War between Man and Machine in The Matrix Trilogy and The Terminator

By Mahnveer Kaur


The Matrix trilogy(Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999;  2003a; 2003b) and The Terminator (Cameron, 1984) paint a catastrophic image of a post-apocalyptic world where machines rule over mankind. Both films depict an intense war between the machines and man, who have militarised themselves in their strife for liberation against the tyrannical machines.

In The Terminator, Skynet, an artificial intelligence system, gained dominance after a nuclear holocaust exterminated humans. Survivors then band together under the ‘Resistance’, headed by John Connor, to revolt against the repressiveness of these machines. The Terminator, a machine, time-travels to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother, so as to prevent John’s birth, eliminating the future threat he will pose.

In The Matrix trilogy, machines have imprisoned human minds in the manufactured virtual world of the Matrix. Humans are incognizant of this illusion and the dilapidated state of the world. Escapees have built Zion, an underground civilisation, and have waged war through a “military machine that challenges the machines’ domination through the matrix” (Byrne, 2005, p. 70). The Agents, guardian programs in the Matrix, and the machines retaliate to quash the rebellion. This climaxes in a war where the machines invade Zion. The film revolves around Neo, the ‘Chosen One’ who possesses extraordinary powers to defeat the machines, becoming a beacon of hope for humanity.

In response to the revolt by humans, the machines retaliate with more force and ruthlessness in all the films. Despite the inexorable supremacy and technological prowess of the machines, the humans do not falter. This posits the question of why machines are incapable of repressing the human rebellion despite their apparent superiority and dominance. Perhaps it is the ceaseless oppression tolerated by the humans that ignited the flames of rebellion. Unable to further endure the injustice and exploitation they face, humans unite in the strife to end their misery. Eventually, they emerge victorious with the attainment of freedom, in The Matrix trilogy, and the defeat of the machine, in The Terminator. Therefore, I argue that the intense war between man and machine, as portrayed in the films, is a symbolic of a clash between humanity, marked by emotions and values, and the inhumanity of the machines. These emotions unify the people and build resilience to achieve their common cause of liberation. The Terminator and The Matrix trilogy were produced more than a decade apart, yet they revolve around a common theme of giving prominence to the strength of human emotions in rallying the people to triumph over the superior and selfish machines. The essay will elucidate the process of the war and struggle between man and machine by identifying the causes of the war, namely the superiority of the machines and enslavement of man, and the revolutionary process of it.

Superiority of the machines

The Terminator on a rampage

The physical superiority of the machines provides them with the impetus and capacity to dominate, sparking dissent among humans. This capacity allows the machines to oppress humans, fuelling their desire for liberation. In the films, the machines acknowledge their physical and technological prowess and thus perceive humans as weak beings of a lower status, disregarding them. This is evident when the Terminator indiscriminately imposes violence on humans obstructing him. In his hunt for Sarah Connor, he unhesitatingly shoots at the crowd and policemen, disregarding their authority. This suggests that the Terminator sees humans as insignificant beings, emphasising his perception of being superior. He behaves in a purely utilitarian manner, void of emotion, unrelenting in achieving his goal of killing Sarah. It is this savagery that disgusts Kyle and spurs him to defend Sarah, eventually sacrificing his life, for the future survival of the Resistance. Sarah finally destroys the Terminator with a hydraulic press, which reinforces that the machines are almost invincible such that humans must rely on other technologies to defeat them. It is this superiority that allow the machines and programs to elevate themselves to a higher status, spurring them to retaliate against the human rebellion. Their ill-treatment and disregard of man prompts an emotion-driven response from humans in seeking justice.

In The Matrix trilogy, the human-like abilities of the programs allow them to communicate their superiority, causing a physical and emotional battle between man and programs. Like in The Terminator, the physical prowess of the Agents is common knowledge. Morpheus describes them to be able to ‘punch through a concrete wall’ and are so invincible that ‘Men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air.’ On top of being physically superior, the Agents can communicate and express their perception of possessing a higher status, thus fuelling the emotional battle. Agent Smith, the main antagonist, spitefully verbalised his disgust, calling them a virus, for which the machines present a ‘cure’ to.

Agent Smith interrogating Morpheus

He is ‘revolted by his exposure to even the digitized equivalent of human embodiment’ and believes himself to be ‘possessed by the overpowering call of some higher world’, buttressing the notion that the programs regard humans with disdain (Lavery, 2001, p. 155). The capacity of Agent Smith to express human emotions and biological senses could point to the advancement of the programs being able to comprehend human emotions. However, it remains ambiguous if this capacity is gained through the mimicry of human emotions or if it is intrinsically developed by the programs. Nevertheless, the emotions expressed by the Agents are purely functional in the sense that it relates to their survival. This is seen where Agent Smith becomes intimidated by Neo’s extraordinary power in being the only human who can resist him. Agent Smith develops a fixation on defeating Neo as it threatens his existence. While this may have suggested a tip in the power balance in favour of humans, we learn that Neo is an anomaly. Neo and Smith are opposites ends of an equation to balance each other and their conflict is orchestrated by the creators of the Matrix. It is Neo’s fate to restore balance to the Matrix by eliminating Smith, who becomes uncontrollably powerful. This reiterates that the machines call the shots and have ultimate power, in which the humans and programmes are pawns of the machines in the Matrix.

Theme of enslavement

Neo being extracted from the machine world

In their conquest for power, the machines have oppressed humankind, dehumanising them. In The Terminator, they are subjugated in concentration camps and in The Matrix, they are exploited. The humans live in misery and yearn for freedom. In both films, humans are at mercy of the machines, living in a world dictated by them. They function to serve the needs of the machines. In The Terminator, majority of humanity has been exterminated through ‘Disposal Units’. Those kept alive, including John Connor and Kyle Reese, are forced into concentration camps called ‘Skynet Work Camps’, enslaved by the machines. They are branded with a barcode on their skin and kept like prisoners. Similarly, humans are unconsciously exploited in The Matrix, where the machines capitalise on the humans as a source of bioelectrical energy. Humans are ‘born and harvested as living batteries in immense power plants’ (Lavery, 2001, p. 153), unaware of their actual physical state, while their minds are trapped in the Matrix. Morpheus reveals to Neo that he is ‘a slave’ that was ‘born into bondage, kept inside a prison’ for the ‘mind’. This evinces the tyrannical nature of the machines, explaining the injustice humans face. The humans refuse to tolerate this dehumanisation, arousing sentiments for liberation. Their grievances translate into their determination and dauntlessness in facing the machines, bringing to light their dedication and courage in their strife.

The parallels observed between real-world wars and those of in the films enable us to envisage the suffering of the humans and their cultivation of sentiments of resentment and rebellion. The theme of enslavement is analogous with the concept of prisoners of war in real-world wars. Prisoners of war are captured for purposes that ‘include preventing prisoners of war from rejoining their comrades-in-arms’ and ‘exploitation’ and ‘labour’ or ‘intelligence’ (Hickman, 2008, p. 19). This mirrors how the machines keep humans hostage and under oppression in a futile attempt to prevent a broad-based reprisal against them, specifically depicted in The Terminator. The component of exploitation is depicted more saliently where machines feed on human energy in The Matrix and use them in ‘Skynet Work Camps’ in The Terminator. It generates the powerful human emotions which unite them to face the onslaught of the machines.

Theme of revolutionary leaders

Upon the ignition of revolutionary sentiments, humans needed to unite constructively to mobilise themselves against machines. The films depict the process of attaining freedom to be led by an individual who embodies the role of a revolutionary leader. In history, freedom fighters can be seen to play a leading role in rebellions to attain independence. They have the ability to rally the people under a common cause to overthrow the oppressive tyrant. John Connor embodied this role in The Terminator where he was, according to Kyle Reese, the ‘one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherf**kers into junk.’ He was able to empower and marshal the people to rebel. By pioneering the ‘Resistance’, he posed such a great threat that the Terminator was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor to prevent his birth. His role can be paralleled to real-world revolutionary leaders like Ho Chi Minh, the influential leader who successfully led the decades-long fight for the independence of Vietnam (Brocheux, 2007). This emphasises the dominance of war-centric themes, emphasising the human values of resilience and leadership in triumphing a war.

Kyle Reese protecting Sarah Connor

Conversely, in The Matrix, Neo, believed to be ‘The Chosen One’ by Morpheus, embodies the role of a leader through his sacrificial acts for peace. Initially, unlike John Connor, Neo does not take the lead but instead doubts the belief Morpheus had in him in being the saviour of mankind. He eventually learns his true fate, to defeat Smith and return to the source as a sacrifice, so that the Matrix can remake itself, like the six other iterations before Neo’s Matrix. Nevertheless, he rises to the occasion and embodies the role of the hero who sacrifices himself for the greater good. Upon his return to the source, the war ends with the machines retreating from Zion. This shines a light on the weight of the resolute and valiant nature of humans in the war, bringing them victory. His sacrifice evokes an emotional response in the audience, as over the course of the trilogy, we identify with his dilemma in saving humanity. This appeals to our human emotions, emphasising on the symbolic clash between humanity and the inhumane machines. Additionally, this likens to real world leaders who have sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their people. Neo’s sacrifice in The Matrix reflects the actions of freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela who was, according to President Bill Clinton, ‘captured, isolated and imprisoned’ and ‘transcends conflict to become a peacemaker and unifier’ (Mandela, 1994).

The role of the leader unifies the people under a common cause, as seen by John Connor in The Terminator, and gives them a source of hope, which Neo embodies in The Matrix trilogy. Despite being physically or technologically weaker, their high morale under a unified leadership allows them to be mobilised to face the onslaught of the machines. In being rallied together, the human spirit of advancing the common goal of liberation is intensified.


The films attest to the value of humanity banding together to overcome their struggles under the repression of the machines. In The Matrix trilogy, the humans achieved their goal where the new iteration of the Matrix sets those who seek liberation free. The Terminator, Sarah Connor survives, allowing the existence of the future resistance to revolt against the machines. It stresses the importance of human values and emotions over physical strength in winning a war. Mankind will not stand against the oppression they face and will unwaveringly fight for their freedom.


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