In both The Terminator and The Matrix artificially intelligent machines destroy society. The only major differences being that in The Terminator the Machines wish to exterminate all human beings utterly while in The Matrix the Machine(s) wish to give the humans a false reality to use them as an energy resource. Both films demonstrate a self-destructive tendency in humans and potentially argue (if these films argue for anything) that the future is largely determined by large-scale trends and tendencies of human nature and progress outside of our control. Though the film makers did not intend it, both films could also be seen as demonstrating the hubris and Egoism of humans (and potentially all sentient beings) as expressed in the philosophy of Schopenhauer.
Both films show the dangers of intelligence without morality. In The Terminator Sky Net is clearly an intelligent self-aware computer system that is only concerned with its own preservation, and is willing to inflict any pain or destroy any life that would theoretically be a threat to it. The Sentinels, the worker-drones in The Matrix, wish to destroy any humans that are unplugged because they too are a threat to the Machines existence. The Machines wish to exist simply for the sake of existing, and are willing to do anything to do so. However, the machine intelligence (intelligences? In the third movie its depicted as a type of hive mind but there are individual programs with their own intelligence and attributes such as The Oracle and The Frenchman) in The Matrix seems to make at-least some consideration for humanity by first attempting to create a Utopian artificial reality for humanity. Human beings however will not accept this so the artificial intelligence creates one that is more like how humans lived in the past.
They are willing to inflict potentially endless (whatever amount is needed) amounts of pain (for though the reality may be false the pain is real, also of course there is much pain felt by those in the “real world”) to achieve their (its?) ends though it or Sky Net doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy existing. Both are strongly compelled to exist simply for the sake of existing. And human beings could be said to be very much the same way; performing whatever action(s) are deemed necessary (even if destructive in the long-term) for whatever group or ideology the individuals are a part of. Human beings are placed in the “moral” position in both films because they are defending themselves against a violent enemy, but humans should not be so proud or have illusions of nobility.
Though compassion and consideration for others is a trait that humans do exercise, they are largely defined by their willingness to survive at any cost, and if the story was changed and the humans first (as it potentially is in The Matrix) struck the machines and the machines retaliated in self-defense most humans would have little moral qualms with slaughtering them for their own benefit. This is seen historically with the murder of countless Native Americans, who were perceived as violent savages for defending themselves against those who represented “civilized progress.” We are in effect the Native Americans while Sky Net and the Machine’s intelligence is the new European. This has to do with Schopenhauer’s perception of justice as largely illusory. He believes we shout and cry for justice and morality if we are being harmed or our Ego is being infringed upon, but will have no such moral qualms if we are not harmed by an action and if we benefit we will justify doing that which we would consider a great indignity and injustice if perpetrated upon us.
The future is perceived as bleak and humans in the “present” are largely ignorant of the seemingly inevitable future that they all passively take part in. In The Matrix the humans plugged in ignorantly live a false-life that sustains the intelligence that continues their (the humans plugged in) survival. Humans in the 1980’s continue to support commercial and government (largely through military efforts/organizations) endeavors for “progress” which inevitably leads to the creation of Sky Net and the murder of billions. In both films, “evil” is simply the struggle for survival against antagonists and the simplistic notion of evil as a man twisting his handlebar mustache wishing to inflict suffering on others is arguably put in its proper place as naïve and simplistic. Hannah Arendt popularized the concept of the “benign” nature of evil and in a sense I believe that both apocalypses depict the results of said reality.
In The Matrix it is human beings unwittingly accepting authority (which the Machine is largely a metaphor of) for their own benefit and survival – similar to Arendt’s depiction of average German soldiers as not particularly evil people but people who participated and furthered disastrous ends by passively cooperating. And in the Terminator its humans collectively taking part in the “enlightenment project” of creating technology for technology’s sake. Human beings destroy society not through malicious race-hatred or motives conventionally understood as “evil” but simply through largely determined trends of human nature and economy that in both cases proved to be unsustainable – similar to Marx arguing the Capitalist system is unsustainable and based on amoral calculations for the individual benefit of a few.
Both apocalypses depict a future where human beings are destroyed through Egoism – both the Egoism of the machines and the human race. The world is bleak not through evil intent but simply through the largely inevitable chain of events that beset us. Human beings continue to survive not because it is morally right but simply because they are compelled – just as those who would destroy them do so not because they are “evil” in the conventional sense but simply because it seems rational and they are compelled. This is largely true not only in the apocalypse but in modern society and throughout all time. Life for many is hellish and people construct what meanings are required to continue living – society also constructs those meanings for them to minimize conflict with the status-quo whether that be the religions that are constructed in modern society or the false lives and construction of meaning that The Matrix gives humans that Morpheus tells us they are willing to die to protect.
The apocalypse then can be perceived as more than simply the deconstruction of society; it is the deconstruction or destruction of the illusion of meaning or purpose. We believe we live for this or that reason and want to do this or that for such and such. However when we compare our motives with that with the people of the apocalypse we see a great deal of similarities – the people of Armageddon are simply no longer able to delude themselves that they struggle for any purpose higher than survival and self-gratification. Their lives are not only physically hellish but shown as something that is psychologically daunting through lacking the illusion of meaning; seen in Kyle Reese being trained not to feel to not come to terms with the physical and emotional hardships of his world without physical or existential luxuries and Baldy from The Matrix who wishes to return to the lie of The Matrix because he cannot cope with the physical and existential hard ships of a seemingly futile struggle against The Machine. Both bands of rebel fighters wish to defeat the machine intelligence that struggles for their extinction only so they can live in the leisure and comfort that created their own downfall. Hardship for the characters in the series comes from that which provides material plenty and luxury revolting against them. Their lives are therefore hellish, but to revolt fundamentally against material plenty and luxury to prevent another Sky Net or Matrix-Machine would require their lives to once again be brutal.
Seen in the Ancient Greeks being capable of doing philosophy only by having slaves. If the slaves were taught philosophy they would likely not accept their hardships and revolt, ending the state of leisure for the Athenians and others. Much of what we call “progress” was made so through the barbarity of the “gentlemen” class savaging the savages. Apocalyptic futures depict a reality where the moral apathy of those benefiting from international oppression (white Americans) no longer can live in leisure and are either like the black southern slave used as a resource in The Matrix or are in The Terminator deemed an unnecessary threat and are designated for extermination like various people throughout history.
Though the films have various similarities that I already expressed, the main differences as I said is one involves a false reality while one does not and one the people are enslaved while the other they are exterminated. This expresses not only an obvious physical difference but an existential difference. As I alluded to, there is not only physical hardship for those in apocalyptic settings but psychological hardship. Those who live in the Matrix, those who believe they live in a contemporary society, receive the existential benefits of a false construction of meaning and purpose similar to those who construct an illusion of purpose in “real life.” This is also like that of those who are enslaved and exterminated.
Slaves must be given an illusion of purpose and ethics of their master. This is seen in the Americans giving Christianity to the Africans to make them servile to the harshness of their condition and their master’s rule. Though they suffered greatly, many of them legitimately came to believe that their hard ship was for some higher purpose that their God put them through. Such psychological and existential consideration was not given to the Jews of Germany, who were simply placed in the ghettos and then the death camps. Though they were used momentarily as labor (similarly to the humans in The Terminator) their primary function to those in charge was similarly a lack of existence.
In conclusion the settings of The Terminator of The Matrix and how they got there express many things. Human nature, one potential analysis of the true meaning of “progress,” not only the physical but psychological or existential suffering of people unable to benefit from societies consistency and luxury and the sociological differences between minorities or marginal groups classified for labor and those who are designated for annihilation.