Every year during the Christmas season, amid the posts people make on social media about their holiday activities, you will always see ones about people’s favorite Christmas movies. Along with It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, or The Grinch, without fail, you’ll be guaranteed to see someone chime in with 1988’s Die Hard as their favorite Christmas film. Granted I have heard the arguments as to why people say it is a Christmas movie, but I have always found those assertions rather eye-rollingly weak, as they seem to rely on a pretty broad definition of what constitutes a “Christmas” movie.
Nevertheless, Die Hard does fall within one of two categories that podcaster and film critic Patrick Coffin has grouped Christmas films into. The first category are those films that are directly about Christmas like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Miracle on 34thStreet, Elf or The Nativity Story. The second category are those where the story’s setting takes place at Christmas or that deal with scriptural or cultural themes that the audience associates with Christmas. These can include traditional classics such as The Shop Around the Corner, Meet John Doe or It’s a Wonderful Life. Light-hearted classics such as A Christmas Story, Jingle all the Way, and Love Actually. But it can also include films with more somber tones such as Scrooged, The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Joyeux Noel. Obviously Die Hard fits into this category.
Given this kind of flexibility, I would like to offer my own suggestion for a Christmas film, one that you will probably find as ridiculous a choice as I generally find Die Hard to be: the 1984 film The Terminator and its 1992 companion Terminator 2: Judgement Day (T2).
The Rage of the Machines
For those who never got around to seeing either of the films here is a brief synopsis. Sarah Connor is a struggling waitress in 1984 with no apparent prospects in life. One night, while out with friends at a night club, she is almost killed by a man armed to the teeth, who shoots up the entire club in order to kill her. Out of nowhere, a man rescues her and says, “Come with me if you want to live!” They flee together and hide out, while the man tells Sarah his story.
His name is Kyle Reese and he is the from the year 2029. In 1997 a computer system named Skynet will go online in order to control crucial military functions, but somehow it becomes “self-aware” and sees humanity as a threat to itself. So it decides to eliminate the threat by triggering “Judgement Day,” a worldwide nuclear war. Those that survived the nuclear devastation struggle to survive, but also live in terror of the “terminator” robots and cyborgs that Skynet created to hunt down the remaining humans. Some of them were not killed though and were instead forced into slave labor to keep the factories pumping out more terminators.
That’s when a leader arose, a man name John Connor, who rallied the remaining humans to fight against the terminators and Skynet. They were on the cusp of victory, when Skynet uses a time displacement machine to send a T-800 terminator back to the past to find and kill the mother of John Connor, in a desperate attempt to change the outcome of the rebellion against itself in 2029. So Kyle volunteered to follow the terminator back in time to protecter her. Sarah, does not believe him at first but eventually comes to realize the truth of what Kyle says, as they try to outrun the Terminator. During that time they also have intimate encounter.
Later, Kyle is killed but Sarah manages to destroy the Terminator. Whereupon she flees south into Mexico, and makes tape recordings of her experiences for her unborn son. For you see, she is now pregnant with Kyle’s child and is trying to wrap her head around the time paradox she now finds herself in between her son’s future and her present.
Science Fiction’s Eternal Allegories
On first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything in that description that would make The Terminator or T2 a Christmas movie. It’s not about the Christmas holiday, it doesn’t take place at Christmas, and Santa or Christ don’t even appear in it. But I believe that The Terminator’s story is actually a brilliant allegory for the entire salvation narrative, which the Biblical references to the Nativity of our Lord fall is right in the middle of. But in order to make that case, we need to establish some groundwork and examine a few of the film’s sci-fi tropes from a theological or symbolical lens, as well as look at why we celebrate Christmas.
Time travel is a plot device science fiction makes use of in order to explore alternate or hypothetical realities or timeliness, of which there are generally two kinds. One is where history and timelines can be changed by monkeying around with the past. In can be done is a light-hearted or saccharine manner as in films like Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where one can achieve a “most excellent” life in the present by changing certain things in the past. Or they can be dark and sinister like Primer or The Butterfly Effect where each attempt to mess around with the past leaves your present worse off or never quite right.
Then there are time travel stories that present a closed time loop where no matter how much you try to change the past, the future is already set and the timeline always, albeit with some minor variations, ends up the same. Films such as 12 Monkeys, The Time Machine (the 2004 version), and Tenet all present a story where fate or providence maintains a set narrative for for the film’s universe, so that even if the characters try to change it, they discover that their actions were still part of the way it was supposed to be all along.
The Terminator and T2 fall into the second kind. For even though Sarah Connor takes to heart the message her future son sent back with Kyle Reese, “there is no fate but what we make,” and tries to prevent Judgement Day by killing Miles Dyson (the creator of Skynet), we learn in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines that a self-aware Skynet and Judgement Day was inevitable--it could only delayed, not destroyed.
However, time travel is also a way for science fiction to wrestle with the idea of eternity and final judgment, especially in terms of a future that is impacted – justly or unjustly – based on our past and present actions. And as we shall see in The Terminator it also can be seen as an allegory for the spiritual world and the warfare that continuously occurs there.
Skynet and the Terminator
As I have written elsewhere, the term “artificial intelligence” is an oxymoron. To be intelligent enough to be rational or moral requires a rational soul, which means that you have to be alive and human. No machine, no matter how complex it is or how sophisticated its programming becomes can truly be “intelligent” because it is not alive. All they can do is mimic human intelligence in accordance with its programming or coding. Even ones that learn and improve like IBM’s “Deep Blue” are doing so according to a set of instructions given to it by a human being. At no point can an A.I. step back and see (or become “aware” of) itself apart from its programming or operations--that’s science fiction.
Moreover, while humans have always made labor-saving devices to improve our lives, our fallen nature means that we sometimes produce machines that are capable of eliminating the value, dignity, and sense of worth we get from doing honest work. The same applies to developing A.I. but for cognitive rather than physical labor. Thus, the sci-fi trope of an A.I. becoming maliciously intelligent is not so much about speculating what a self-aware computer or machine would act like, as it is about what it means for us to become less human by relinquishing the things that make us human: rational and moral thought.
In regards to The Terminator and T2, Skynet was a military-based system like the WOPR computer in the 1984 film WarGames, that was given control over the nation’s nuclear arsenal. So when it became “self-aware” it would act in accordance with the way it had been programmed and attacked the humans it had been designed to protect. Later, it created the terminator robots to finish off the job. The terminators, and in particular the T-800, is a cyborg, a robot with organic materials that is programmed to hunt down and kill a specific target. Just like Skynet, the Terminator is not alive and does not have a soul, so it does not “think.” However, like the A.I.’s used by Google or Tik Tok, it learns enough about human behavior and its predictability in order to hunt its target.
Symbolically-speaking, there is a sense that Skynet is similar to the monster in the classic film The Forbidden Planet. Skynet had a specific and positive role it was programmed to do, but it also had an invisible (and demonic) Id whereby the created usurps the authority of the creator for its own selfish ends. The terminators and the T-800, for their part are a sort of blasphemous incarnation that are made in the image and likeness of Skynet, that are even less “aware” than Skynet is.
Sarah and John Connor
Obviously Sarah Connor is the archetype of a Mary figure. That’s not a guess either, James Cameron who came back to direct the abysmal Terminator: Dark Fate in 2019 has an old and broken down Sarah Connor saying that she was tired of playing “Mother Mary” all her life. Nevertheless, she is a woman who goes from being the handmaid in the original film, to someone like our Lady who wears combat boots in T2 when she takes on a more active role in protecting her son John and hunting down the creator of Skynet.
John Connor is obviously a messianic figure, whose initials are (no doubt) coincidentally the same as our Lord. But he is also an enigma of a person (as is Kyle), in that he exists in two worlds (or time periods) at the same time. A conquering hero in the future and a fugitive vagabond in the past, who is always on the run with no place to ever "rest his head." Moreover, he is also symbolically like our Lord in that he too was born “before all ages” in that his life is the central “line” around which the narrative’s time-line is built. His story arc is the main loop that joins the past, present, and future at specific points in time but also throughout the entire story. After all, Kyle Reese existed only in the future but got sent back in time to father John Connor, the same John he had left behind in the year 2029. But Kyle never lived in the past, he wasn’t supposed to exist in 1984, and yet he did and even died in 1984. Yet John Connor remained at all times in the past, present, and future.
The Eternal Narrative of Salvation
With all of those elements in mind, it is time look at what it is we are celebrating at Christmas time so we can see why The Terminator and T2 could be considered Christmas movies. When you strip away all of the cultural trappings that have been (for better or worse) added to the Christmas holiday, you are left with two basic narratives. The first is obviously the accounts of the birth of Christ in the gospels which takes place in history and in our world.
Then there is the highly symbolic account of St. John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, where he was invited to “come up” out of time and space and into the spiritual world. There he saw the Heavenly liturgy and how it coincides with “in time” events in the material world in the past, present, and future. Specifically, his vision in chapter 12 of the woman crowned with stars about to give birth to a future ruler of the world, a rapacious seven-headed red dragon that wants to devour the child, and the struggle in Heaven where Michael and his angels defeat and cast the Devil (the “ancient serpent” from Genesis) down to earth. While there, the Devil/Dragon once again tries to kill the child but fails and instead goes off to make war on the rest of the woman’s offspring.
These two accounts are part of the same grand narrative of the fall of humanity, the promise and birth of a savior, his death and resurrection, and his coming again at the end of time. As a Catholic commentator once said,
“this infant has come to declare war, to build his fortress, and to destroy the enemy. This is the good news: that the day of our liberation has arrived....What child is this? This is Christ the Lord, through whom the heavens and the world were created. This is the eternal logos, the one who brings order to the universe. The one who lept from Heaven into a manger, he is the destroyer--the divine destroyer--of sin.”
And when our Lord returns, he will not come as a baby, nor a carpenter, and certainly not as some imbecile recently said, at the head of a pride parade. No, he will return as the Prince of Peace and the King of Kings.
This is the one and obviously most important aspect of Christmas that I think gets lost in all of the historical and cultural impedimenta of the Christmas season. It is seen in Scripture in two versions, but it is the same story with the same beginning, middle, and end.
The Greatest Allegory of the Greatest Narrative
With all of that groundwork laid out, I would offer up that The Terminator and T2 are Christmas movies because they are a fitting allegory for the entire drama of salvation mentioned above, with the nativity of our Lord occurring in the middle, between the alpha and omega bookends. Skynet exists in the future, which is an image of the end of times, at the Second Coming and the destruction of the Devil. With its ultimate defeat at hand, Skynet, like Herod (who was an Edomite, which interestingly enough translates as “red” like the dragon in Revelation or the eyes of the terminators), sends the T-800 (and later the T-1000 in T2) to kill the mother and the child that will one day rise up to destroy it.
But the mother survives by literally crushing the Terminator’s head with a hydraulic press at the end of the first movie. Thus, unto the world of 1984 a child is born, that one day will destroy Skynet in 2029. So despite Skynet sending the T-800 back in time to kill John Connor by killing his mother, it was already too late because its doom was, like in Scripture, foretold. It was Kyle who brought John Connor’s message of encouragement and ultimate victory (his "good news") from the future to Sarah in the past. John being alive in the future means that Kyle succeeded in his mission to the past, which was to protect Sarah long enough to conceive John. Which from both John’s and Skynet’s point of view in 2029 has already happened.
For just as Christ’s death and rising from the dead conquered sin and death for all time, with these last days being a mop-up operation, John Connor survived the nuclear devastation of Judgment Day in 1997, and went on to defeat Skynet. In this way the victory over Skynet was, like Judgment Day, an inevitability.
In sum, while The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are probably not the best films to watch at a Christmas party or to get into the holiday spirit, they still offer us a Tolkeinesque Eucatastophe which are a fitting reminder of the true meaning of Christmas as part of a larger narrative of God loving us enough to send his only son to save us--just with a lot more action and explosions.
Photo Credit- moviehousememories. com