Apocalypse Now or Later?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 26 2009 1:11 PM

Apocalypse Now or Later?

Meghan wasn't the only person who missed Sarah Connor . Terminator Salvation lost the weekend's box office war to another sequel, Night at The Museum . There's surely some "in this economy" fauxrgument to be made explaining this outcome (ITE people want family friendly fare, not dark tales about the world's end), but I think Terminator 's problem is more basic, a structural flaw, a storytelling 101 screw-up.

Apocalypse narratives-movies, books, TV about the end of the world-can be divided into two groups: stopping the apocalypse narratives and surviving the apocalypse narratives. In the former, the end of the world is nigh, thanks to nukes, aliens, meteors, robots, a deadly virus, an odious supernatural being, or even angry trees . The worst is on the verge of happening and the whole story centers on the heroes pulling us all back from that brink (Think Lord of The Rings , Harry Potter , Independence Day , Armageddon , Outbreak etc.) In the latter, the apocalypse is a foregone conclusion. The word's been decimated and some small group of survivors rattles around in the wasteland, forgotten or hunted, scrounging for food or banding together to fight an evil overlord. (Think Mad Max , The Road , Oryx and Crake , The Matrix , Battlefield Earth ).

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Generally speaking, fictions aren't both of these narratives at once-and for obvious reasons. If our heroes stop the apocalypse, there isn't one to survive. If there's an apocalypse to survive, our heroes failed to stop it, which makes them a little less than heroic. But that's exactly what has happened in Terminator Salvation . After watching John and Sarah hustle, plot, and risk death, their mental health and society's approval to stop the machines, the fourth movie unceremoniously supposes that, despite all this effort, they have failed: the apocalypse is here. It's as if Frodo lost the ring to Sauron in The Twin Towers or Voldermort killed Harry in The Goblet of Fire and we were all expected to be interested in the next installments, even though they now have a completely different set of stakes. Of course, all the time travel in the Terminator universe means the future, and the rise of the machines, is always subject to change. Next time, they should consider putting off the apocalypse for a few more years.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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