A couple of years ago my mother told me a story from my young life of which I had no memory. She had taken me to see a movie at the dearly departed Varsity Theatre in Honolulu, Hawaii. Varsity typically screened smaller movies, documentaries and art films, being the only theatre in the state years later that would show such works as Requiem for a Dream and The Usual Suspects, so this was an unusually large movie for the theatre to show.
It was 1987. I was seven years old. The movie was RoboCop. It was clear to my mother after the first few minutes that this was not a movie for a seven-year-old boy.
Although the murder of Alex Murphy is tame by current standards, back in the late 80’s his “disarming” was a horrifyingly gruesome scene, enough so that my mother verbally questioned the choice of taking her youngest son to watch such material in the days when movie screens were bigger and sharper than those available at home. In response, I looked up at her (and here is where she beams in her narration), rolled my eyes with all the accumulated wisdom of my seven years and stated “Mom, I’m not going to become a serial killer just because I watched a movie.” (Yes, I knew the term “serial killer” at seven, don’t ask why). This was enough to convince my mother that I’d be fine. Of course, it wasn’t enough to stop my parents from forbidding Die Hard 2 and Total Recall until I was twelve.
Fortunately this rule did not apply, for some reason, to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. At eleven years old my parents took me to the also now-closed Waikiki 3 (the largest screen in the state at the time) for a nice family afternoon of explosions and mass homicide. Now T2 is an undisputed classic of effects-action cinema, but what I remember most are not the effects or the action but a supporting character and his one-scene-only son. While I stand by my childhood statement that I could never have become violent just by watching a violent movie, the opposite, ironically, did come true: I became a pacifist just by watching a violent movie.
In the middle portion of Terminator 2, Sarah Conner, the mother and militant guardian of humanity’s future leader John Connor, sets out alone to kill Miles Dyson, an engineer whose work in microprocessor development will lead to a rise of cybernetic technology inevitably beginning a war between machines and mankind. Having already restricted the T1000 cyborg from killing anyone, John Connor races to stop his mother from murdering one man to, theoretically, save millions. John and T1000 reach the Dyson family home just after Sarah has wounded Miles. Miles’s wife and young son stand helpless, crying, while one person with a gun braces to murder their husband and father.
Fortunately, John is able to convince his mother to stop. The families then bond as John informs Myles of his role in the coming disaster. Miles is a good man and agrees to help them destroy his research. It’s during this infiltration of his employer that Miles ultimately sacrifices himself.
During these years I was extremely fascinated with the American military. Having a Navy history on my mother’s side, and living in the only American state at the time to actually experience a foreign attack (with the monuments to prove it) made me think that big guns, warships and especially fighter jets were the most awe-inspiring thing in the world. I could identify every type of military aircraft in use at the time by the shape of its vertical stabilizer. I could recite names, nicknames, specifications, manufacturers, weapons payloads, branches of service, anything.
I watched the training and dogfight scenes in Top Gun so much that I instinctively knew how long it took to fast forward through all the annoying talking scenes between the good stuff. That was what I wanted, to fly a fighter jet. Just the flying and not the combat, but one could not be separated from the other, just as missiles and guns can’t be separated from death. Push the button to fire the gun. Push the button the kill the bad guy. Anonymous MIG pilots in black helmets; I didn’t know them.
But here was Miles Dyson, big and loud as any of the Blue Angels shows I’d attended, only so much closer. Dying. His wife and young son gone to him forever. Forever. Forever is a long time when the three months of summer vacation feels like an eternity.
I’d seen characters die on screen before, like Alex Murphy in RoboCop, but for some reason this one, this supporting character, made me think. I thought about what Miles’s son would be like without his dad there. I thought about this boy and his mother crying without end. I thought about what it would be like if one of my parents, or brother, or friends, were killed. I thought about how every person is someone else’s parent, or brother, or friend. I thought that we all are that little boy, wishing his dad had never left, waiting for his dad to return, a return that would never be. And that was when it dawned on me – with all the accumulated wisdom of my eleven years – violence, all violence, is wrong.
It’s kind of silly and a little baffling to say that a violent movie like Terminator 2 taught me that violence is an evil thing. But it did.
In the years since then I have somewhat both softened and hardened. I’m still a peaceful individual, but I’ve softened on my anti-violent ideology. I do see how the effective use of violence can serve a greater good, be it for punishment, deterrence or sheer revenge as when dealing with terrorists, rapists and mass murderers.
Similarly, I’ve hardened toward certain narrative devices used in storytelling for obvious aims. James Cameron needed to raise the emotional stakes of Terminator 2. John and Sarah, as the main characters, were safe of course, the T1000 was a machine and therefore replaceable, and Miles, as just a supporting character was expendable. The scenes with his family therefore are there just to make him sympathetic enough that his death would seem meaningful. But even though I can see through it now, the impact of watching that movie at that time remains.
I doubt very highly that Cameron intended for his movie, or this supporting character, to serve as an anti-violent message, yet it did, and it was my first experience in finding a message within a piece of popular art that perhaps even the artist didn’t know was there. Every member of a given audience will make their own decision on the “meaning” or “message” of a given art, intentional or not, and it’s practically impossible for a given artist to anticipate every reaction. It’s this very interpretative nature that gives movies, literature, comic books, music, television, their power. The fact that once it’s out there the artist no longer has control of how it will be understood.
As stated previously, I still believe that no one becomes a serial killer just because they watched a movie. However, here as well I’ve softened enough to allow room for some doubt: maybe violent movies sometimes do influence some people. Nonetheless, perhaps there is a flipside to the violent content of fictional works. That when done correctly, the audience can appreciate the action as well have an equal but opposite reaction: they actually become more averse to violence.
It’s a shame then that so few filmmakers, in my opinion, make use of this power. Even if only one person in the audience can understand a pacifist message hidden within an entertaining action movie, for that one person, it can make a lifetime of difference.
Note: The concept of this piece has been on my mind for years, but the actual writing began only three hours after hearing news of the Boston Marathon bombs.