Explaining the Terminator: Genisys Timeline

With the new trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator: Genisys, the Terminator timeline just got more confusing, but we explain it...

For anyone who thought that we’d seen the last of the Terminator franchise—having gone up in a McG cloud of smoke that even Christian Bale disavows nowadaysTerminator: Genisys just gave a resounding answer to your skepticism, past or future:

Yes, yes he will be. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 is always back in one form or another, and Terminator Genisys threatens to be the start of an entirely new trilogy. All the other models may have been upgraded—including both John and Sarah Connor—but Arnie is back, ready to lead the cyber clan into multiplexes again and again.

To jump into the Gordian Knot that is Terminator continuity probably requires a graduate level course in theoretical physics (and movie plot holes), but suffice it to say that Terminator: Genisys has found a way to finally reboot the franchise without disowning the series’ actual masterpieces found in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). And the financial and corporate logic is more than sound: do what made people love Terminator in the first place again, but do it in a way that doesn’t “reboot” (or erase) those two classics. Its journey, however, to this point was far less cohesive.

Originally, “Terminator 5” was meant to be an obvious sequel to Terminator: Salvation, which in itself was a soft-reboot and continuation of the original “trilogy” (assuming that Terminator: Rise of the Machines is worth mentioning). However when The Halcyon Company filed for Chapter 11 in 2009, in no small part due to Salvation’s underperformance, the franchise went on an odyssey of looking for a studio home—a franchisable refugee lost in the cold alley ways and darkened boardrooms of Tinsletown. This led to Joss Whedon even writing a pseudo-serious open letter with the offer of purchasing the Terminator film rights for $10,000 in an aim ensure the movies “stop getting less cool.” 

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After another false start at Universal with Justin Lin (Fast Five) directing Schwarzenegger, the series finally landed with Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison, who executive produced Terminator Genisys with Skydance Productions, and as a Paramount distribution. The goal? To reboot the entire series back to its beta-cool stage of Sarah Connor, a good robot, a bad robot, and no mention of Sam Worthington.

The solution became the rather convoluted but increasingly popular alternative to a real remake: it’s an on-camera reboot. Just as Star Trek and X-Men: Days of Future Past before it, Terminator Genisys is having its cake and eating it too.

The new film, still ostensibly Terminator 5 for all intents and purposes, could have kept that nominal title since it is going back to the beginning via the so-murky-that-nobody-can-say-otherwise vehicle of time travel alteration. After all, it’s not a reboot if it segues into its own entirely separate but non-intrusive timeline, right?

In the trailer, we see that Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is fulfilling his iconic Terminator role of being the bodyguard who goes back in time to save Sarah Connor from a T-800, as well as impregnate her with his best buddy John Connor 30 years prior. But when he gets there, he discovers that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is prematurely the badass that we all loved from T2, and that she even has developed the faintest English accent when she tells him his own line, “Come with me if you want to live.”

How this change came about may seem confounding in the trailer, but it is already quite evident from the press material on the film: Skynet (and a “good” Terminator) went back in time to a point earlier than the 1984 film after Kyle Reese was sent on his mission.

As explained when the first official pictures of Terminator: Genisys were released, Sarah Connor was orphaned at the age of nine by a Terminator (long before Kyle Reese found the timid waitress of the original film). However she was saved by…Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest T-800 hero who has been raising her since then for the last roughly 15 years. She calls him “Pops,” and he has made her deadly with a sniper rifle, as well as turned her into a tough-as-nails killing machine that has known about the future apocalyptic war since she was child. In essence, she is what everyone expected John Connor to be like after the original ending of T2.

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This does not mean the events of the original two Terminator films did not happen, but rather that they happened in a separate timeline that we have now moved away from after this timeline was altered. Just as Doc Brown eloquently explained in Back to the Future Part II (and Mr. Spock far less amusingly in 2009’s Star Trek), the timeline has been irrevocably separated with a diverging event. It didn’t erase what came before, but it has branched off into a new reality due to some fifth-dimensional meddling—instead of going left, the characters have gone right, and thus everything else subsequently has changed for this particular version of reality.

Thus we can get chestnuts like this: “The time John sent you to no longer exists; everything’s changed.” Indeed, and now Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor, and Pappy Terminator can “stop Judgment Day from happening.” Again! As MacGruber would say, “The game has changed, but the players are the same.” Or…


Nobody saw it coming, but he, they, and the Terminator franchise itself is back with more time travel entanglements than ever before!

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