Terminator’s John Conner: Self-Made Man
In preparation for this summer’s Terminator franchise renewal (not a reboot!), I decided to watch the first two, realizing I’d never actually seen either of them in full. Regarding the first one, what struck me as most fascinating – other than the fact that, Linda Hamilton’s mullet aside, it still holds up pretty well – is how cleverly – even diabolically – it utilizes its time-travel aspects.
The plots of each movie can be described simply (and accurately) as “Heroes fight to protect important child.” But the seldom-mentioned big idea the whole franchise is built on is “Creating John Conner,” both figuratively and literally – and in more ways than one, at that.
Which is where things get interesting.
Yes, Terminator the first features the simple irony that the guy sent back in time to protect an unborn child is actually responsible for its birth. Not quite “I’m my own grandpa”-level, but a neat little twist.
But look just a little deeper, and the entire franchise hinges on John Conner’s own Machiavellian plotting to create himself.
Future-John sends not just anyone, but his best friend Kyle, back into the past to protect his mother. Kyle and Sarah, during the brief time when they’re not fighting a killer robot, make full use of a shitty motel room, and bam – John Conner is conceived. And then Kyle’s killed.
On first glance, sure, this is a moment worthy of an Alanis Morissette song. But given all the clues laid down in the movie, it’s actually very deliberate. Kyle won’t shut up about how John wouldn’t shut up about his mom: “She was awesome, a total warrior-woman, savior of humanity, and hey, y’know what, kinda hot, too – here, look at this picture, Kyle, no no, you hang on to that one, I’ve got plenty.”
Kyle even shows the damn snapshot to Sarah. And after Kyle’s dead, and Sarah’s cruising around Mexico, wondering how best to prepare her unborn kid for the apocalypse, she gets her picture taken and realizes it’s the same photo.
A photo she’s clearly given to her son. Presumably when she made a decision to tell her son who his father was – this future-soldier named Kyle who said he was John’s best friend.
This means the moment future-John met a guy named Kyle Reese, he realized he was meeting his father – and that he had to groom the guy to actually BE his father. Which meant more than sending him back into the past. It meant laying the groundwork for Kyle’s attraction to his own mother, so that when they met, they would be, y’know… into it. (Just a little joke, don’t worry, it’s safe for work. Put your headphones on.)
Not just that, it meant cultivating a friendship with this guy to the point that he’d volunteer to go back. Because Kyle couldn’t suspect that John had a greater agenda beyond “my mom needs to be protected so I can be born,” lest John’s entire plot be jeopardized.
In other words, John Conner molded Kyle Reese, from the moment they met – befriending him, confiding in him, sharing intimate details about his past – into becoming the man who would impregnate his mother. Meaning, quite literally, John Conner is a self-made man.
That’s pretty crazy. And that’s not even taking into account Sarah’s involvement in all this.
Ignoring whether or not any of “Sarah Conner Chronicles” is canon (T3 seems pretty up in the air, as well), we know from the first two films that Sarah A) begins John’s survivalist training; B) tells him what she knows about Kyle, and C) lets John in on the whole “savior of the human race” thing.
Does Sarah ever nurture anything other than John’s soldiering instincts? If you do toss in “SCC” (where you get some neat details on their mother-son relationship), then…no, not really. From birth, she raises John as a survivalist. And after she dies, John finishes the job of raising himself up to be the guy he’s been told he would be.
So there’s the hero of Terminator: Salvation (expect a review soonish) – a walking, talking product of hands-on determinism, created and molded from birth, by himself. Not a lot of summer action movie heroes you can say that about.
(Suck on that, Shia Labeouf! You’re friends with robots? Big whoop. John Conner sent his dad’s sperm back in TIME!)
I wonder if that’ll make him any more interesting than the glowering, growling character seen in the trailers?