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How does the Time Travel in TERMINATOR: GENISYS Work?

The time travel in TERMINATOR: GENISYS is pretty confusing. I drew some maps and diagrams to help explain it for you. You’re welcome!

Terminator Key
A Handy Key for You

Time travel makes my head hurt. – Kyle Reese

In my last post, I walked through the time travel mechanics in the TERMINATOR universe. The question of whether it’s possible to change the future is answered by the end of TERMINATOR 3: Rise of the Machines with a resounding “Yes, but no.” In other words, with advanced knowledge, it seems possible to stop individual incarnations of Skynet, but the eventual AI singularity that triggers the Machine War is inevitable. Further, the film establishes the existence of multiple timelines.

Both of these insights are important to work through the convoluted plot of TERMINATOR: GENISYS.

I’m assuming you’ve seen T:GENISYS, so you know the film isn’t amazing, but it’s easily the best TERMINATOR film since the first two. The cast is great – Emilia Clarke makes a great Sarah Connor, Jai Courtney is surprisingly good as Kyle Reese, and Jason Clarke is a serviceable John Connor (he’s just not given much to do). The action is pretty great.

And Arnold. Arnold is amazing. He’s hilarious. He’s having the time of his life and is a pure joy to watch. No, I’m not kidding.

Probably the biggest hurdle the movie faces is the legacy of four previous films. And for many audiences, especially the non-hardcore scifi nerds, the convoluted time-travel mythology might be too much. So let’s review exactly what happens in the film, and see how much sense we can make out of it.

Terminator 1
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The original TERMINATOR gave us a pretty straightforward time travel story: Both the T-800 and Kyle Reese go back in time. Kyle Reese is actually John Connor’s father. Sarah and Kyle kill the T-800. Kyle dies. Judgment Day will happen in 1997.

We learn in TERMINATOR 2 that John Connor isn’t the only one caught in that fixed time-loop. Skynet comes to be because Cyberdyne finds the original T-800’s neural net CPU and the skeletal arm. One of their scientists, Miles Dyson, creates what will become Skynet. Sarah, John and the new T-800 destroy all that, thus creating the alternate timeline where Judgment Day doesn’t happen until 2004.

Terminator 5 Mystery
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T: GENISYS opens in 2029, when John Connor and Kyle Reese lead their battalion to capture Skynet’s time machine. At the same time, another battalion is in Colorado, destroying Skynet’s servers. We see the original T-800 sent back in time, and watch John choose Kyle and send him back as well. As Kyle vanishes, he sees another Terminator (this one a T-5000 that turns out to be the embodiment of Skynet), attack John.

In 1984, the original T-800 approaches the punks from whom he gets his clothes in the original TERMINATOR. But before he can attack them, he is attacked by an aged version of the T-800. Meanwhile, Kyle is pursued by a police officer who turns out to be a T-1000. He is saved by a very different Sarah Connor than he was expecting, who in turn introduces him to Pops, the aged T-800. It turns out that another T-1000 was sent to 1973 to kill Sarah as a child. Pops was sent back to protect her, and because the T-1000 manages to kill her parents, has essentially raised her.

In other words, T: GENISYS introduces us to three new Terminators who are where they are not supposed to be.

GENISYS - Sarah ConnorSarah and Pops destroy both the T-1000 and the original T-800, leaving nothing for Cyberdyne to discover. In effect, they undo at least T:2 and T:3. Because there’s nothing for Cyberdyne to find, Dyson won’t create a Skynet that comes online in 1997.

Neither Sarah nor Pops know that the original T-800 is what allowed Skynet to be created. Once they have destroyed both evil Terminators, they reveal to Kyle that they have built their own time machine – the T-800 had been given the schematics. Sarah plans to go to 1997 and stop Judgment Day.

Kyle talks her out of it by revealing that he saw flashes of an alternate timeline as he traveled back through time. In this other timeline, Judgment Day happens in 2017, not 1997.

Sarah and Kyle jump to 2017 to stop Judgment Day, and this is where it gets complicated.

GENISYS - Kyle ReeseThe 2017 they jump to is an alternate timeline. Judgment Day didn’t happen in 1997. Which means Skynet hasn’t come online yet and that the human resistance won’t win in 2029. John Connor should be 32 years old but he’s not even conceived yet and both his parents are now in 2017.

Whatever the future will be, it will look very different from the timeline of the original TERMINATOR.

Which is actually, possibly, a key to understanding the film. Something nearly every TERMINATOR film has hinted at but never made explicit is that Skynet seems incapable of innovation or invention. Whatever level of technology exists when Skynet comes online seems to be basically the level of technology it has to work with. (So, for instance, in T:3, we see the government experimenting with versions of the drones we’ve seen in the future in other films.)

This is why, when Skynet comes online in 1997, humanity can destroy it in 2029. Because Skynet lives on servers. In 1997, there was no “cloud” – not like there is today. Skynet lived – nearly as literally as you and I – in a particular physical place.

The world is clearly very different in 2017. Genisys is a master OS (not unlike what we saw in Her) – it goes on PCs, phones, tablets, cars, everything. Genisys is cloud-based, universal and – soon – sentient. One character in the film (I can’t remember who!) remarks that once Genisys goes online, Skynet will be basically unstoppable. Which makes sense – if Skynet lives in the cloud, it can copy itself anywhere else in the world before a human army could destroy its servers.

This might also explain the presence of the T-1000s. In our tour of Cyberdyne Systems (under the guidance of Dyson’s son, who is the architect of Genisys), we get glimpses of the liquid metal that comprises the T-1000s. Pops observes that the metal is useless without a CPU. The liquid metal technology is clearly bleeding-edge (and possibly one of the several contributions the T-3000 John Connor has made to this timeline).

If my hypothesis is right – that Skynet can’t innovate or invent, this would indicate that all T-1000s come from a timeline where Judgment Day didn’t happen until at least 2017.

Terminator 5
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One of the big questions the film raises and never answers is who exactly sent Pops back to 1973 to save Sarah. We know that Pops didn’t come from the original TERMINATOR timeline because T:GENISYS shows us the future – Skynet only sent the T-800 back. It also makes sense that a Skynet that came online in 1997 couldn’t create T-1000s – the technology didn’t exist.

Because the events of 1984 are where the timeline split (at least for T:GENISYS), a Skynet that doesn’t come online until 2017 could have sent back both T-1000s, one to kill Sarah Connor 1973 and one to 1984 to kill Kyle Reese. If this new timeline is the one from which the T-1000s were sent back, then it stands to reason that someone in this timeline must also have sent back Pops.

We know virtually nothing about the future of a Judgment Day that happens in 2017.

GENISYS - PopsIn the original timeline, Judgment Day happens when John Connor is 12 years old. He’s 45 when they finally defeat the machines. In the timeline created by the events of T:GENISYS, John Connor would have been 33 when Judgment Day finally happened in 2017.

How long will the new Machine War last? In the original timeline, the war lasts 32 years (from 1997-2029). Is a more advanced Skynet more dangerous? Given that the new Skynet lives in the cloud, will it take longer for humanity to destroy it? Can they destroy it at all? It’s entirely possible John Connor is in his 60s by the time humanity wins the Machine War in the T:GENISYS timeline – if he wins at all.

We don’t know what kind of future the alternate timeline gives rise to. We don’t know who sends back Pops. But we can assume the next two films will shed some light on these questions.

Where’s the TERMINATOR franchise going from here?

T: Genisys is the first of a planned trilogy. The second two films are shooting back-to-back, to be released in 2017 and 2018. The biggest unanswered question is who sent Pops back in time?

Things could go really badly.
Things could go really badly.

Of course it also might not matter. As the timeline stands now, there is no John Connor, and Judgment Day has once again been averted (at least temporarily, according to that mid-credits scene). But the theme of T:GENISYS is that some things want to happen. Like, we assume, Skynet and John Connor.

We ought to find out what kind of Skynet sends back the T-1000s. We may see the emergence of a third alternate future. If this new set of films truly functions as a trilogy, then since this film established that changing the future is possible, we should expect the events of the next film to make the future worse (ala Back to the Future II). The final film would then see the final destruction of Skynet and possibly the redemption of John Connor.

YOUR TURN: Did you enjoy TERMINATOR: GENISYS? Do the timelines make sense to you?

By JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. His book, Empathy for the Devil, is available from InterVarsity Press. He's haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.