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'Terminator: Salvation' brings God-talk into open spaces

Saturday night, my husband and I saw Terminator: Salvation, the fourth installment in the film franchise that jumps us to 2018 and follows the stories of one Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) and the now legendary John Connor (Christian Bale). While the film has its weaknesses, I’m discovering it is also one of those stories that lingers in my mind for days afterwards—in no small part because of the God-talk it invites into open spaces.

(Caution: Spoilers ahead.)

The story opens in 2003 on death row, where Marcus Wright (whose transgression we know little of other than it resulted in the death of his brother and two police officers) signs away his body for research to Cyberdyne just before he’s executed by lethal injection (bound to a table that rises him into a standing position of a cross as we hear a voice recite verses from Psalm 23). We then jump to 2018, after Judgment Day and Skynet’s apocalypse, where we find John Connor is an upper level leader in the Resistance (but not yet the leader we know he will be). After a mission that takes the lives of all but John, Marcus reappears, covered in sludge, reborn into a world he neither recognizes nor understands, his last memory being that of his own death. He hooks up with none other than Kyle Reese (a “coincidence” explained near the end of the film), and after Kyle is captured, Marcus hooks up with John Connor and his soldiers in order to rescue Reese. Not too give too much away at this point, Marcus makes a discovery about himself that affects his own quest as well as John’s, who wrestles with what to make of something he never expected and shakes the foundation of his preconceptions and understanding.

More than the other films in the franchise, Terminator: Salvation is laden with religious imagery and language—from familiar words like “Judgment Day,” “salvation” and “saved” and the description of John Connor as either a savior or false prophet to images strikingly reminiscent of the crucifixion (in addition to the one mentioned above, see Unfinished Christianity for another) and those verses of Psalm 23 heard more than once. And I don’t think a filmmaker can do this without inviting us to consider the story in that context—or at the very least, invite a depth to the themes of the story in that context.

Not that this franchise is a stranger to this kind of thing. Peter Chattaway explores this in depth in “Saints, Sinners and Salvation” and again at “Jesus and the Terminator” at Christianity Today. And then there’s the recent though short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which arguably explores themes related to faith and God more explicitly (or at least more literally) than any of the films. The Terminator narrative has always explored the ideas of what makes us human and what it means to be human—each time coming up with an answer that is less about biology and more about, as Kyle Reese suggests it in this film, what’s in our head and hearts—something “other” and less tangible than biology or programming. Not that our bodies aren’t important; as Chattaway puts it, “humanity is no mere spiritual abstraction; it is also rooted in the world of organic, physical life.” And all that invites God-talk into open spaces (which it has done on more than one occasion on this blog).

And there’s a lot said and seen of hearts in this film—Marcus’ heart in particular. (Caution: major spoilers from here on out—you've been warned). The trailers pretty much inform us that Marcus is a cross between a human and a machine, unique from other terminators in that his metal skeleton contains the internal organs of a human heart and brain (which has a chip attached to it). And that heart, it is mentioned, is a “strong heart” in more ways than one: It is not only strong biologically but also when it comes to the (albeit stumbling) goodness he exhibits.

Marcus, overwhelmed by the guilt of his past choices and actions, doesn’t see that goodness. But someone else does. When Blair Williams (a resistance fighter and pilot) thanks him for saving her life, she tells him that she doesn’t run across a lot of good men. Marcus tells her that he is not a “good man,” But she assures him that he is—“you just don’t know it yet.”

I really resonated with this scene for several reasons. It gets at one of the things that is at the core of being human (and makes us different from machines): our ability to choose the path on which we walk (i.e., free-will) and not only that, but our capacity to choose the path of good. Marcus feels as if all his past decisions have defined him, but Blair is reflecting back to him the reality that he has a choice about who he is right now—and, right now, that man is making good choices. At Hollywood Jesus, Jeremy Zondlo draws a nice allusion between the concept of free will in the film (which is expanded on regarding Marcus in the latter part) to our own experience:
Ultimately Marcus discovers his heart. The human heart cannot be programmed. It cannot be expected to do one thing or another because being human in its very nature gives it the ability to choose what to do. Marcus has the ability to choose his destiny and his mission which is also the motto of the resistance movement: No Fate But What We Make.

Similar to Marcus, we as humans we have a choice in how we behave. Despite what our earthly enemy may believe about how our flesh and blood is programmed to act, we always have the choice between what is right and what is wrong. Satan attempts to use our earthly bodies against us and convince us we are programmed for evil because he, like Skynet, is a very smart and powerful enemy who is trying to change the end of the story. Yet, although it may sometimes seem like we are actually programmed for evil, a result of our human body naturally very strongly desiring things that are incredibly attractive but ultimately dangerous and sinful, we have the ability to choose. We can choose to go the other way, which at the time may not feel very natural, but is what leads to salvation.
While the choices we’ve made in the past have consequences and lead us to the point on the path we are on at this very moment, we aren’t confined by those choices. If we have made the wrong choices and are on the wrong path, we have the choice to make different decisions and walk a new path—“we can choose to go the other way,” as Zondlo puts it. This is repentance—or, or as Mark Scandrette puts it in Soul Graffiti, the point where we “call into question our previous ways and awaken . . . to new possibilities.” It is changing the way we think and embracing of a new way of thinking which will direct our actions. It is choosing a new path. And when we chose the path marked by good again and again, we begin to experience and find redemption and salvation, something we will be working out and growing into our whole lives.

In some ways, Blair’s words are an invitation to Marcus to repent, to choose and embrace a new path, a new way of thinking and a new way of living—a path that she believes he has already set foot upon. She is inviting him to let go of whatever is blinding him from his past and choose a new way to see himself and the world around him. And, as a follower of Jesus, I find it significant that while John Connor and others categorize Marcus as a machine, Blair does not. When John asks her why she helped Marcus escape, she says, “Because I saw a man not a machine.” There is power in really seeing the people around us—paying attention and being in the room with them. It enables us to see past our preconceptions, suppositions and categories or labels we’ve consciously or unconsciously assigned to those we are with. When we pay attention, we are working with Jesus to call out of those around us (from our enemies to our friends) the people we were created to be—who can come to full power in Jesus in whom we are created and who showed us how to live that life, not simply by actions but by our relationship with the Father who is Love itself and from whom all life and love flows. And that, in the end, is true redemption.

And this kind of invitation to redemption and salvation is all the more potent in darkness, both personal and in the world around us. For Marcus, the darkest dark is within him, his own choices and, if you will, "sin." And those actions have brought about his own death. It is hard for him to see through all that darkness and death, but Blair's words are the light he needs for that moment. They kindle hope.

And hope has a lot to do with how we face darkness and death--the latter of which is very prevalent in this film, from the opening scene to the closing one. Why is death so relevant to we humans? At one point, the young Kyle Reese says the difference between humans and machines is that humans bury their dead (the machines don’t). At another point, several of the characters end up falling into and walking through rows of terminators being assembled in a Skynet factory. Those empty metal skulls with an utter, cold absence of life are a stark image of death and a contrast to the "other" and organic life of humans. These images underscore why death is so relevant to us: because there is something lost and worth mourning. Life is valuable and meaningful. And, while this film doesn't go as far to actually say it, its religious allusions and symbolism at the very least allow us to entertain that idea that it is even sacred.

But perhaps the most striking images of death--and the role of hope in facing it--are those that bookend the film. In the first scenes, Marcus is on a table with drugs flowing into his veins that will bring about his death. This time, it is a consequence, punishment or retribution for his actions. He is without hope. But the second time, Marcus is on that table of his own free will, his choice to give up his own life for another—his choice to love and put the best interest of another above his own life.

This scene as well others in the film affirms the idea that in darkness and death hope is revealed in love, compassion and sacrifice. And one of the things I like about this film is that even in the midst of great darkness and despair, the road to redemption and life isn’t paved by what we take by power, brute strength or intelligence but by our ability to do what is in the best interest of another, feel and act on compassion and lay down our lives for another.

And that strongly echoes the greater truth, that it is only by taking up our own cross daily and losing our own lives for Jesus' sake that we will find real and true life—true redemption, freedom, hope, and love beyond our wildest dreams in those wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

There’s a lot more that could be explored in this film—like what it means when we chose not to use evil to fight evil and the power of organic and grass roots growth in comparison to top-down “leadership. But I can’t help thinking that some of these themes and the God-talk those themes invite us to consider would have been a lot more powerful if the film had focused more on Marcus Wright than John Connor. This really was Marcus’ story more than that of John Connor, but it all got stretched so thin by incorporating both stories. Believe me, I get that the larger story here is about John Connor, but this part of it might actually have been better served with more of Marcus and less of him.

But I also have to hand it to McG—the attention he gave to detail in this film is outstanding. It is full of scenes and shots that pay tribute to the previous films. And seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Terminator years was amazing. In the end, I find myself going against the majority of critics on this one: I really enjoyed and am growing to appreciate even more this film and the God-talk it brings into open spaces.

(Images: Warner Bros.)