When you think of the sci-fi genre of film, many different series may come to mind. Predator, Alien, Robo-Cop, Star Wars, ect. For many teenage boys of the 80s and 90s though, there is one that stands atop the skulls of all the others with its cold, metallic foot. The Terminator series is a legendary IP that was king of the mountain for roughly two decades, only to then fall from the top. The creation of a (then) mediocre film-maker who had a horrible nightmare due to food poisoning while on vacation, of a metal torso chasing him by dragging itself along the floor. A series that gained such legendary status, even all those who have never viewed any of the films know the classic line “I’ll be back.” When Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the Soviet Union while the Iron Curtain was still up, he was surprised by how many Russian citizens knew of his films and were fans (something which was punishable via prison time.)
With a total of six films in the series encompassing four timelines, the Terminator series is just a bit more simple in comparison to the Halloween series I previously covered. Though just like the latter, things have been made quite confusing over the years with new films being created only to be declared non-canon, new timelines being made where some older films are canon while others are not, and new films that erased the classics all together. Sit back, grab your 1887 lever action, and let’s make sense of a time travel focused series that has made shit needlessly difficult to follow!
Timeline #1: The Original
The original timeline in the Terminator universe is by far and wide the best. Encompassing the first two films, this timeline both introduced us to the world of the future War between The Human Resistance and Skynet while promptly bringing it to a close at the conclusion of the second film.
The first film in this timeline, The Terminator (1984) laid the foundation for the whole series, serving up a film which is one of the very few movies I consider to be perfect. It is here where we are introduced to the character of Sarah Connor, a seemingly average woman who lives with her best friend and works at a restaurant as a waitress, who will go on to give birth to John Connor. John Connor is an incredible military leader in the future, who is always destined to lead humanity to victory against Skynet, a computer AI that became self-aware on August 4th of 1997 and fired all nuclear weapons in the American arsenal in a bid to drive humanity into extinction to insure its own survival.
Just before John Connor and his second-in-command Kyle Reese are about to defeat Skynet in the year 2029, Skynet carries out a last-ditch effort of sending a single T-800 Terminator back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor before she can conceive John. The Human Resistance, having caught wind of the plot, send their best soldier, Kyle Reese, back to 1984 as well to protect Sarah.
After a whole night spent running from and fighting The Terminator, Kyle confesses to Sarah that he loves her and came back in time (which is a one-way trip) to be with her. The two then have sex, impregnating Sarah and beginning John’s existence. Almost immediately thereafter, Kyle is killed during the final battle with The Terminator at the climax of the first film. Sarah would go on to just barely survive The Terminator, crushing it with a hydraulic press, before then making her way to the barren American South-West and Mexico to begin a prepper’s wet dream of building up a bunker for the coming nuclear war. Thus concludes the original film.
In Between the eleven years from the first film to the second, Sarah works away diligently at prepping while trying her best to mold John into the future general he’s destined to be. Eventually though, her rather strange lifestyle to the ignorant masses attracts unwanted attention, resulting in her losing custody of John while being locked up herself in a mental asylum.
Thus begins the events of the second and final film in this timeline, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991.)
It turns out that Skynet had a plan B in case the T-800 was unsuccessful in killing Sarah Connor in 1984, and that was sending a T-1000 back in time to 1995 to kill John Connor as an eleven year old boy. Just like the original film though, the adult John Connor in 2029 sends a protector back to 1995 for himself, and that is a hacked T-800 re-programmed to protect young John’s life at any and all costs. The friendly T-800 saves John when he is almost assassinated by the T-1000, a purely liquid metal Terminator that has extremely advanced regenerative abilities, in the back hallway of a shopping mall.
The second film plays out much the same as the original, with a game of cat and mouse taking place between John and the T-1000. We learn that Cyberdyne Systems discovered the intact arm of the hostile T-800 from the first film, and used this as the basis for creating Skynet. Quite a bit of a mind-fuck going on there with a “what came first, the chicken, or the egg?” situation.
John and the friendly T-800 are successful at freeing Sarah from her captivity at the mental ward, and the group immediately head to destroy the pieces of the original T-800 to prevent the creation of Skynet in the first place. Along the way, the T-1000 is permanently defeated along with John growing a bond with the friendly T-800 and teaching it how to act more human by smiling and cracking jokes. This bond makes for a devastating state of affairs when, after the T-1000’s destruction, the friendly T-800 informs John that it itself must also be utterly destroyed to ensure Cyberdyne never gets their hands on the futuristic technology to create Skynet. John and the T-800 share one final hug before the T-800 melts itself in a cauldron of lava (or whatever you call that liquid orange stuff.)
And thus ends the original and best Terminator timeline. Skynet itself is permanently defeated by, quite ironically, a Terminator. I HIGHLY recommend you go out of your way to view these films if you have not as they are genuinely god-tier.
Films in Timeline: [The Terminator 1984] [Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991]
Timeline #2: The Original & Sequels
Surprise, surprise, Hollywood couldn’t leave a perfect film ending alone and demanded there be further unneeded sequels. As I stated previously, Terminator 2 for me had the perfect ending. A Terminator bringing down Skynet was extremely poetic and served as a solid conclusion for the series, but some poor writers were brought back and forced to find a way to continue a storyline that had logically concluded.
The result of this was the film Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines (2003). In Terminator 3, we learn that nuclear Armageddon was not prevented by the T-800’s sacrifice in Terminator 2, but merely delayed. Obviously, this makes Terminator 3 a direct sequel to the original film and Terminator 2. John Connor, now living in the year 2005 as a twenty-five year old homeless bum after his mother passed away, finds himself in the middle of the shit again. It’s revealed Skynet had a plan C sending yet ANOTHER Terminator (this time a sexy lady) back in time to 2005 to assassinate future top military brass of the Human Resistance.
One of these future military leaders marked for termination is Kate Brewster, the future wife of John Connor. Future Kate in the year 2029 however sent a friendly T-800 back in time (AGAIN) to protect her younger self and John in the past. This new friendly T-800 informs Kate and John that the nuclear holocaust is nigh, and that they must be taken to a nuclear bunker to guarantee their survival. John and Kate refuse, instead wanting to find a way to avoid the nuclear hellfire, while fighting the T-X along the way. In the end though, John and Kate fail, embracing each other in the nuclear bunker while Skynet wipes out billions of human lives, bringing Terminator 3 to a close with a VERY dark ending.
Six years later, released to the world was the film Terminator: Salvation (2009). In all honesty, while this movie is universally considered poor, I quite enjoyed it. Salvation drops us, for the first time in the Terminator series, directly into the Future War between man and machine in 2018. No longer are we seeing small clips of the war during an introduction sequence, we’re there at the frontline.
Although both John Conner and now Kate Connor are played by different actors in this film, it’s generally accepted that this movie takes place in the same timeline as all previous three films, just many years after Terminator 3 where John is now a grizzled combat veteran and field commander. Interestingly enough though, John and Kate are not our main protagonists this time around. Salvation follows a man by the name of Marcus Wright, a former death-row inmate who, after his legal death, was turned into a part-man and part-machine hybrid by Cyberdyne.
Over the course of Salvation, Marcus goes to meet the Human Resistance, but is surprised when he trips a land-mine that is set to only explode when in contact with Terminators. It is here where John Connor and the Human Resistance integrate Marcus for being a machine, to the point where Marcus breaks out and attempts to escape. Later though, Marcus gains the trust of the Human Resistance when he saves the life of John from a Terminator.
It’s revealed that Skynet is aware of the biological connection between John Connor and Kyle Reese (who is a teen in this film), which creates the question of why Skynet did not just kill Kyle in 2018 before he’s sent back in time later as an adult to protect Sarah and conceive John. Sadly, Salvation seems unaware of this plot-hole it created, and never acknowledges nor explains it. Marcus is revealed to have been a trap all along to lure John Connor to his death, but Marcus rebels against Skynet and ultimately sides with the Human Resistance.
Beyond this, nothing really happens. Marcus ultimately gives his heart and life to save John (hence why Marcus never appeared in the original films), as John is critically important for the preservation of humanity. After Marcus dies and John is saved, it’s assumed the timeline will just circle back around again, with Kyle becoming John’s best-friend and soldier before he’s sent back in time years later to save Sarah.
Films in Timeline: [The Terminator 1984] [Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991] [Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines 2003] [Terminator: Salvation 2009]
Timeline #3: The Failed Reboot
In 2015, the film Terminator: Genisys was released, which looked to turn the Terminator universe on its head with a total reboot. The new rebooted timeline begins in the year 2029 where ONCE AGAIN, John Connor and the Human Resistance are mere moments away from destroying Skynet. Just before Skynet is destroyed, it sends a T-800 back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she can become pregnant with John ONCE AGAIN. Kyle Reese volunteers to go back in time to save Sarah ONCE AGAIN, however, we see that as Kyle is being sent back, John is attacked by a member of the Human Resistance.
Upon landing back in 1984 and making contact with Sarah, Kyle learns that this timelines version of Sarah Connor is much more aware of what’s occurring, as she had already defeated the T-800 sent back to kill her with the help of a reprogrammed T-800. The film however never explains where the friendly T-800 came from. This was likely to be explained in a future film in this rebooted timeline, but since this movie bombed, we will never have an explanation. Sarah and this new friendly T-800 have built themselves a time-machine which they hope to use in traveling forward to the year 1997, to prevent Skynet from ever becoming self-aware. Kyle, noticing that the time-line has been totally screwed up, instead suggests the three of them travel to the year 2017 while giving no explanation as to why.
Upon the trio arriving in 2017, they find that Skynet is now going by the name Genisys (for some reason). They shortly thereafter bump into John, who’s revealed to now be a Terminator. Turns out that person who attacked him while Kyle was being sent back was Skynet, which then transformed him into a T-3000. John’s new mission is to ensure Genisys/Skynet’s survival at any cost. Our three protagonists do battle with John and succeed in destroying Genisys/Skynet’s mainframe.
After their defeat of Genisys, our group travels to Kyle’s childhood home where Kyle bumps into his younger self. Kyle then gives himself a warning so that he remembers to travel to 2017 instead of 1997 in the future. Ultimately, Genisys gives us a rehash of the Terminator 2 ending where we’re told the future is uncertain. Between this ending and the origin of this film’s friendly T-800 never being divulged, this movie set up quite a bit of stuff for future sequels set in this timeline. None of that mattered in the end though due to the aforementioned performance of this film terminating this timeline for good.
Film in Timeline: [Terminator: Genisys 2015]
Timeline #4: Dark Fate
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), the film I easily consider the worst of the series, goes for a semi-reboot approach unlike Genisys which made the bold (and failed) choice to do away with everything. Dark Fate keeps the original two films as canon while ignoring everything else, something I still think was a good idea. Dark Fate brought James Cameron back on as a producer, who had left the series behind after Terminator 2, while also reuniting Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Three years after the conclusion of Terminator 2, Sarah and John are enjoying some time on a beach in Guatemala, when they are suddenly ambushed by a T-800. Despite Sarah fighting her absolute hardest, the T-800 succeeds in assassinating teenage John Connor.
Decades later, in the year 2020, an advanced Terminator model known as the Rev-9 is sent back in time to Mexico City, Mexico to assassinate a young woman by the name of Dani Ramos. The Rev-9 is temporarily thwarted however when a cyborg woman named Grace is sent back in time from the year 2042 and saves her. Before Dani and Grace can be harmed by the Rev-9 again, Sarah Connor shows up and disables the machine.
Speaking at a motel, Sarah informs Dani and Grace that in the years since John’s death, she’s been receiving messages notifying her of where Terminators are soon to be arriving from the future, each one of these warnings ending with a “for John”. Grace mentions that no John Connor nor Skynet exist in her future, Skynet replaced instead by “Legion” (another unneeded renaming of Skynet). Tracking the origin of these messages down, Sarah discovers that the T-800 that killed John in 1998 became aimless once John was killed and Skynet was destroyed, so it eventually formed its own unique personality by the name of “Carl”.
“Carl”, in trying to make amends for it’s murder of John Connor, asks to assist the trio in destroying the Rev-9. The group then get their hands on an EMP, but it is destroyed in a shootout. In the midst of this combat between the Rev-9 and “Carl,” Grace reveals that Dani is the future military leader of the Human Resistance who will lead humanity to victory (Yeah, a race-swapped John Connor!).
Making their last stand at a hydroelectric plant, everyone participates in trying to defeat the Rev-9 once and for all. Sarah is knocked unconscious, Grace is killed, and “Carl” is severely wounded. Dani is nearly killed by the Rev-9 until “Carl” restrains it, allowing Dani to stab it with Grace’s power source “Carl” then drags itself and the Rev-9 over a ledge, giving “Carl” a nice self-sacrifice moment just like in Terminator 2.
Later on, Sarah and Dani are watching a child Grace at a playground, with Dani vowing to prevent Grace’s death and Legion’s rise, hinting at another film (that will hopefully never happen)
Films in Timeline: [The Terminator 1984] [Terminator 2: Judgement Day 1991] [Terminator: Dark Fate 2019]
And that my friends are all the current Terminator film timelines. Personally, I would say that everyone must watch both original films in their lives while I would recommend 3 and Salvation for the more hard-core fans. Genesys and Dark Fate however are just modern Hollywood crash grabs that attempt to make money off the name alone, both of which are easy passes.