The Four Timelines of The Terminator Movies
“Goddamn time travelling robots!”
Time travel is a fun subgenre of science fiction, but once you start dealing with alternate dimensions, butterfly effects, and ripples in the space/time continuum… well, it can get a little confusing. If you left the theatre scratching your head after seeing the most recent Terminator movie this summer, Terminator: Genisys, you’re not alone. In order to really understand that movie, you have to first understand where it fits in with the timeline of the rest of the franchise. This article is meant to explain a few basic time travel concepts and break down the multiverse of the first four films, which ultimately leads in to figuring out when T5 actually takes place and what actually happened. But first, let’s do some time travelling ourselves and think back to the early ’80s, in a world where Back to the Future hadn’t even been made yet. (Disclaimer: there will be spoilers concerning all five Terminator films.)
Two women are dead. It’s 1984, and the name “Sarah Connor” has become the target for a serial killer. But before victim Number Three can be terminated by the emotionless assassin, a mysterious man intervenes and saves her life. Unbeknownst to Sarah Connor, in the not-to-distant future an artificial intelligence is going declare war on its creators, resulting in a devastating war between man and machine. Sarah’s saviour, Kyle Reese, has come from the year 2029 to protect her from the Terminator – a robot wearing the living tissue of human beings built for one purpose: to kill human beings. Reese’s mission was tasked to him by the leader of the Resistance, John Connor – the man who brings the survivors of the war to the verge of victory against their enemy. He’s also Sarah’s will-be son. Unable to defeat John in their current time, the machines send back a Terminator through time to bring the fight to 1984, and wipe out John Connor’s existence from the future.
The first Terminator demonstrates what’s known as the ‘causal loop’ time paradox, in which a future event is the cause for a past event. (Remember when Harry saves himself at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? It’s the same kind of thing going on here.) In this case, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back to 1984, and Reese fathers John with Sarah Connor. Even though the time loop is self-sustaining (John’s military, combat, and leadership skills are birthed from his mother’s training) and will repeat itself over and over (as seen in Salvation, John in the future finds and sends Kyle back in an effort to preserve the timeline), that doesn’t mean an original timeline didn’t exist in order to put the circle of events into motion. One theory proses that John’s original father could have been from Sarah’s present age, but when future John sends back Reese to protect his mother in the past, Reese replaces the original father, creating an alternative timeline that to us as viewers appears as the original when we watch it. This is only one example scenario. Because we don’t know what the original timeline looked like, we’ll ignore it and call the timeline seen in the first Terminator as Timeline 1.
Note that the opening scenes of Terminator: Genisys align with Timeline 1. This is where a lot of viewers get confused as to how the newest film fits in with the rest of the franchise. As we’ll see with the subsequent instalments after the first Terminator, the timeline is going to be altered because Skynet and the Resistence keep fiddling with history. But the 2029 shown in Genisys predates the changes made to the timeline in the other movies. We know this for a few reasons; take, for instance, that John Connor’s face is already scarred when Kyle Reese is just a child, whereas when the timeline changes, he’s given his war wounds much later in life (see Terminator: Salvation). Also, in the film the date of Judgement Day is still cited as August 29, 1997, as it was in the original, not the altered date we see in T3 (July 25, 2004). The opening scene in question depicts the Resistance discovering that the enemy has built and used a time machine to send back a terminator to the year 1984. Sergeant Kyle Reese volunteers to follow after it in an attempt to protect the target, Sarah Connor. Enter T1.
The original Terminator is a ‘closed’ loop, meaning that the timeline will repeat itself in the same way (more or less) over and over. John Connor becomes the great war hero of the future because his mother knew to raise and train him that way. All of this changes, however, in the sequel, T2: Judgement Day. This movie demonstrates the multiple universes, or “multiverse,” theory of time travel. It states that should someone go into the past and change something, an alternate timeline will be formed. A second ripple in the timeline, caused by another trip to the past from an even more distant future, is where the loop becomes intercepted of its repeating pattern, and a new future is created. This is the a different timeline than the first, and we’ll call it Timeline 2. (The new Star Trek films, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness utilize this effect; while the original series served as Timeline 1 in the Star Trek universe, the reboots exist in Timeline 2. The old, Leonard Nimoy Spok in the films is actually from Timeline 1, while the young Zachary Quinto Spok is from Timeline 2.)
Judgement Day marks the machine’s second attempt at destroying John Connor after the T-800 failed in the first film. This will become a pattern in the series, which ultimately has bearing on the timeline of the fifth film. Timeline 2 is created by the second batch of time travellers; the shape-shifting, liquid metal T-1000 hunting John, and a reprogrammed (by future John) T-800 terminator protecting him. In this alternate reality, Sarah and John team up with the T-800 to try and take fate into their own hands. Sarah’s target is the mastermind behind Cyberdyne employee Miles Dyson, who is working on the revolutionary “neural-net processor,” which will eventually see the creation of Skynet, and with it, the near end of humanity. In convincing Dyson of his invention’s devastating repercussions, Sarah, John, and the T-800 destroy Cyberdyne labs, futher deviating Timeline 2 form the original timeline into uncertain territory.
A third timeline emerges in T3, approximately 10 years after the events of T2. John Connor is a young man now, and crosses paths with Kate Brewster, a former love interest from junior high. Hunted by the T-X, a terminator even more advanced than the T-1000, Connor and Brewster ally with another reprogrammed T-800 model terminator sent to save them. The machines of the future have an advantage this time around that they hadn’t in the original timeline; Timeline 2 involves the existence of terminators pre-Judgement Day. Knowing young John Connor’s experiences with the T-800 from his adolescence in Timeline 2, which he likened to a father figure, the machines use an old T-800 terminator against John in the future. Because John in Timeline 2 had those experiences with that terminator in his past, he lets his guard down and is killed by the machine before Kate Brewster, John’s lieutenant and wife, reprograms it and sends it back to protect them in 2004… thus creating Timeline 3.
The biggest difference between Timeline 2 and Timeline 3 is that the date of Judgement Day has been altered. Sarah hoped that blowing up Cyberdyne would prevent the nuclear war, but it only postponed it. Now, the holocaust begins on July 25, 2004. This time around, when it happens, John is ready for it, and he has his lieutenant Kate Brewer to help him lead the survivors into battle. Kate’s presence in the future probably had something to do with Timeline 2 through a butterfly effect. A butterfly effect is a phrase referring to a small change in time that could happen from time-travelling, like stepping on a butterfly while you’re in the past, but over time those small changes have much larger consequences. Whatever happened to John Connor in Timeline 2 that didn’t happen to him in Timeline 1 probably influenced Kate Brewster into joining the Resistance and become John’s wife. After all, we didn’t see Kate whatsoever in Kyle Reese’s flashbacks (flashforwards?) to the future he was from in The Terminator, nor in any of the future scenes in Genisys.
The fourth movie, Terminator: Salvation, takes place in the future (2018) of Timeline 3. We see an older John Connor, an older Kate Brewster, and a younger Kyle Reese, who isn’t quite the war weary soldier we’ve come to know (or will never know, since it’s a different timeline) in the first Terminator. Notice again how this timeline contrasts the original; the machines are now hunting Reese, who is at the top of the kill list above even Connor himself. In Timeline 1, the machines probably wouldn’t have known that Reese would eventually become the reason why John Connor exists (we learn that John keeps it a secret from even Reese himself in Genisys). But after everything that’s happened in Timeline 3‘s past, Skynet has shifted their priorities.
Presumably after the events of Salvation, the machines are starting to get desperate. In a far off future, with a more advanced time machine, Skynet has embodied itself as the T-500 terminator and gone back in time to 2029. Here’s the catch: it’s not the 2029 of Timeline 3. The machines have actually found a way of passing through the multiple layers of timelines that have been created at the cost of all of the time trips in the past four films. This was confirmed by one of the screenwriters who worked on the film, Laeta Kalogridis, who said, “[h]e’s not from this timeline. He’s from an alternate universe, in the multiverse, another of the many universes that exist. That Skynet is not from that timeline.”
The plan to terminate Kyle Reese in 2018 failed because John Connor got to him first. But Skynet still had a plan to get rid of their greatest enemy’s father, only this time they would attack him in a much more vulnerable state – 1984 of Timeline 1. This involved two steps: 1) sending a T-1000 to 1984 to terminate Reese, and 2) turning John Connor into the ultimate weapon: a shape-shifting, time-travelling cyborg controlled by Skynet. Step 2 happens later on (relatively speaking), since the T-1000 is killed by Sarah Connor before it can do any real damage. Speaking of which…
1984 doesn’t quite look the same anymore. That’s because in response to the T-1000 being sent back to kill Reese, someone else in the Resistance (probably John or Kate, even though it’s never revealed) sends a reprogrammed T-800 back as well (to Timeline 1), just like they did in T2 and T3. The twist here is that this T-800, dubbed “The Guardian,” arrives in 1973 and raises Sarah Connor right from childhood, training her and preparing her for the fight that is to come. So by the time Kyle shows up in ’84, an ageing Guardian has taken care of the original T-800 sent to kill Sarah which we saw in The Terminator, and has helped her finish building a makeshift time machine, which Sarah plans to use to go to 1997 and stop the original Judgement Day from happening.
Instead of going to 1997, though, Reese has another idea. He’s been having strange visions of moments from his childhood that never actually happened ever since he made the trip back to 1984. The reason for this isn’t explained very well in the movie. The Guardian, or “pops,” as Sarah likes to call him, suggests that Reese somehow experienced a nexus point, which allowed him to see into the past of the new timeline that is being written by him and Sarah and Pops currently (maybe this is related to how in the future you are able to travel between timelines). His “memories” convince him that Judgement Day has changed and that him and Sarah need to go to 2017 instead, when it is really going to happen. How did it change? Remember, in The Terminator, the reason why Skynet is created in the first place is because the technology from the dismantled T-800 is discovered in the factory where the final fight happened. But with that timeline erased by Timeline 4, Judgement Day is going to take a little longer to debut.
The rest of the movie is pretty self-explanatory after that. As the Terminator: Genisys comes to a close, Reese finds his younger self in 2017 and gives the boy the same message he heard in his nexus visions, thus creating a new time loop, like in the original film. The trio’s fate is still ambiguous though; if you stayed till the mid-credits scene, it was revealed that Skynet is still up to no good and, well, so long as these movies keep making money, the filmmakers are going to keep making the story more complicated. For now, the Terminator franchise is still in stage 4 of its multiverse.
The future for these films is full of possibilities, but in the end, as Sarah Connor once said, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Interesting but still unsatisfying. The latest “Terminator” shows what is definitely missing from Hollywood movies of today: Intelligence and originality. The reason these movies are still being made today is because this generation is unused to anything that has a modicum of newness about it.
You know what would be really original? A critique of something that doesn’t lay the blame for its perceived flaws at the feet of the “this current generation.” The mere fact that this reasoning has been used in every generation of human history proves that it is an extremely lazy and unoriginal tactic.
Yes, while I still believe that the first two Terminators are the best in the franchise, the others are still pretty good films. Hell, even Salvation has some great moments. I think part of the reason why people didn’t like the later films was due to a lack of understanding of the way that the multiple timelines change and interact and, especially with the last two, have mixed together. I really liked how Dark Fate finally gave us basically solid proof that the predestination paradox created in the first movie means that as long as John Connor exists, so will Skynet and Judgement Day WILL happen. Having a new AI take its place was a bit reductive, but I still enjoyed it overall.
the terminator movies were all great up to salvation, why? because they kept advancing the plot, we saw kyle and sarah on terminator 1, then we saw john and sarah in terminator 2, we saw what happened after T2 in T3 and how john survived judgement day and it was explained that their mission was not to stop it but to survive it. then we move to terminator salvation, which it set right after T3 it is now the future and we see how the war was and how john becomes a leader, but most importantly, we see how he meets kyle,( EPIC) all good up to this point. then i hear the new terminator is coming out i see the trailer and everything looks great, they were going to give the old movies a close and start the new franchise with a new twist. everything would have been fine because at least there was going to be a closing to TERMINATOR 1 THROUGH 4 but they ruined it by changing how john meets kyle!!!! this is what got me mad, the beginning of genysis should have been a direct sequel to salvation it would have mede sense to start it off as john and kyle after the events of salvation taking down skynet, but now they show that john meets kyle in the sewers as a kid, so this does not bring a closing to terminator 1 through 4. because the beginning of genysis is then now taking place in a whole new timeline because john is meeting kyle in a different way from salvation, so this was sad to me because if they would have continued from salvation, the timeline would have made sense, and now they could have fucked it up by twisting it and doing whatever they want, but now it’s not going to work, because they did not close the timeline loop from terminator 1 through terminator 4
Here’s a time travel movie/TV program I would like to see them make:
A person with a backwards time travel device has a nuclear weapon in it.
While travelling from the present to the past, the nuclear weapon accidentally
detonates. I wonder what the atomic explosion, and radioactive fallout, would do to the space-time line and the people in the past, present, and future?
Or what if a backward time travel machine was atomic powered, and the nuclear core had a meltdown while travelling backward in time? What effect would that have on the past, present, and future?
That would create a paradox. The future that the weapon came from would never come to exist. This would likely have created an alternate timeline, where the old future existed so that the weapon could be sent backwards.
Awesome. Thanks for writing something that I can rationally follow (even if I cannot rationally grasp). I still love the movies, all of them, and the TV series, and am used to suspending my disbelief, otherwise I think my head would explode, but the two things I can’t seem to overcome: surely John’s father is irrelevant since the first John Connor ever could not have had Kyle Reese as a father; and who the heck sent back the Arnold Terminator to save Sarah Connors as a child???
Hey thanks a lot! I’m glad you found this useful. Like I said I think either John or Kate from Timeline 4 sent Arnold back to save Sarah as a kid in Timeline 1, since neither of them existed in the future of Timeline 1. I don’t think it really matters though. Anybody from the Resistance could have done it.
The first John Connor ever could not have won the war in 2029, since he´s supposed to have defeated the machines because of the knowledge he got from Sarah/1984Reese. Off course, I can’t recall if these facts (that they won in 2029 and that Reese was Johns father) were ever established in Terminator 1.
While reading this I was thinking of a scenario where Judgement Day has been postponed so far that John Connor has died of old age before it even happens. Now wouldn’t that be an easy victory for the machines!
Haha that’s a great point! I never thought of that
I would bet that you put more thought into this than the filmmakers of TERMINATOR GENISYS did. I don’t think they understand any of the rules of time travel and just wrote a bunch of “cool stuff”.
1st rule of time travel: There ARE no rules in time travel.
T5 is the equivalent of Flashpoint in DC Comics.
That’s actually a great way to put it. I should have included that in the article! Probably would have helped make it easier to understand.
I like to imagine wandering around in the background of Genisys there’s the T-800 and T-1000 from T2 who couldn’t ever find Sarah or John Connor where they were supposed to be in 1994, and then were completely baffled when Judgement Day didn’t happen in 1997.
Haha that would have been hilarious to see. Missed opportunity!
Its likely that pops and the t 1000 from this movie are the boys from T2. Pops and him were sent back earlier that’s all. So rather than be confused, they are the biggest suspects for bypassing T2 due to their actions.
My head hurts…
Good job. I actually am just enough of a Terminator geek freak to understand and follow every bit of it.
i think Kate Brewster sent the termiantor to protect young Sarah Connor, after John was captured by the T-5000. I mean who else would it be. The T-800 said it was classified information. So my guess is was John;s wife Kate Brewster
Having watched Genisys now I feel deflated. I mean it was ok as a flick,
but I am nonetheless kinda meh, about the whole thing. For right or
wrong, I also thought I was watching The Matrix at parts, with some Transformers sound effects here and there. I’m by no means a Movie/script critic. Still, I’ll forget this one as easily as anything since T2.
I don’t get people having a problem with the time line stuff…you just ignore the other movies really.
You want plot holes, here’s three for you.
1. When Kyle and Sarah arrive in 2017 they are both HIT BY A CADILLAC DEAD ON. Sure Kyle turns his back to the car to protect Sarah and “takes the hit” and then we jump to an inside shot and somehow the two that where kneeling down end up hitting the windshield instead of dead center to the grill which was their position…but considering they were kneeling down and the speed of the car Kyle should have been killed instantly and Sarah gravely injured…yet not even a scratch. I was seriously waiting for Kyle to turn out to be a terminator after that scene and was shocked he wasn’t. You can’t really brush it off as “it’s a movie” because the way they filmed it they didn’t give any accounting fr how they survived the hit. I could mention the unrealistic nature of the bus scenes and helicopter scenes but they do sorta try to make it believable…but not that car hit man, they should have both been dead.
2. John Conner is turned into a machine “on the cellular level”…so how did he time travel when only biological tissue can survive the process? He doesn’t have ANY genetic material left, he’s pure machine so he shouldn’t be able to at all.
3. Same for the T1000, it shouldn’t be able to time travel either, should have been ripped apart like Conner at the end of the movie.
I liked the new film a lot. I wish that the story made some more sense. I hope they get green lit for that sequel they need to answer the questions that they left open.
That was epic.
My own researches about the Terminator temporal loop are actually 176 pages…
You HAVE TO share it man.
This is why it is impossible to continue this franchise logically after terminator 2. All of the sequels since find themselves writing around the set dates and ages of the players involved, yet insist that they players never change, to the point that it becomes one big cluster. I guess you an argue that you have to just go with it, but terminator one and terminator two were things of time travel story telling beauty that has since become muddled. There is basically no way that both judgement day could keep getting pushed back and have john Connor still leading it. I respect genisys for playing with the time line a la back to the future 2 but the movie was saddled by all the history and mythology of the past terminators to really break out much in terms of storytelling. Rather than be clever after the first act it became a struggle to explain all the changing time lines and such.
But if you understand that the franchise is now dealing with alternate universes and that sky net is now trying to control them all and that is where Matt smiths terminator comes from and possibly the pops terminator then it becomes a little more interesting and easier to just “enjoy the movie” without over thinking it.
The different timelines reminded me of how Shakespeare manipulated time in his plays and poetry.
Interesting perspective! I like that
The timelines do loop and redefine various threats. What interests me is Sarah Connor’s character development. Back in the early 1990s Linda Hamilton was one of the few, very few, strong female leads in any movie let alone an action movie. Terminator 2 can be seen as a turning point in Hollywood’s portrayal of the archetypical male action hero. It would be great to do an analysis on how the timelines affect character development.
I’d be particularly interested in a time travel scenario wherein a disgruntled moviegoer travels back to the early 2000s, steals into the C2 Production Studio (where T3 was in its dawdling infancy) dressed in leather jacket and sporting a flattop haircut, and, using a pump-action shotgun hidden in a box of long stem roses, blows an enormous whole in the script, saying in a thick Austrian accent “Yule be bahd.”
This franchise should have ended with T2, when creator/director James Cameron quipped that he’d “finished telling the story.” The recent trend of sequel/prequel/remake/reboot is a bit disturbing. Studios are deciding whether or not to produce films based on the potential for (blockbusting) sequels. The Terminator franchise is the film equivalent of a stiff and moribund Secretariat being mercilessly whipped by greedy Hollywood hopefuls.
that is what the writers of the movie don’t get, judgement day cannot be stopped, why did it end with sarah and kyle thinking that it was all over if they went to tell young kyle what adult kyle remebered? because judgement day has to happen, if they had stopped it there would be no reason for young kyle to memorize the lines, the writing in this movie was not thought through, very sad.
I love time travel and the OCDs that attempt to explain it to the rest of us.
Here is a time travel scenerio.
You travel forward into the future, say 20 years, to see how you life turned out. Almost immediately, you realize your not there. Why? Because you left the past to be in the future. You weren’t in the past to create any future to see. And that’s why Back to the Future II was completely wrong. How can you see yourself in the future if you weren’t in the past to create the future?
You’re absolutely correct. That’s really the tip of the ice berg when it comes to time paradoxes and inconsistencies in back to the future. But I still love those movies haha
You would be able to see yourself in the future if you eventually returned to your own time. Your theory makes sense if you go to the future and stay there for good.
I feel like I am one of the only people who really appreciated Genisys. It is by no means the best Terminator film, but I still think it is a worthier sequel to the original two than, say, 3 or Salvation. 3 was trying too hard to rehash moments in Judgment Day, and Salvation, well, ‘I can feel your heart beat, it’s so strong!’. Cringe.
Genisys took the Terminator series back to its roots, thematically and literally. With many smart, subtle nods to the original (and, well, others admittedly less subtle) the film also puts an engaging twist on one of the mythic characters of the franchise in its incarnation of John Connor.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who liked it! Wasn’t a huge fan of evil robo John Connor, but it didn’t ruin the movie for me. Thanks for the feedback!
I like that the writer had the grit to take a well-loved mythic character from the series and make him the antagonist.
Fair enough! It was a ballsy movie overall.
Thanks very much!
I always wonder what happened to the Terminator’s(Arnold’s) arm after T2 ended. It was never thrown into the molten metal. The original arm from the 1st movie was thrown in but not the one that was cut off from the machine in the 2nd movie.
I remember that bothering me, too.
Thank you, I think I might actually kind of sort of maybe understand the plot of Terminator Genisys a little bit now…maybe. I actually did enjoy Genisys, but really I still just wish it’d turned out that Matt Smith’s character was actually the 11th Doctor and the whole movie had become a Terminator / Doctor Who crossover; that would have been a much more entertaining movie (and would somehow have probably made more sense than this film’s plot).
Hey thanks so much! I’m glad this helped you understand the movie a bit more. I’m totally with you with the dr. who thing. That would have been so much better haha
This was an amazing article and it helps!
Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear it!
these movie of course are attracting to the audience who grew up watching the first and second, but Hollywood has begun to make the terminator concept redundant because it just never ends. They just continue to keep the series going by having little scenes at the end of movies making you wait for a sequel of a redundant film that should have ended after the unforgettable Terminator 2 Judgement Day. Yet they continue to milk everything they can out of something that has begun to lessen in its greatness as it did years ago.
I was always hoping that Terminator sequels would go the route of sending Terminators further and further back in time to try to wipe out John Connor’s bloodline, but failing miserably every time. Imagine it, we could have Wild West Terminator, Middle Ages Terminator, Terminator Meets Jesus, etc.
Thanks for explaining these insane timelines. I’ve never watched any Terminator films but I’ve seen an episode of the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Time travel is always a sticky issue with writers I feel. Either they do it very well or they just don’t get it.
Hey no worries, thanks for the comment! Yeah I know what you mean. Few writers really get it.
I have to agree that we were left with a lot of questions after T3. How did they survive also they weren’t even romantically together at the end of the film. How does two people, who are destined to be together who hated each other for most of the film end up in love and married? That is just one question that was left unanswered. John Conner is smart and has experience with the machines, but how does he learn and become a military leader and hero for people? I love the structure of your work and you definitely show knowledge of the franchise and genre. LLAP
Wow, wow. I’m glad that has been cleared up! No seriously… I just watched T1 for some strangely nostalgic reason and after only watching Genisys some 3 weeks ago I really needed a refresh.
No worries mate! I’m so glad you found this article helpful!
This was such a helpful article!
I was one of those people that went to see Genisys and was mostly confused because I hadn’t paid enough attention to the previous Terminator movies. This article details a great timeline that helps wrap up a lot of questions that I had after Genisys, and gives a good refresher in order to understand the movies more. I now want to go watch all the movies in order again after reading the full storyline.
Thank you so much! It means a lot that you got so much out of the article!
Good one, never thought of it as multiple timelines!
Thanks! Hopefully it makes more sense now!
Awesome analysis and insight to The Terminator movies. Great job!
Thank you so much! I appreciate that!
This really is a awesome and insightful take. Good work.
I love the first two movies and haven’t seen the rest, but I do think that, according to popular opinion, the newer movies are not as skillfully made or good as the originals. This explanation of timelines is useful, as the overlap of storylines and time periods can confuse viewers. Good job.
This explanation of the timelines is useful. The ending quote from Sarah Connor is resonant and applicable to everyone. Keep up the great work!
Definitely a clarifying explanation of the Terminator franchise.