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.
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