In the realm of time travel epics, few movie franchises are as easy to grasp as that of The Terminator. Numerous sequels built on the science fiction of the original, and for years, the idea of a man sending his own father back in time to help create him was the only time loop that had viewers scratching their heads. But Terminator: Genisys has changed all that.
With even more time travel, new villains, and new twists effectively re-writing the original films' timelines, fans may be more confused than ever. With that in mind, we've done our best to catch lapsed (or simply casual) fans up to speed on the series' previous version of events, how Genisys' fits into the timeline, and how to make sense of the brand new path the film series will be taking.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
CLICK on any topic to jump directly to it:
- The Terminator 1, 2, 3, and Salvation (This Page)
- Terminator Genisys Timeline
- The New Time Loop Explained
The Terminator (1984)
In the year 2029, mankind has been defeated by the A.I. Skynet, with only a band of human survivors known as The Resistance left fighting. When The Terminator begins, the humans finally achieve victory under General John Connor, forcing Skynet to use a time machine and send one of its cyborg soldiers - the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) - back to 1984. Once there, it is to seek out John's mother and kill her before she can give birth. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) volunteers to go back and protect her.
In 1984 Los Angeles, 19 year old Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is saved by Kyle, who informs her of a coming 'Judgment Day' in 1997 that sees Skynet - the creation of Cyberdyne Systems - trigger global nuclear destruction. When Sarah suggests that they destroy Cyberdyne (in a deleted scene), Reese resists making such a drastic change to history. Sarah claims that "there is no fate but what we make," yet agrees.
Knowing Sarah as the legendary warrior who raised mankind's savior, the pair fall in love, and sleep together. The Terminator soon tracks them down, fatally wounding Reese and chasing Sarah into an industrial factory, where she destroys it. Sarah flees with her and Reese's unborn son - thus closing the loop of John's conception - as the Terminator's corpse is uncovered by Cyberdyne, and the company begins to reverse-engineer the future technology, setting the wheels of Skynet in motion.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In the future of 2029, Skynet manages to send not one, but two Terminators back in time: in addition to that of the original film, a T-1000 composed of liquid metal is sent to 1995 to kill John as a 10 year-old boy. To save him, Connor sends a re-programmed T-800 to protect him.
In 1995, Sarah Connor is institutionalized due to her prophetic warnings of the approaching "Judgment Day," and John is placed in foster care. When the T-800 rescues John and Sarah, he informs her of Cyberdyne's discovery and that Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) is reverse-engineering the recovered CPU. Skynet is set to become self-aware in August, 1997, launching America's nukes on Russia, and triggering global nuclear war.
Still believing the future could be changed, Sarah attempts to kill the innocent Dyson, eventually joining forces to destroy the future tech instead. The T-1000 is destroyed, and the T-800 melts itself along with the remaining tech to prevent Skynet's creation. Ending on a hopeful note that Judgment Day has been averted, an alternate ending actually showed Sarah and John living happily in the future (the story, as Cameron would go on to say, "was finished").
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Terminator 3 - the first in the series not conceived or directed by James Cameron - claims that in 2032 an enhanced T-850 kills John Connor. When Skynet sends a new Terminator back to kill John as a young man, his wife Kate Brewster re-programs the T-850 to protect him and sends it to the same time.
In 2004, years after Judgment Day would have taken place had Sarah, John and the T-800 not prevented it, John (Nick Stahl) lives as a drifter, staying off the grid. The T-X (Kristanna Loken) kills John's future lieutenants instead, and the T-850 arrives to save John and a young Kate, revealing that Cyberdyne's research was not destroyed, merely acquired by the U.S. military. Seeding a global virus to warrant its own creation, Skynet takes hold of unmanned weapons around the world.
Believing the T-850 to be leading them to save the future yet again, John and Kate seek out Skynet's operating core in a remote mountain bunker. The pair realize that no such core exists, and that Skynet is unstoppable: the mission was never to prevent another Judgment Day, but ensure the pair survived it. John had only managed to delay Judgment Day until July, 2004 - in the words of the T-850: "Judgment Day is inevitable."
Terminator: Salvation (2009)
The events of the film keep to the established timeline of the Terminator series: in 2018, a decade before John Connor (Christian Bale) will achieve victory, he is only a soldier sending out radio broadcasts to build morale and hope - and seeking to draw Kyle Reese to his side. He learns that (somehow) both he and Kyle have become prime targets for Skynet.
Elsewhere, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) awakens with no memory of Judgment Day, crossing paths with Kyle (Anton Yelchin), who is soon captured by Skynet. Marcus seeks out Connor, instead being captured and revealed to be a cyborg Terminator himself. Agreeing to infiltrate Skynet Central with Connor to rescue Kyle, Marcus must then rescue both men, donating his heart when Connor is mortally wounded. With the Resistance leadership destroyed, Salvation's ending sees Connor chosen as its new leader, with Kyle at his side, beginning the decade-long path toward victory that his mother had promised.