James Cameron may have gone full Pop Cult in a frenzy of giant smurf Gaia worship (Avatar), but his past career leaves no doubt as to his visionary status. Starting in the 80s and throughout the 90s, he displayed an uncanny knack for getting out in front of Hollywood trends. And if the industry wasn’t going along with his vision, he’d make them.
A recent comparison of each film’s merits on Twitter prompted me to rewatch both movies. Upon review, I’m forced to concur that the first installment is the superior film. The quality difference arises in large part from Cameron’s penchant for making sequels in different genres from the originals. Whereas T1 is a taut thriller that contracts the sunny Los Angeles sprawl to a shadowy claustrophobic rat maze, T2 stretches its canvas – even using a wider aspect ratio – into a bombastic, screen-filling actioner.
Don’t get me wrong. T1 and T2 are both exquisite movies. Watch them back-to-back tonight for a cinematic feast of a double feature. But T1 edges out its sequel as a thinking man’s cat-and-mouse thriller that takes the best from Italian slasher flicks and American noir to define the 80s cyberpunk mood. T2 washes off the grit and turns up the lights to take its place in the pantheon of popcorn-muncher tentpole blockbusters.
Yet both movies give us lots to think about. And one subject that’s gone overlooked among the duology’s stockpile of big ideas is the promise and thwarted destiny of Generation Y.
How do a couple of action flicks about duking it out with robots from the future factor into generational theory? The answer lies in the character who plays the role of prime mover in T1 and emerges as T2’s protagonist.
We hear a lot about John Connor in T1, where we only catch a brief glimpse of him. But the first time we meet him is in 1995 when he’s a rootless street urchin. Hailing from a broken home, John enjoys hanging out at arcades and demonstrates tech savviness that escapes most adults around him. But he still has friends in meatspace and goes outside.
And if those aren’t sufficient touchstones to place him in Gen Y, the looming obliteration of the paradise he’s grown up in has been hanging over his head since birth.
Also, John was born in 1984, so he’s core Gen Y by the numbers.
Here’s where it gets kind of spooky. Because demographers Strauss and Howe of Fourth Turning theory fame identified the Millennials – which they start in 1982 – as a Hero generation.
But correcting for the accelerating rate of societal change since the 1960s breaks that cohort into two distinct generations: Y and the later Millennials. Not only does this ten-year model have better descriptive and predictive power, it makes Gen Y an Artist-Adaptive generation.
In T1, we’re inundated with references to John Connor as a great military leader and hero. He’s the one who rallies downtrodden mankind to victory over the machines.
You might be saying, “Yeah, John Connor is the savior of humanity. His mom raised him to be an expert soldier and leader of men. Doesn’t that mean Strauss and Howe were right about him being a Hero Generation Millennial?”
Before passing judgment, check out the Strauss-Howe definition of the Artist generation:
Artist (Adaptive) generations enter childhood after an Unraveling, during a Crisis, a time when great dangers cut down social and political complexity in favor of public consensus, aggressive institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice. Artists grow up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the Crisis, come of age as the socialized and conformist young adults of a post-Crisis world, break out as process-oriented midlife leaders during an Awakening, and age into thoughtful post-Awakening elders
John Connor entered childhood after the first terminator unraveled his mother’s world, just in time for the major threats of a second terminator and the aggressive (military contractor) Cyberdine Corporation. He had to sacrifice a normal life thanks to his overprotective mom, who knew he was destined to save the world. As a young adult, Skynet forced him – and everyone else – to conform as prisoners in death camps. Which he in fact broke out of in midlife to become a leader during humanity’s uprising.
Eerie, isn’t it? I doubt this was a deliberate choice on James Cameron’s part, but you could sum up the plot of The Terminator as “A Zoomer goes back in time to warn a Boomer about society’s impending collapse so she can raise her Gen Y son to survive the future.”
Too bad for us there was no real-life Kyle Reese to give warning. So we’ll have to make do on our own.
For another prescient techno-thriller, read my hit mech novel:
Originally published here