has no choices to make now except whether he is going to embrace his destiny or run from it forever (which is his struggle as depicted in Terminator 3). He is a symbol of greater things to come, not of greater things happening right now.

Okay, so if John is out of the Hero picture, what about Sarah Connor? She’s a pretty impressive heroine.

True, but poor Sarah is the pawn caught between greater forces. Her story is really a tragic anti-fairy tale where, no matter what she does, the antagonist, Skynet, always has the upperhand. Even when she thinks she has changed the future it turns out that Judgement Day is inevitable.

Honestly, this was part of the reason that I actually LOVED Terminator: Genisys. It took the whole Terminator story and turned it on its head and actually gave Sarah Connor a chance to be something other than the broodmare and trainer to the future leader of the Resistance. It removed the whole predestination and inevitability factor from the Terminator universe.

And that brings me to the T-800. Good ol’ Arnie. When I shifted my perspective of the film and looked at him as the protagonist, the Hero became clear and the entire story took on a new meaning. T2 became a Pinocchio story of the machine who would become a man.

Probably one of the most interesting aspects of the T-800’s Hero’s Journey is that almost the entire path of Departure (that is, the first five steps of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) takes place before we even see Arnold on-screen.

Look at it this way: at some point in the future, the T-800 is built and is living its Normal Existence as one of Skynet’s Terminator cyborgs. So, you have to imagine that there is a “Call to Adventure” for every cyborg: to break away from its programming. The cyborg naturally refuses this call to adventure (revealed in a T2 cut scene when Arnie...I mean...the T-800 says that Skynet sets all the machine processing chips to Read-Only), but along comes future John Connor (Supernatural Aid) and reprograms the T-800 to be something other than what it was built to be. So, by the time we see the T-800 for the first time it is right in the process of Crossing the First Threshold and entering The Belly of the Whale by simply being fully committed to its mission to protect young John Connor.

I realize that it could easily be argued that the T-800 is just a programmed machine and it has no real choice in what it does, but this is often the case with heroes: adventures are often flung upon them and they are not given a choice as to whether they will accept or not. They have to take up the call or die.

And how are we much different from a T-800? Society programs us to be good workers or spouses or children or religion-followers or ideologists or consumers or any number of things. Until we receive some sort of alternate programming, we often cannot break out of our tiny worlds of existence. Sometimes we simply cannot even imagine that life could be different from the path we are currently traveling.

And that is the point I am trying to make here. Sometimes we have to be unwillingly pushed into the Hero’s Journey. Sometimes our programming has to be hacked. We have to look within ourselves and see that there is more to life than the Outward Journey of the Ego. The Inward Journey of the Soul also exists and it is our responsibility to cultivate that part of our Self as well.

And I believe that this is what Arn...the T-800 begins to understand after he is reprogrammed and sent back in time. As he goes through the process of rescuing John and Sarah Connor from the more advanced T-1000 Terminator, Arnold...I mean...the T-800...ah, hell, I’m just going to call him Arnold or Arnie.

As he goes through the process of rescuing John and Sarah Connor from the more advanced T-1000 Terminator, Arnold learns to be more human-like. He asks why he can’t kill people, why people cry, he wonders what a small child is, he begins to see the connection between people and why relationships are important.

Arnie even tries to distance himself from his Terminator past and this is shown in a really brilliant way in the film.

Hopefully I can explain my idea clearly: throughout T2, Arnie’s character is identified by authorities as the same man that killed dozens of police officers in 1984. This was obviously not the T2 Arnold, but the original T-800 that was sent after Sarah Connor in the original Terminator movie. People see the original T-800 and they see T2 Arnie and they think “same person”.

Now, in one sense they aren’t wrong: every T-800 that rolls off the assembly line is an exact duplicate, so technically speaking Arnie is that original Terminator and he does recognize this fact. In the original movie, the T-800 wore sunglasses most of the time and at the beginning of T2, Arnie wears sunglasses because we, as the audience, aren’t supposed to know right away that he’s the hero. Eventually the sunglasses are punched off Arnie’s face and then crushed under the T-1000’s foot and it is highly symbolic of Arnie leaving his programming behind. John even asks him later, “Can you see anything?” as they drive away in the dark with no lights on. Arnie answers, “I see everything.” Implying that he is seeing clearly for the first time.

Woah...mind blown! I know I’m taking that slightly out of context, but I honestly feel that deeper meaning of having one’s blinders taken off is the primary point of Arnie taking the shades off and never putting them back on.

Arnie has completely separated himself from his T-800 programming and no one can tell that he isn’t human. However, when Arnie is later escaping from the Cyberdyne building he symbolically embraces the T-800 again as he walks through a hailstorm of bullets and tear gas and comes out of it as only a near-indestructible machine can.

And speaking of the Cyberdyne building, that is, without question, Arnold’s “Atonement With the Father” moment. How can it not be? Arnie is assisting Skynet’s greatest enemies to kill his own father and/or mother (archetype speaking, Skynet is very much a tyrannical mother). And it does seem that Arnold has made this choice on his own. At no point does John order him to do so.

The final battle of the film takes place in a steel factory: symbolically it’s a giant forge where great tools and weapons are wrought and tested. Remember, fire is used for destruction, creation, and for cleansing.

And it is here where Arnie has a death and rebirth moment - also known as Apotheosis - and he receives the ultimate boon...which along with understanding why people cry may also have been the gift of humour. All beat to hell and he says, “I need a vacation.” Not bad for a talking tin can.

Unfortunately, it is also the end of our dear Arnold, as he makes the transition from machine to fully-human and he becomes the fated-hero. There is no place on this Earth for him and his very existence only increases the risk of Skynet being born again at some future time. He knows this and he knows that his sacrifice will keep Sarah and John safe for some time to come.

Arnie’s programming, his ego, prevents him from self-terminating - just as a healthy ego should do, but it doesn’t prevent Sarah from doing as he asks and lowering him into a vat of molten steel. He keeps his eyes looking up to the last - looking towards life and hope instead of impending doom - and he even gives us a thumbs-up before he is gone - almost as if Arnie is saying, “Yeah, I lived the best life I could have ever had. Better to live short and sacrifice myself for love than to have remained a mindless machine for eternity.”

Want to have an introspective moment when you watch T2? At the moment that Arnie dies, the scene shifts to his perspective. The typical red worldview of the Terminator flashes and gets static-y and then shuts down and goes black. Stop the movie right there and see how that impacts you if you consider it the end of the film.

Overall, I think this scene may be more important than even I grasped when I first wrote this episode of Think Spiritual. You see, Arnold could have chosen to live. He obviously had a choice here because John orders him not to go and Arnold refuses. This is something far beyond doing what is right to protect the future - this is the self-sacrifice of the Hero to protect the kingdom as a whole - very much the same as what Neo does at the end of the Matrix series.

And I can hear you asking, “What does that mean, Mark? Why does the Hero have to die? You’ve told us that we are the Hero!” Yes, I have told you that you are the Hero and that you have to see yourself as the Hero. And yes, sometimes the Hero has to die - emphasis on sometimes. Please remember that the Hero is an Archetype within you. Yes, you are the Hero, but you are not ONLY the Hero. If you have a Heroic Arnie T-800 Terminator within you ready to sacrifice himself when the time comes, you also have a John Connor within you ready to be birthed and take up his role as the Hero.

And there we have it once again, dear listeners: the deeply spiritual elements I see throughout the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Thank you very much for tuning in and listening once again. If you haven’t subscribed to the podcast or our YouTube channel yet, please do so as I have no intention of ending this journey anytime soon. Honestly, I have more ideas and content than I have time to produce.

I have been your host Mark, this has been another Examining the Spiritual Elements of Movies episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts and I know that as you traverse your Hero’s Journey you will be like T-800 Arnold and transform from a society-programmed machine into a true human-being as you continue to change your Self and change your world.

I will see you as soon as I can on the next episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

Change your Self; change your World.

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