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“It just seems to get more and more relevant” | Leila Johnston on learning the truth behind Terminator

Tell us about your show, Terminator: how worried should we be?

It’s an entertaining hour where I take you through the science and tech of Terminator – especially as displayed in the first two films. I try to cover quite a few of the themes that come up in the films: time travel; the perceived threats of artificial intelligence; paradoxes; robotics; hacking, military hardware etc.

If people haven’t seen the films, that’s OK – I will be doing a run-through of the first two at the top of the show, with the help of some specially-made puppets and audience volunteers. The effect will be almost exactly like watching the films.

What made you want to write a show about the Terminator series?

I’ve been doing various versions of this talk for about six years now, and it just seems to get more and more relevant. Like most people in their 30s and 40s, I remember the originals very fondly (especially T2) and love the way James Cameron handles the themes. 

In particular, I think Sarah Connor is a phenomenal character, an incredible action hero and role model who never seems to get the recognition she deserves (even by the film-makers; Arnie was paid 8 times as much as Linda Hamilton). She is a genius hacker and a fearless fighter and she uses her ability to put others first to save the world. I wanted to make something to remind people what she represents. 

I’m also aware that there’s a huge amount of misinformation about AI and ‘The Singularity’ and so on, and talking about these things with humour lets me address that. It’s a way of showing up the absurdity of some of the beliefs and individuals involved in perpetuating these ideas.

What sparked your interest in technology?

I’m not sure, I think it’s innate. I’ve always found it very exciting, this idea that we can have a sort of dialogue with something that uses language, but isn’t alive. I’ve worked with tech for years now in different ways, and I still find it extremely mysterious. It’s a very creatively rich space, because the way people approach it is highly conventional. We take the tools and we do what we’re told. There is a lot of room for misbehaviour, and finding new ways of thinking and talking about tech. I really like that about it.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while you were writing this show?

OJ Simpson was originally in the running to play the Terminator, but the producers decided he ‘just wasn’t believable as a killer’.

Which movie do you think makes the most accurate predictions about the future of technology?

Threads.

What would be your key piece of advice for humanity in general to avoid a future that requires Terminators to come back in time to change the course of history?

The future shown in the Terminator films is really not to be taken seriously. I wish people would stop using the imagery in their articles about artificial intelligence, etc. The threat presented by some imaginary future super-evolved AI is nothing compared to the havoc engendered by today’s humans. Worrying about AI magically evolving is a distraction from the immediate risks to the planet. 

The Terminator future is accurate in some ways though – we are definitely going to have wars over resources… just not with armoured JCBs, rolling over skull fields. So I suppose my advice is this: if we want to avoid an apocalyptic future of any sort, we’re going to have to start by working on ourselves. We must become more selfless, more courageous, more independent and more critical. We must do away with the cult of the individual, this is the scourge.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

It would be nice if some of my feelings about these issues come across. But to be honest, it’s entertainment first, and I just hope they have a good night out.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

For performing, writing, speaking or anything else – put all thoughts of fame and success out of your mind and consider it like any other job. Get up every morning and get to work. Just focus on getting better. Dreams are overrated. Things won’t happen for you just because you really want them to, they’ll happen because you’ve cracked your craft.


Leila is performing Terminator: How worried should we be? at the Funny Things Festival on October 27th.

Book your ticket here.

Find out more about the Funny Things Festival here.

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