Untangling the Terminator Franchise’s Complicated Timeline

11 minute read

The timeline of the Terminator franchise has never been easy to digest. In the first movie, released in 1984, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) travels back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Kyle tells Sarah that whatever actions they take in the present can change the future from which Kyle hails.

Fair enough. But that means that each individual movie in the Terminator series can radically change the future — and essentially overwrite the events of other movies. What’s more, the plots of the various sequels have jumped back and forth in time so often that it’s nearly impossible to determine the progression of the films.

That’s certainly true for the sixth and latest entry in the franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate, which hits theaters Nov. 1. The film rewrites the history of the franchise in the first scene and operates under the assumption that the events of the Terminator movies after Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) — Rise of the Machines (2003), Salvation (2009) and Genisys (2015) — never happened.

Here’s a full accounting of the events of the Terminator franchise, film by film, and how Dark Fate fits into the Terminator timeline.

The Terminator (set primarily in 1984)

A man named Kyle Reese arrives in 1984 from the future. He tells a waitress named Sarah Connor that in 1997, Skynet, a sentient computer, will turn against the humans who created it and begin a nuclear holocaust. That 1997 date will be subsequently referred to as “Judgment Day.” But Sarah Connor’s future son, John Connor, will lead a revolution against Skynet and eventually defeat them in 2029.

Skynet sends back the original terminator to kill Sarah and thus try to prevent John’s birth. John, meanwhile, sends Kyle back to protect her. Kyle and Sarah fall in love, and Sarah becomes pregnant with John. The terminator kills Kyle, and Sarah kills the terminator. (Whew!)

It’s unclear whether the events of The Terminator change the “original” timeline that resulted in John Connor defeating Skynet. James Cameron has not elaborated on whether Kyle Reese impregnating Sarah Connor creates a new timeline or not. It’s possible that Kyle Reese was always John Connor’s father and thus John sent Kyle back knowing that he would impregnate his mother. Alternatively, the John of the future could have had a different, unknown father, and Kyle impregnating Sarah creates a different John Connor, one who presumably still leads the revolution against the machines.

There are two alternatives: A time-loop (i.e. something happens because it has always happened, a la the time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) or branching timelines where an event changed in the past creates a new parallel future (like Avengers Endgame).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (set primarily in 1995)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
TriStar Pictures

John Connor is born in 1985. Sarah trains him to become a warrior. But Sarah is caught trying to bomb a computer facility to prevent Judgment Day sometime during John’s childhood and is placed in a mental institution.

Meanwhile, a company called Cyberdyne finds the remains of the Terminator Sarah killed in 1994 and uses it to reverse-engineer the terminator technology, not knowing that that tech could lead to an apocalypse. (Here’s another question of time-loop vs. branching timelines: Did Skynet create itself using tech that it had created in the future? Or did the discovery of future Skynet technology start a branching timeline where the apocalypse came via Cyberdyne instead of Skynet?)

Having failed to kill Sarah Connor, Skynet decides to send a terminator (the T-1000 model) back to kill John Connor as a child (Edward Furlong) while his mother is being held in the mental institution. The future John sends back a second T-800 terminator (still Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this time programmed to be a good guy) to protect his younger self. Young John and the new terminator break Sarah Connor out of the mental hospital.

The three heroes decide to try to stop Judgment Day by teaming up with Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the lead scientist on the project to reverse-engineer the 1984 terminator. Together, they destroy the Cyberdyne technology and the original terminator, though Miles is killed in the process. Sarah and the T-800 Terminator kill the T-1000 model and then the T-800 model sacrifices himself so no robot components will be left to possibly kickstart Skynet.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (set primarily in 2004)

Here’s where things get complicated. (And you thought they were complicated before.) In this timeline, Sarah Connor gets leukemia and dies in 1997. She lives long enough to see that Judgment Day does not occur on Aug. 29, 1997 as Kyle Reese originally told her it would. She is convinced that she and John stopped the apocalypse. John Connor (Nick Stahl) goes into hiding to evade any other possible terminators.

However, though Sarah and John prevented judgment day from occurring in 1997, the military still builds the Skynet technology. It goes online in 2004 instead, kickstarting the apocalypse. John Connor defeats Skynet in 2029, but he sends Kyle back to 1984 again to protect and impregnate his mother. Thwarted again, Skynet decides to start sending back Terminators to kill John Connor’s lieutenants rather than John Connor himself.

Skynet sends a T-X model terminator to early 2004 in order to kill Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who they know in the future will become a lieutenant in the revolution, before Skynet is launched. The 2004 John Connor and good guy T-800 sent from the future (Schwarzenegger again) save her. The T-800 explains that Kate becomes John’s wife and second-in-command in the future. John and Kate try to stop the activation of Skynet but fail. They hide in a shelter and survive Judgment Day.

Terminator Salvation (set primarily in 2018)

In the past, death-row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) arranges to donate his body to science after he is executed. Meanwhile, Judgment Day occurs in 2004, and John Connor (Christian Bale) becomes a soldier in the resistance. John discovers a facility where computers are experimenting on humans to create a terminator. That facility is destroyed, but Wright, who was turned into a human-terminator hybrid after his execution, emerges from the rubble.

Skynet has a kill list that includes both John Connor and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who John knows he will eventually send back in time to become his father. (Presumably this movie considers time travel to be a loop.) Skynet captures Kyle. John Connor enlists Wright, who does not know he’s a cyborg and is not loyal to Skynet, to help the resistance save Kyle. John and Marcus eventually do save Kyle and destroy many unfinished T-800s in the process. Marcus sacrifices himself to save John.

Terminator Genisys (set in 2029 and 1984)

John Connor (this time played by Jason Clarke) is on the cusp of defeating Skynet in 2029 when he sends back his eventual father, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), to 1984 to protect and impregnate his mother Sarah. But while Kyle is in the midst of being sent back, a Terminator approaches John Connor and turns him into a half-man, half-machine being. As Kyle Reese travels back in time he has a flashback to an alternate version of his childhood and realizes that the timeline has changed: Skynet now comes online in 2017.

Skynet further alters the timeline by sending a Terminator back to 1973 to kill Sarah Connor in her childhood. A mysterious person (we never learn who) sends back another T-800 (Schwarzenegger yet again) to save her. The T-800 essentially adopts Sarah as a child, and together they prepare for the war to come. Sarah (Emilia Clarke) and the friendly T-800 she dubs Pops kill the original T-800 from Terminator in 1984 and save Kyle Reese. They build a time machine that they then plan to use to jump to the future and take down Skynet. The friendly T-800, Sarah and Kyle travel to 2017, per Kyle’s vision about when Skynet will go online.

When they arrive in 2017 they find out that John has been turned into a terminator in 2029 and sent back to 2017 to protect Skynet from Sarah and Kyle. Sarah and Kyle fight him and seemingly blow up terminator John and the Skynet facility. But it’s revealed in a mid-credits scene that the core of the technology survived the explosion.

Terminator: Dark Fate (primarily set in 2022)

Spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate below

Forget everything that has happened in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This movie pretends that every Terminator film made since T2 doesn’t exist — and with good reason. James Cameron left the franchise after that film and is only returning now for Dark Fate. This movie has something to say about the franchise’s approach to time travel — but we can only get to that after a summary of what happens in Dark Fate.

In the opening scene, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and John Connor (Edward Furlong as a little kid) are relaxing in Mexico shortly after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Young John Connor is played by Jude Collie, who looks a lot like Edward Furlong as a kid.) Their heroic deeds at the end of that movie seem to have succeeded: They blew up the technology that would become Skynet, stopping the apocalypse from occurring in 1997. However, Sarah explains later that Skynet had sent multiple terminators from the future to kill John. One (that looks like the Schwarzenegger T-800) walks up to a young John in Mexico and murders him in front of Sarah. As Sarah says later, “He was sent from a future that never happened.”

Fast-forward to 2022. A terminator from the future (Gabriel Luna) arrives in Mexico City to kill Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) for unknown reasons. A human who has been augmented with terminator technology and fights for the resistance, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), protects Dani. However, this new terminator can turn itself into two terminators and is just about to overtake Dani and Grace when Sarah Connor (a modern-day Linda Hamilton) arrives to save them.

Grace has never heard of Skynet but explains that the military developed AI technology that, in the future, rebels against humanity. While Sarah and John prevented the original Judgment Day, another one is set to occur later on.

Sarah reveals that she receives mysterious text messages from the same number telling her the timing and location of a new terminator dropping from the sky, so she can destroy them one by one. Grace figures out where the messages are coming from, and she, Sarah and Dani travel from Mexico to Texas in order to locate the sender. They find the T-800 living in the house. He tells them that after he killed killed young John Connor, he settled down, built a family and developed a conscience. He also discovered that he could feel when a Terminator rips a hole in the space-time continuum and sends Sarah their locations to give her purpose.

Sarah assumes that Grace has been sent back in time to protect Dani because Dani will eventually give birth to a man who will lead the resistance. But Grace eventually reveals that it is Dani who leads the resistance. In fact, Dani saves Grace as a child and becomes her surrogate mother. She also rallies humans to fight the robots. In the future, Grace, thankful to Dani for saving her life, volunteers to be augmented and sent back in time to protect Dani.

The now-friendly T-800, Sarah, Grace and Dani fight the bad terminator. They are eventually able to kill him using Grace’s power source. Both Grace and the Schwarzenegger terminator sacrifice themselves in order to save Dani and Sarah. Dani and Sarah begin to prepare for the future fight against the machines.

This movie rejects the notion that the time travel in the Terminator franchise happens in a closed loop, despite the fact that that closed-loop time travel logic is integral to the plot of the first Terminator movie. Multiple characters say that they are not fated to act a certain way but can make a choice, creating a new branching timeline. Likely, the screenwriters made a particular point of this because fans have long been confused about whether the actions in Terminator are predestined or not — and the plot points often run into the predestination paradox, which catches a time traveler in a loop of events.

Dark Fate is so named exactly because the characters reject their grim, supposedly destined future. The movie shows that Sarah Connor has changed the future with the choices she made in Terminator 2. And at the end of the movie, Dani finds and watches Grace as a child and swears to Sarah that she “won’t let Grace die again.” That implies that depending on the choices that Dani and Sarah make in the future, Grace won’t have to travel back in time and die, as happened in their past.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com