The most arresting visual trope in all three of the Terminator films occurs during the moment of “the reveal.” The Terminator’s human carapace, subjected to hails of bullets, explosions, impacts and fire, is peeled back to show the metal skull beneath the skin. The Terminator’s line could be Iago’s: “I am not what I am.” The most effective of these reveals takes place in No. 2 where the young John Connor commands the cyborg to slice the skin from his forearm and, before the terrified face of Dyson, the CyberDyne scientist, impress on him in the most dramatic terms the reality of his metal infrastructure. As a seeing-is-believing moment, it’s hard to beat.
Yet the conclusion one can draw from these gothic spectacles is not what you might think. The terror of the reveal is not that, underneath the skin, the Terminator is a metal robot. Rather, it’s that underneath all our skins we’re afraid we might find that we’re nothing more than robots ourselves. That all our warm, mammalian impulses are merely grafted onto a mechanical, deterministic base. This is the real ideological message of the Terminator movies: man is always already a machine. What else could we be in a capitalist system that prizes the human as labor unit above all? In this way, the subtext of the Terminator movies anticipates the nightmarish image of humanity enslaved as depicted in the Matrix films.
More than that, though, the image of the Terminator, a machine sent back from the future, confirms the ultimate triumph of capitalism in which all humans will be converted into machines. It is a vision of alienated labor as ubermensch and destiny. The metal skeleton argues for, oddly enough, a biological determinism, marketplace Darwinism run amok. We are nothing more, at bottom, the films say, then a lot of hardwired responses and cold bits of survivalist software.
One of the most visceral pleasures that the Terminator movies provide is that of seeing how the body is wounded; how it suffers wounds with impunity, indeed, without any effort to avoid them. As the carnage progresses, the flesh is frayed, gradually destroyed and stripped away. What results is the spectacle of double-gratification: a kind of perverse striptease accompanied by the slow revelation of indestructibility. The pleasure afforded by multiple bodily penetrations, gaping bloody wounds, makes the body of the Terminator a pornographic one, pierced over and over.