Alan Taylor's franchise refresh/retcon Terminator Genisys has opened to mixed reviews (read our Terminator Genisys review) but, with series star Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as a T-800 hero, plenty of moviegoers are headed back to the theater for the latest chapter of humanity's battle with Skynet. Time-travel has always been at the center of Terminator's premise but Genisys is the first entry to fully embrace a time (universe?) hopping storyline - as well as dealing with the subsequent ripple effect of messing with the past in order to change the future.
Given the challenges of time travel storytelling, paired with convoluted time-travel rules in the larger Terminator series mythology, Genisys includes several plot developments that may be confusing for certain moviegoers - especially on a first viewing. For that reason, we're here to help breakdown how time travel works in the latest movie, as well as explain the film's ending and mid-credits sequence.
Our discussion is going to be full of SPOILERS for Terminator: Genisys, so READ NO FURTHER unless you’re all caught up. You have been warned.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
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- Terminator vs. Genisys 1984 Timeline Comparison (This Page)
- Genisys is Skynet: Judgment Day Cancelled?
- Genisys Ending & Mid-Credits Scene Explained
Terminator vs. Genisys 1984 Timeline Comparison
As spoiled by the Terminator Genisys trailers, Taylor's entry in the series presents a version of 1984 with subtle and not-so-subtle differences - compared to James Cameron's 1984 original. However, it's important to note that the new 1984 isn't just a different version, but 1984 in an alternate universe. The Terminator multiverse might not be apparent to casual viewers, but franchise fans know this time-travel/alternate timeline precedent was established in Cameron's Judgement Day sequel. For Genisys, Kyle Reese is sent back in time into a different past - thanks to the intentional or unintentional intervention of Skynet (as Matt Smith's T-5000) at the exact moment of Reese's entry into the Time Displacement Device.
Speaking about Smith's T-5000 (aka Adam) in a recent interview with Crave, the film's writers made it clear that the T-5000 wasn't the product of Skynet and the Connors' past battles, but a visitor from an entirely different universe - one that has observed multiple ways the war could play out and, as a result, sets in motion a plan to ensure that the machines win as many times as possible:
He’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.
This Skynet has been to this universe, and this universe, and this universe. That’s why he says, ‘I came a very long way to stop you.’ He’s not from here. So he’s watched it. He’s watched it happen a bunch of different times, and each time he’s seen it there is a different result but the same result.
In the first Terminator film, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) was a helpless nineteen-year old who would have been easy prey for the malevolent T-800 if future Resistance warrior Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) had not followed the Terminator back through time and intervened. Skynet's plan was simple: Kill Sarah Connor in the past, before she can become pregnant and mother Resistance leader John Connor. Without John Connor, there would be no Resistance, and Skynet would win the post-Judgment Day war.
In the original timeline, Reese succeeds in protecting Sarah from the T-800, giving his life in the process (but not until after he and Sarah copulate and, unknowingly, conceive John). Skynet would later send other Terminators back in time to 1995 and 2004, in order to kill John (as seen in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). Both machines failed, thanks to protection from reprogrammed T-800 protectors, but Sarah and John were never able to prevent Judgment Day - only postpone it.
Genisys catches up with Connor on the final night of his war with Skynet, where the Resistance engages in a two-pronged offensive, destroying the Skynet defense grid and attacking the AI's secret weapon: a time machine. As predicted, Connor and Reese arrive too late to stop the T-800 from traveling through time to 1984 and, in line with prior installments, Reese volunteers to follow, with Connor knowingly sending his own father to protect Sarah.
However, the version of Earth's future depicted in Genisys is different from that presented in the original movie - thanks to Skynet's past and future meddling. In a different timeline, Skynet took an organic human form (to allow travel through time), infiltrates the Resistance (as "Alex"), and attacks John Connor at the moment Reese enters the time machine - altering John's DNA, replacing his human cells with machine cells, effectively turning John into a new Terminator (the T-3000).
Skynet's intervention creates a "key moment" that causes Reese to travel through time and the multiverse to an alternate version of 1984 - with different past events. Genisys, then, marks the start of a new timeline in the Terminator film series, so we do not yet have all the pieces to definitively explain why the future is different from the story Reese relays to Sarah in The Terminator - but it is a different timeline within the multiverse.
Still, given that the Genisys' opening act is the furthest point in the post-Judgment Day future audiences have witnessed, it's likely that the creation of Alex/the T-5000 (Matt Smith) will be revealed in Genisys sequels. After all, since we still don't know who sent "Pops" back in time to protect nine-year-old Sarah, there's no way of knowing what other yet-to-be revealed changes have been made in this new past and future.
Whether the T-5000 intentionally sent Reese to a different timeline (or it was an unintended consequence), the future has changed - as has the past. Genisys makes it clear that the first film's T-800 was no longer the first Terminator sent back to kill Sarah. In the new timeline, a T-1000 was sent back to 1973 but was thwarted by Schwarzenegger's Terminator character Pops - who spent the next 11 years taking care of Sarah, training her, and helping her destroy other Terminators Skynet sent through time.
As a result, when Reese appears in 1984, Sarah is not the naive and helpless girl that he was expecting to protect, but a battle-hardened warrior who already knows her importance as well as key future events.
One of those events is the arrival and location of Reese, along with the original T-800, which Sarah and Pops quickly dismantle. But due to the timeline changes, Reese encounters a T-1000 upon his entrance in 1984 - presumably one of many that Skynet has peppered through time to hunt Sarah and John. Knowing that it might only be a matter of time before they slip up and are killed by one of Skynet's Terminators, Sarah and Pops built a bootleg time machine to travel directly to 1997 and prevent Skynet from coming online (and subsequently stop Judgment Day).
However, as the pair plot a course for 1997, Reese recalls new memories; flashes that appeared to him in the time machine, of an alternate past. A past where Judgment Day never happened but Skynet found a different means to destroy humanity in 2017...