Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and James Cameron's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines have come to occupy similar positions in American popular culture -- largely, for their iconic appeal -- but they are also comparable in more subtle ways. Specifically, each tale depicts the emergence of human nature within entities that superficially seem nonhuman. Frankenstein's monster and the T-101 both come forward as compelling and sympathetic characters because they learn and express themselves in terms that human beings are able to understand. The T-101's apparent progression from a methodical killer into an unwavering companion within the Terminator movies is mirrored by the monster's progression from an infantile murderer into a sensitive literature aficionado. Additionally, it is significant that both are brought into creation through clandestine scientific practices; thus, similar themes surrounding the T-101 and the monster make themselves apparent. Essentially, both characters represent the volatile nature of too much knowledge: they are the violent culminations of scientific inquiries gone terribly wrong. Nevertheless, the T-101 and the monster demonstrate human emotion; consequently, their existence questions our very understanding of what it means to be a human being. So, both Terminator 3 and Frankenstein depict man-made characters whose position somewhere in between the human and non-human spheres is suggested by their brutal actions, and implies the moral difficulties of artificially created life.
In order to grasp the gradual emergence of human qualities within the T-101 and the monster, it is important to investigate their physical origins. Frankenstein's monster was brought to life by a single man, in secret, seeking to reanimate dead human tissues. On the surface, this sort of birth may seem to have no conceptual connection to the artificial intelligence exemplified by the T-101, but the ideological questions surrounding both remain almost identical. One of the pervasive themes running throughout Frankenstein is the recurrent symbolism concerning ice and fire. Fire represents a number of things, to Shelley, but its most significant association is with knowledge and enlightenment. In his first letter Walton expresses his feelings regarding knowledge which, initially, is identical to the passion felt by Victor: "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?" (Shelley, 6). This is the utterly optimistic view of science and discovery that Walton possesses in his search for a northern passage -- or anything unknown. Implicit in this statement is the notion that the pursuit of ultimate knowledge will result in good; this is what Walton and Victor both believe, at first, about their respective interests. The light, in effect, possesses the capacity to both illuminate -- to make more clear -- and to blind.
The monster also finds himself fascinated with fire in his early days, but quickly comes to realize that fire has both good and bad qualities: it can keep you warm and cook you food, but it can also burn and destroy. In this respect, the monster appreciates a metaphorical concept that Victor never seems to fully accept: that a self-serving pursuit of the unknown is inevitably disastrous. Whereas the monster comes to recognize that he cannot live any sort of fulfilling life, and so, chooses to die; even upon his deathbed, Victor urges Walton to continue his quest:
'Are you then so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror . . . This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not." (Shelley, 291-2).
Victor's powerful words appease Walton and his crew for a few days; however, they ultimately ring hollow. Walton's quest, like Victor's, was spurred by the idea that all knowledge was good knowledge, but the monster stands as the counterexample. Victor helps to erase Walton's love of the marvelous: actually penetrating the ice of the north may spell doom. Eventually, the monster rises out of the destructive motivations that brought him into existence by both accurately perceiving the dangerous lines of reasoning that created him, and by deciding to leave mankind forever.
The terminator, additionally, exists only as the end result of destructive human activities. Skynet, although not obviously built out of pure human fancy -- like the monster -- is created in secret. Even though it is not the creation of a single self-serving scientist, the underhanded way in which it is eventually built and implemented suggests that most people would have opposed it, had they been informed. In this way, it is analogous to Frankenstein's monster: neither grew out of the pure scientific pursuit of, and sharing of, human knowledge. Individualistic knowledge and achievement was the goal. In other words, Skynet was built because it could be built; the monster was brought to life because it could be brought to life. Pragmatically, there is no clear advantage to having a form of artificial intelligence provide defense for a nation, over a collection of human beings; just as there is no clear advantage to reanimating an assortment of dead human tissues, over giving birth. The fire and ice motif, therefore, is applicable to both tales: the monster and the Terminators were made out of the belief that all knowledge -- light -- is beneficial, but the result was the scorching of mankind by this knowledge through war and violence and a bitter wasteland was all that remained.
Still, despite the clear warnings against the over-application of science that both stories illustrate, the creations themselves are not represented as the true perpetrators of immorality. The T-101 is not responsible for the war or the fall of mankind -- human beings are the ones at fault. Consequently, the T-101 comes across as a benevolent character, regardless of his symbolic distinction. Additionally, at numerous points throughout the film he clearly expresses an understanding of human emotion. An exchange between John Connor and the T-101 illustrates the machine's insight regarding emotion:
John Connor: "Look at me! I'm no leader! I never was! I'm never gonna . . ."
[he is choked by the Terminator]
John Connor: "Let go!"
Terminator: "You're right. You're not the one I want. You're wasting my time."
John Connor: "Fuck you, you fucking machine!"
[He is released by the Terminator]
John Connor: "What, you were just dicking with me?"
Terminator: "Anger is more useful than despair." (Terminator 3, 2003).
Notably, the T-101 not only is able to convey wisdom regarding emotions, but he is able to manipulate them to his ends. Since he needs John Connor to behave as leader, he influences his emotional state in order to make him more effective. So, even though the T-101's expressed conception of feelings seems to be relegated to what is practically useful, his ability to act within the midst of human agents and make use of their emotions demonstrates a complexity in his mental capacities atypical of common machinery. Accordingly, with reference to his origins, his human-like qualities make him both great and terrible: he is intelligent, but unpredictable.
Frankenstein's monster, however, demonstrates a far closer affinity to humanity than does the Terminator. This is, of course, because he is a living being; thus, he is afforded the capacity to know what it is like to feel human. The monster's most substantial hindrance towards living as a human is his outward appearance. Inwardly, he not only experiences a full range of emotions, but is able to communicate them through his contact -- nonetheless distant -- with other people. He learns to speak and to read by being a voyeur into the lives of a peasant family, and by finding a handful of English texts. Overall, his feelings stem from his connection, or disconnection, with other people. He states, "The gentle manners and beauty of the cottagers greatly endeared them to me: when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys." (Shelley, 145). From these descriptions, it is difficult to imagine the monster as anything other than a human being; he may be hideous, but his appearance is only the doing of his maker.
Blending in with humans is not the primary obstacle towards the T-101's entrance into the human sphere. He is designed to appear to be an ordinary person: his monstrous nature is on the inside. But ultimately, the T-101 is only able to grasp the fundamentals of what it is to be a human; and this information is purely from an external perspective. In this light, the most significant contrasts between the T-101 and the monster become apparent: first, the T-101 would not need to observe the peasants from behind a wall, instead, he would be able to communicate directly with them; second, the T-101, regardless of how much time he spent observing the family, would never come to share their emotions -- at best, he would be able to anticipate their reactions to particular situations.…