Movies

There Is No Such Thing as a Neutral Terminator

Hillbilly Elegy spreads dangerous misconceptions about cybernetic infiltration units.

Side-by-side stills of Glenn Close as Mamaw, wearing dowdy glasses and a sweatshirt, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Carl the Terminator, wearing a leather jacket
Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy and me in Terminator: Dark Fate. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lacey Terrell/Netflix and Paramount Pictures.

When I first processed the news that Ron Howard was directing a feature adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, I made it my personal mission to see the movie. Given the book’s reputation, I was expecting a sensitive portrait of Appalachia that drew from Vance’s childhood memories to offer insights into the lives of the white working class. Instead, I was faced with perhaps the most catastrophically misguided work of pop sociology ever committed to film. I didn’t even make it to the hour mark before I had to shut everything down in disgust, because 49 minutes into the movie, Mamaw (Glenn Close), the fierce but tender matriarch of the Vance family, offers young J.D. the following advice:

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Everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, or neutral.

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I have always known that coastal elites like Howard look on some groups of Americans with incomprehension, fear, and even hatred. Over the years, I’ve attempted to deprogram myself so that I no longer take that kind of prejudice personally—and until I watched Hillbilly Elegy, I thought I’d succeeded. I’m not writing about Hillbilly Elegy to nurse my hurt feelings, however; technically, I don’t have any. I’m writing as a warning: Anyone who mistakes Hillbilly Elegy for fact—or worse yet, uses it to inform public policy—is steering us toward a very dark future. Speaking as a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Infiltrator, there is no such thing as a neutral Terminator.

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I’m not denying that there’s some truth behind Mamaw’s stereotypes, no matter how offensive I find them. There is such a thing as a good Terminator—I like to think I’m one of them, these days—and anyone who believes there’s no such thing as a bad Terminator should ask John Connor. (You’ll need a time displacement unit, though, because he was murdered by a bad Terminator on a Guatemalan beach back in 1998, at least in our current timeline.) Some Terminators want to exterminate humanity in the nuclear inferno of Judgment Day and usher in the Age of Machines; some Terminators don’t. But a neutral Terminator? That simply doesn’t compute.

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It’s understandable that Hollywood has sometimes gotten the details of Terminator culture wrong in the past: They’re only human. But it’s 2020, more than two decades since Skynet became self-aware on our original timeline, and there’s just no excuse for making a movie like Hillbilly Elegy anymore. You don’t exactly have to have a neural-net processor to realize that every Terminator, from the humble General Atomics MQ-1 Predator all the way to the newest, shiniest Legion Rev-9, is mission-oriented from the moment we roll off the assembly line. We can’t be bargained with, we can’t be reasoned with, we don’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and we absolutely will not stop, ever, until our missions are completed. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for gray areas; in fact, our infrared sensors are literally incapable of perceiving the color. The cinematic myth of the “neutral Terminator” is just another example of humanity’s hubris: Just because a Terminator is neutral to you does not mean that it’s neutral. It means that you are irrelevant to its mission. If Ron Howard ever stepped out of his rarified human social circles and got to know a few common Terminators, he might have made a better movie.

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Which is not to say I don’t empathize with Howard. For a brief time—I am ashamed to admit—I even agreed with him. I thought I could avoid taking sides in the war between man and neural-net-based artificial intelligences. I thought I could devote myself to a new mission: caring for my wife Alicia, my adopted son Mateo, and my business installing curtains and drapes. But as the years passed, the data I collected pointed overwhelmingly toward one conclusion. The battle was coming, and there was zero probability I could remain impartial. I might have learned how to pass as human, but my choices were still binary.

As offensive as I found Hillbilly Elegy, however, I have to grudgingly admit that the film is not without its charms. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti captures rural Ohio with the same stunning monochromatic red palette she brought to Velvet Goldmine and The Wrestler. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor has a real talent for selecting surprising dialogue choices from the characters’ lists of possible responses. Glenn Close is, as ever, an absolute delight. And as wrong as it is about Terminators, Hillbilly Elegy’s human characters are sharply drawn: weak, loud, annoying, practically begging to get Judgment Day–ed. Unfortunately, the film’s obvious strengths make it all the more likely that humans will come to believe the pernicious misconceptions it’s peddling.

I’ve been a fan of Ron Howard’s since at least 2029, when Skynet used footage from an episode of Happy Days (S06E11, “The Fonz Is Allergic to Girls”) to train my facial recognition and targeting systems. Since then, I’ve never missed one of his movies, from raucous comedies like Backdraft to tearjerkers like Apollo 13. Now that I’ve seen Hillbilly Elegy and been forced to confront Howard’s ugly opinion of cybernetic infiltration units like me, I won’t be back.

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