Terminator timeline: We try to make sense of the futures past

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

In McG's Terminator Salvation, which opens today, the main events take place in the year 2018, 14 years after Judgment Day and 15 years after Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is put to death (or is he?). As an adult John Connor (Christian Bale) says in the trailers for the movie (though not in the movie itself), "This is not the future my mother warned me about."

And how. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

One of the key elements of the fourth installment in the sci-fi franchise is that the future has changed, that the war against the machines must deal with the accelerated development of advanced Terminators and that the outcome is not as pre-ordained as Connor was led to believe: "No fate but what we make."

Things weren't always this messy.

The business of time travel, multiple timelines and alternate realities is by nature complicated, if not downright contradictory. Particularly when you're trying to make a sequel.

The films in the Terminator series have caused confusion and consternation for more than 20 years, thanks to divergent chronologies, revised histories and careless screenwriters. Let's revisit the earlier films to lay this bag of time-traveling snakes out straight. We'll also point out places where sloppy writing has introduced contradictions and apparent errors in the timestream. And we'll even wonder if the heroes of the various films actually manage to hasten the world's destruction as an unintended consequence of their own survival.

As Sarah tells the unborn John in her audio tapes: "God, you can go crazy thinking about all this."

Ages of Sarah and John Connor

The events of the original Terminator movie took place between May 12 and May 14, 1984. In that film, Judgment Day was Aug. 29, 1997, 13 years in the future. The war against the machines was near an end in the year 2029, 45 years in the future, when Skynet sends the first T-800 (then called a "Model 101," played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to the past to hunt Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). That's also when the adult John Connor sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) after him to rescue Sarah—and to become John's father.

While Reese's age was never disclosed, according to the script for the film, Sarah Connor was 19 years old at the time, placing her date of birth between May 15, 1964, and May 11, 1965. But Sarah's headstone in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines said that she was born in 1959, making her 25 during the events of the first film. Confused yet?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released in 1991, but its events take place in 1995, although the film does not directly specify the day or year. A police monitor shown in the film confirms that John Connor was born Feb. 28, 1985, which makes him 10 years old in the film. (Actor Edward Furlong was born in 1977 and was actually 13 years old at the time of shooting the film.)

While this detail would otherwise be unimportant, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, John Connor (Nick Stahl) explains in a voice-over that a T-800 rescued him and his mother from assassination when he was 13. The events of Terminator 3 occur on July 24, 2004, which makes Connor 20 years old and therefore age-appropriate from the point of view of the first film's timeline but would place the events of Terminator 2 in the year 1997. An error or a revision?

Judgment Day

Terminator 3 screws up the series' timeline in other ways. Directly because of the events in Terminator 2, the original "Judgment Day"—Aug. 29, 1997—no longer occurs. But screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris suggest that Judgment Day was merely postponed and that the T-850 Terminator was sent back in time to help John and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) survive rather than stop the inevitable nuclear holocaust. This means that Judgment Day occurs on July 24, 2004.

In addition, Terminator 3 depicts Sarah Connor's headstone, with her birth in 1959 and her death in 1997. This means that John's mother probably contracted leukemia before the events in Terminator 2 (if we believe they took place in 1995) and died two years after them: John says explicitly that she was diagnosed three years before she succumbed. If we believe that the events of Terminator 2 actually occurred in 1997, then Sarah was dying or already dead by the time they happen.

(In the recently canceled Fox TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we first meet a 15-year-old John Connor [Thomas Dekker] and an adult Sarah Connor [Lena Headey] in the year 1999, which we are led to believe is only a couple of years after the events of T2. But McG and the producers of the fourth movie say they don't view the events of the TV show as canon for the purposes of the film franchise.)

Thankfully, Terminator Salvation manages to stick mostly to the timeline established in the first two films. In 2018, John Connor is 33, and it will be 11 years before he sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Kyle is still an adolescent, although it seems like he'll be age-appropriate by the time the events of the first film take place.

Release Dates

The theatrical release dates of all of the films since the original Terminator have also caused their share of problems for viewers. Terminator 2 was released in 1991, and the present date was never specified on screen, which made the heavy thinkers in the audience dizzy at the prospect of a 13-year-old kid playing 10 in a film that was set nine or 10 years later but released only seven years after the original.

Terminator 3 was released in July 2003, a year before the events in the film take place, eight after the events in the previous film and 12 after the release of T2. Terminator Salvation is being released on May 21, 2009, nine years before the events in it take place and six after T3 was released.

Grandfather paradox

Then there's the multiple paradoxes that occur in the series during each adventure, a problem inherent in all time-travel scenarios. The first film is pretty straightforward: Kyle comes back to 1984, saves Sarah from the Terminator, makes a baby and fulfills his destiny.

According to the plot of Terminator 2, Cyberdyne Systems—the owner of the factory where Sarah kills the original Terminator—finds the arm and CPU of the deactivated cyborg, providing the foundations for technology that leads to the development of Skynet.

But when Sarah, John and the second T-800 destroy the remains of the original Terminator and vaporize Cyberdyne, that should not only logically annihilate all Terminator-related technology, but also erase the very existence of John Connor.

There is also no suggestion in the first Terminator that the John Connor of the future knows he's sending his own father, Kyle Reese, back in time (at least at the beginning of the film, before Sarah records the audio tapes informing him of that fact). By Terminator 2 and certainly by T3, young John knows the truth: that Kyle is daddy.

Does John Connor actually cause Judgment Day and the war?

This raises a question: Did John Connor and Skynet come into existence directly as a result of the events in the first Terminator? Or was John's birth, and the advent of Terminator technology, predestined regardless of whether the Terminator and Kyle Reese went back in time?

All along, we see that the time incursions affect the events of the subsequent movies, and not always in intended ways. The events of the first movie, far from preventing Judgment Day, actually facilitate it through the Terminator's leftover parts.

Another important question: Was John Connor trained to be a great military leader because of the strength of his character or because Kyle Reese told Sarah Connor that he would become the leader of the resistance? Unfortunately, we have no information about how John would have turned out if there had been no time incursion (ignoring the fact that he wouldn't have existed at all): For all we know, he could have experienced a normal childhood with his mother around (and not incarcerated in a mental institution) and developed leadership qualities later. Apparently no one in the first Terminator film's future asked John whether he remembered being rescued when he was 10 (or 13), then protected again when he was 20.

The second movie manages to delay Judgment Day, but it doesn't prevent it. Someone within Terminator 3-era Cyberdyne retained data from the late Miles Dyson's work from Terminator 2, though there is no clear explanation why Skynet continues to develop. We do learn from the T-850 that Judgment Day is "inevitable": So much for "No fate but what we make."

The events of T2 also delay John's acquisition of key information: John Connor and Kate Brewster don't pursue their adolescent romantic relationship as they might have because John takes off and lives "off the grid." As a result, John doesn't learn that Kate's father is instrumental in the activation of Skynet until it's too late to stop it.

Ultimately it probably doesn't matter a whole lot whether John was 10 or 13 in T2 or whether the circle of causality originally, retroactively or even arbitrarily led to John Connor's being born, growing up to be a resistance leader or inadvertently causing Judgment Day. They're still mostly great movies.

But Terminator Salvation is no doubt likely to create its own continuity problems, timeline changes and chronological shifts. In which case, it's probably good there are so many time machines available, because by the end of the film series, we'll need one just to figure out where we are—not to mention when.