Tag Archives: Terminator

Why The “Terminator” Franchise Has Faltered (And How To Revive It)

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Some franchises just aren’t built to last. It’s a sad fact of life. Sometimes, the things we love just cannot grow and blossom. Not every franchise can be like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, every effort to mirror the success of the MCU has either failed or come up short. For some, it just doesn’t have resources to grow to that extent. In some cases, trying to force a franchise into something it’s not will only hurt it even more.

The latest franchise to learn this the hard way is the “Terminator.” Believe me when I say I take no joy in saying that. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for all things “Terminator.” The original 1984 film was one of the first R-rated movies that my parents let me watch. I remember being scared, but thrilled at the same time. As a kid, that was a major step up from traditional Disney movies.

Then, I saw “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and the highest of bars was set. Like the first movie, it thrilled and amazed me to no end. At the same time, it struck many emotional chords, especially at the end. I still get choked up to this day when I hear the T-800 tell John, “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” There’s a good reason why many rank this among the greatest movies of all time.

A big part of what made that movie great was how it completed the story. What began with Sarah Connor’s journey in the first film ended beautifully in the second. It was as complete a story as it could’ve been. To make a sequel after that would’ve been like trying to improve on the Mona Lisa. While the prospect of sequels still interested me, I never got the sense that they could improve on what the first two movies did.

That didn’t stop Hollywood from trying multiple times. While some of those movies had their moments, they never came close to improving on the first two. If anything, each sequel did more and more damage to the franchise. It showed in both the critical reception and the box office. Now, with “Terminator: Dark Fate” an outright flop, the state of this franchise is dire.

Some are already saying it’s dead. I don’t agree with that. It’s in critical condition. That’s for certain. However, I don’t think it’s doomed to the archives of cinematic history. I believe it’s worth taking a step back to understand why the franchise has faltered so badly. I also believe that there is a way to revive it for a new generation.

The reasons the franchise declined are many. Ask a dozen people who love the franchise as much as I do and chances are you’ll get several dozen answers from each of them. They usually boil down to reasons like this.

The ending of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was too perfect and final to improve upon.

The sequels muddied and messed up the timeline more than it already was.

The sequels focused too much on action and not enough on the horror of the first movie or the drama of the second.

The sequels didn’t utilize enough of the original cast, relying heavily on the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The sequels undermined or undercut the impact of the first two movies.

The sequels were too focused on setting up a trilogy rather than making one solid movie.

The threats in the sequels were too bland and predictable, relying too much on newer Terminators fighting older Terminators.

Personally, I think every one of these reasons has merit, but some have more than others. When I re-watch “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and compare it to the sequels, I can clearly see the difference from a cinematic and storytelling standpoint. That movie was made to complete the story that James Cameron started telling with the first. Every other sequel was made to set up more sequels.

From there, every other issue compounded. The focus of the movies was less about having a genuine impact and more about teasing a future movie. That only works if the first movie is successful and that didn’t happen with any of the sequels after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” They attempted to set up a larger story, but nobody cared about that story anymore.

Then, “Terminator: Dark Fate” committed the ultimate sin, in my opinion, when it effectively rendered the first story pointless for the sake of a new one. For me, that ensured that this would be the first Terminator sequel I didn’t see in the theaters. I doubt I’ll even see it when it comes out on cable. What this movie did to John Connors and the over-arching narrative of the franchise just cannot be overlooked.

It’s so bad that I won’t even bother with a spoiler warning. “Terminator: Dark Fate” kills John within the first two minutes of the movie. In one cold, callous sequence, this character who fought so hard with his mother to save the future is rendered pointless. The only difference he made is that the name of the future robot overlords changed. Instead of Skynet, they got Legion. That’s it.

Not Pictured: Anything remotely appealing.

It would be akin to having Thanos come back to life, murder the Avengers, and wipe out half the life in the universe all over again in the first movie after “Avengers: Endgame.” Everything and everyone they fought to save is rendered pointless. Then, that same movie tries to tell a story about a new savior who nobody has any attachment to and will always be defined by being John’s replacement.

There’s nothing about that story that has any appeal, either to a fan of the Terminator franchise or any franchise, for that matter. On top of that, “Terminator: Dark Fate” went heavy on mixing gender politics with the movie. That’s not just an indirect interpretation. The director, Tim Miller, flat out admitted it in interviews before the movie came out.

I don’t want to get too caught up in that aspect of the movie, but I do think it was a contributing factor to the movie’s shortcomings. We’ve seen it happen with other movies before. When a movie is too focused on enduring its female characters pass the Bechdel Test, it rarely puts enough effort into making them likable or endearing. It also obscures the overall plot by making it predictable.

There are many other flaws to highlight in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” as well as plenty more in the movies that came before it. Rather than belabor those, I want to focus on how this franchise rebuilds itself from here. The failures of the sequels have damaged it significantly. There’s no amount of time travel or retroactive changes that can save the story that “Terminator: Dark Fate” tried to set up.

That said, this franchise does have a few things going for it. It’s a known brand that people recognize. When most people hear the word “Terminator,” they usually understand it as a reference to the movies. Even if it’s not as strong a brand as it used to be, it still carries weight and sometimes, that’s all it needs.

The first step to rebuilding it involves ending the futile efforts to build, expand, or somehow improve on the story of Sarah and John Connor. Their story ended perfectly in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Most Terminator fans agree with that and anything that would somehow undermine their legacy is only going to cause more damage.

The next step is to start a new timeline, but one that doesn’t focus on saving the future leader of the resistance or ensuring that Judgement Day occurs. That story has been done to death. For Terminator to succeed, it needs to show that it can do more. In fact, I believe “Terminator: Dark Fate” actually has one sub-plot that might be the key to the franchise’s renewal and survival.

In that movie, the Terminator that killed John, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, secretly built a human life for itself after its mission was completed. It walked around as a human, met a woman with a son from a previous marriage, and formed a family. If the movie had any plot worthy of intrigue, it was this. Sadly, it was poorly developed and mostly rendered pointless by the end.

It’s a concept that might resonate more today than it could have in 1984. When the first Terminator movie came out, machines and robots weren’t that smart. They were defined by how inhuman, cold, and calculating they were. In recent years, that has changed. Movies like “Ex Machina” and “Wall-E” have built compelling stories about robots that have human traits, including emotions.

It’s something that the Terminator franchise has flirted with before. Part of what made the ending of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” so dramatic and impactful was the emotional attachment that John developed for the T-800. Even the T-800 showed signs that he’d formed a bond. It made that final sacrifice feel so powerful.

Even “Terminator: Genysis” explored the idea. It had another T-800 form a fatherly bond with a young Sarah Connor, so much so that she called him Pops. While the movie didn’t flesh out the concept as much as it could’ve, there were moments that highlighted the extent of this bond. I strongly believed that if this movie had emphasized this concept over making John Connor evil, it would’ve succeeded.

Rather than hint or imply it, I believe a future Terminator movie should go all in on this idea of a killing machine developing emotional attachments to humans. It’s something that is more relevant today than it was in 1984 or 1991. We already interact more intimately with technology and we’ve even given our technology a personality. I say that’s a story that the Terminator can build upon.

Imagine the following scenario.

It’s the distant future. Machines have taken over. Humanity has been all but enslaved. There are only pockets of resistance. To combat this, the central machine intelligence, Skynet, creates Terminators with the sole purpose of killing the remaining humans.

However, humans prove crafty. They outwit and outsmart the early models. In order to become better killers, new Terminators are created that can mimic, study, and process emotions. Ideally, it could infiltrate human resistance camps, earn their trust, and terminate them appropriately. They would be the ultimate killers.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough data. Humans are too scattered, weak, and desperate. Skynet doesn’t have enough data to give these new Terminators the capabilities it needs. It calculates that it would take too long and require too many resources to compile the data in the present. As a result, it decides to send a model back in time before machines took over.

The model’s mission is simple. It must integrate into human society, compile data, preserve it, and transmit it back to Skynet by preserving it within disks. If it’s identity as a machine is uncovered by a human, its primary protocol is to terminate the human.

The first model is sent back. It arrives in a bustling city that would one day be reduced to ruin. It finds clothes, has an identity, and begins integration. However, just as it’s starting to establish itself, a human finds out it’s a machine. Its protocols are activated, but then something unexpected happens. It doesn’t terminate the human.

Instead of fear, the human develops intrigue. It connects with the Terminator. They start to form a bond. Eventually, the Terminator’s systems for mimicking emotions turn into real emotions. It develops a love for humanity and decides to defy Skynet. That decision ripples into the future and Skynet tries to send other Terminators back to destroy it.

As a Terminator fan, I would love to see a movie like this. It could work with a male or female Terminator. It could also work with a male or female protagonist. Like the T-800 in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” it could even become part of a family, giving it something to fight for and protect. Instead of fighting to protect a savior, the Terminator fights to change the fate of both itself and humanity.

This is just my idea, though. I’d love to hear with other Terminator fans think. I’d also love to hear how they would revitalize this franchise. I believe there is room for this franchise in the current cultural landscape. As machines and advanced artificial intelligence continue to progress, I suspect it’ll become even more relevant.

Like Sarah Connor once said, there is no fate, but what we make for ourselves. That applies to our future as a species. It also applies to this franchise.

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Killer Robots, Drone Warfare, And How Artificial Intelligence Might Impact Both

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On November 5, 2001, the history of warfare changed forever. On that date, an unmanned Predator drone armed with hellfire missiles killed Mohammed Atef, a known Al-Qaida military chief and the son-in-law to Osama Bin Laden. From a purely strategic standpoint, this was significant in that it proved the utility of a new kind of weapon system. In terms of the bigger picture, it marked the start of a new kind of warfare.

If the whole of human history has taught us anything, it’s that the course of that history changes when societies find new and devastating ways to wage war. In ancient times, to wage war, you needed to invest time and resources to train skilled warriors. That limited the scope and scale of war, although some did make the most of it.

Then, firearms came along and suddenly, you didn’t need a special warrior class. You just needed to give someone a gun, teach them how to use it, and organize them so that they could shoot in a unit. That raised both the killing power and the devastating scale of war. The rise of aircraft and bombers only compounded that.

In the 20th century, warfare became so advanced and so destructive that the large-scale wars of the past just aren’t feasible anymore. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the potential dangers of such a war are so great that no spoils are worth it anymore. In the past, I’ve even noted that the devastating power of nuclear weapons have had a positive impact on the world, albeit for distressing reasons.

Now, drone warfare has added a new complication. Today, drone strikes are such a common tactic that it barely makes the news. The only time they are noteworthy is when one of those strikes incurs heavy civilian casualties. It has also sparked serious legal questions when the targets of these strikes are American citizens. While these events are both tragic and distressing, there’s no going back.

Like gunpowder before it, the genie is out of the bottle. Warfare has evolved and will never be the same. If anything, the rise of combat drones will only accelerate the pace of change with respect to warfare. Like any weapon before it, some of that change will be negative, as civilian casualties often prove. However, there also potential benefits that could change more than just warfare.

Those benefits aren’t limited to keeping keep soldiers out of combat zones. From a cost standpoint, drones are significantly cheaper. A single manned F-22 Raptor costs approximately $150 million while a single combat drone costs about $16 million. That makes drones 15 times cheaper and you don’t need to be a combat ace to fly one.

However, those are just logistical benefits. It’s the potential that drones have in conjunction with advanced artificial intelligence that could make them every bit as influential as nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. There’s plenty of danger in that potential. There always is with advanced AI. I’ve even talked about some of those risks. Anyone who has seen a single “Terminator” movie understands those risks.

When it comes to warfare, though, risk tolerance tends to be more complicated than anything you see in the movies. The risks of AI and combat drones have already sparked concerns about killer robots in the military. As real as those risks are, there’s another side to that coin that rarely gets discussed.

Think back to any story involving a drone strike that killed civilians. There are plenty of incidents to reference. Those drones didn’t act on orders from Skynet. They were ordered by human military personnel, attempting to make tactical decision on whatever intelligence they had available at the time. The drones may have done the killing, but a human being gave the order.

To the credit of these highly trained men and women in the military, they’re still flawed humans at the end of the day. No matter how ethically they conduct themselves, they’re ability to assess, process, and judge a situation is limited. When those judgments have lives on the line, both the stakes and the burdens are immense.

Once more advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the dynamics for drone warfare changes considerably. This isn’t pure speculation. The United States Military has gone on record saying they’re looking for ways to integrate advanced AI into combat drones. While they stopped short of confirming they’re working on their own version of Skynet, the effort to merge AI and combat drones is underway.

In an overly-simplistic way, they basically confirmed they’re working on killer robots. They may not look like the Terminator or Ultron, but their function is similar. They’re programmed with a task and that task may or may not involve killing an enemy combatant. At some point, a combat drone is going to kill another human being purely based on AI.

That assumes it hasn’t already happened. It’s no secret that the United States Military maintains shadowy weapons programs that are often decades ahead of their time. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time. Once an autonomous drone kills another human being, we’ll have officially entered another new era of warfare.

In this era, there are no human pilots directing combat drones from afar. There’s no human being pulling the trigger whenever a drone launches its lethal payload into a combat situation. The drones act on their own accord. They assess all the intel they have on hand, process it at speeds far beyond that of any human, and render decisions in an instant.

It sounds scary and it certainly is. Plenty of popular media, as well as respected public figures, paint a terrifying picture of killer robots killing without remorse or concern. However, those worst-case-scenarios overlook both the strategic and practical aspect of this technology.

In theory, a combat drone with sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence will be more effective than any human pilot could ever be in a military aircraft. It could fly better, carrying out maneuvers that would strain or outright kill even the most durable pilots. It could react better under stressful circumstances. It could even render better judgments that save more lives.

Imagine, for a moment, a combat drone with systems and abilities so refined that no human pilot or officer could hope to match it. This drone could fly into a war zone, analyze a situation, zero in on a target, and attack with such precision that there’s little to no collateral damage.

If it wanted to take a single person out, it could simply fire a high-powered laser that hits them right in the brain stem.

If it wants to take out someone hiding in a bunker, it could utilize a smart bullet or a rail gun that penetrates every level of shielding and impacts only a limited area.

If it wants to take out something bigger, it could coordinate with other drones to hit with traditional missiles in such a way that it had no hope of defending itself.

Granted, drones this advanced probably won’t be available on the outset. Every bit of new technology goes through a learning curve. Just look at the first firearms and combat planes for proof of that. It takes time, refinement, and incentive to make a weapons system work. Even before it’s perfected, it’ll still have an impact.

At the moment, the incentives are definitely there. Today, the general public has a very low tolerance for casualties on both sides of a conflict. The total casualties of the second Iraq War currently sit at 4,809 coalition forces and 150,000 Iraqis. While that’s only a fraction of the casualties suffered in the Vietnam War, most people still deem those losses unacceptable.

It’s no longer feasible, strategically or ethically, to just blow up an enemy and lay waste to the land around them. Neither politics nor logistics will allow it. In an era where terrorism and renegade militias pose the greatest threat, intelligence and precision matter. Human brains and muscle just won’t cut it in that environment. Combat drones, if properly refined, can do the job.

Please note that’s a big and critical if. Like nuclear weapons, this a technology that nobody in any country can afford to misuse. In the event that a combat drone AI develops into something akin to Skynet or Ultron, then the amount of death and destruction it could bring is incalculable. These systems are already designed to kill. Advanced AI will just make them better at killing than any human will ever be.

It’s a worst-case scenario, but one we’ve managed to avoid with nuclear weapons. With advanced combat drones, the benefits might be even greater than no large-scale wars on the level of Word War II. In a world where advanced combat drones keep terrorists and militias from ever becoming too big a threat, the potential benefits could be unprecedented.

Human beings have been waging bloody, brutal wars for their entire history. Nuclear weapons may have made the cost of large wars too high, but combat drones powered by AI may finally make it obsolete.

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Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

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At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

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