Remember that scene in Back to the Future Part II, where Doc explains how the Biff’s Pleasure Palace version of 1985 came to be, and draws a chart of the two different timelines highlighting the point at which they diverged? The Terminator franchise is full of moments like that. It’s not exactly Rick and Morty, because Rick and Morty deals with multiverses, and these are divergent realities created from the same original timeline. But if it helps you to think about them as multiverses, go ahead. I won’t stop you.
Anyway, there are essentially three different timelines in the Terminator movies. In the spirit of Doc Brown, I’ve made a flow chart below illustrating which movies connect to each other and at what point they diverge.
The Terminator —- Terminator 2 —- Terminator 3 —- Terminator Salvation
The Terminator —- Terminator Genisys
The Terminator —- Terminator 2 —- Terminator: Dark Fate
Following me so far? Great! Now I’m going to break down the particulars of each timeline for you, because I dunno, maybe it’ll be on the SATs or something.
The Prime timeline (or the Primeline, I guess) begins with The Terminator. In 2029, the T-800 and Kyle Reese both get sent back to 1984 to intercept Sarah Connor. The T-800 has been programmed to assassinate her, so that she never gives birth to John Connor, the leader of the human resistance that destroyed Skynet. Yeah, that’s a major detail here – the Terminator series begins with Skynet already having been defeated in the future. It sends the T-800 through time as a last-ditch effort to try to undo its own defeat.
Reese is killed, Sarah destroys the T-800, and the movie ends with her making a series of recordings to her unborn son John. Did I mention Reese is John’s father? Because he totally is. It’s a wild paradox, considering John Connor is the person who sends Reese back in time in the first place. So, John engineers his own existence by sending his dad back in time to hook up with his mom. It’s a sex paradox. A fuckadox, if you will.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day operates on the conceit that Skynet sent several Terminators back through time at once, to make sure John Connor gets as dead as possible before he leads humanity’s survivors to smash it into pieces (this conceit is vital to several of the sequels, actually). So technically it takes place at the same time as the first movie, kind of. Skynet sends the T-800 to 1984, setting the events of the first movie in motion, and sends the super-advanced T-1000 to 1995 in the same instant. (Why it didn’t sent two T-1000s is beyond me. Maybe they only had one. It looks crazy expensive.)
The T-1000 is trying to track down a 10-year-old John in Los Angeles and hyper-murder him with its bodacious sword hands. Future John sends a reprogrammed T-800 to 1995 to protect his younger self. The T-800 intercepts John, and they bust Sarah out of a mental institution where she got locked up trying to blow up the factory where she destroyed the original Terminator at the end of the first film. That’s kind of important, and another weird self-creation paradox: Skynet is invented because the original Terminator’s processing chip and severed arm get picked up and studied by a scientist named Miles Dyson. Dyson sort of reverse-engineers the smashed Terminator and uses it to build what becomes Skynet.
Ok, so, at the end of the movie, the T-1000 gets cast into a vat of molten steel, and the T-800 willingly dips himself into the steel like fondue to make sure none of his parts can be salvaged and used to create Skynet. Dyson is killed, and John and Sarah fling the chip and arm he was studying into the steel after the two Terminators. Boom. Skynet prevented, Judgment Day averted.
That is, until Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Set ten years after Terminator 2 (roughly 2005), a now-adult John Connor has gone completely off the grid. We learn that Sarah died of cancer a few years earlier, and John’s not entirely convinced that Judgment Day was completely prevented. As it turns out, he was totally right, and Skynet has sent yet another robot back in time to kill its enemies – the T-X, a ladybot programmed to kill not just John Connor, but every member of his inner resistance circle, including his future wife Kate Brewster. Yet another reprogrammed T-800 has also been sent back to 2005 to protect John and Kate, except this one was sent by Kate rather than John. That’s because in the future, John has been killed by this very T-800, which is then hacked by Kate and sent back in time. That’s our first confirmed John death. Ok, moving on.
Kate’s dad is an Air Force General working on developing Skynet to control the nation’s defense network. As it turns out, Judgment Day is inevitable, and everything John and Sarah did in the previous films only succeeded in delaying it for a little while. It kind of makes sense, honestly, because of the fuckadox – if John had successfully prevented Judgment Day, then he’d never send Kyle Reese back through time, and he’d never be born. Man, my head hurts.
Ok, so Terminator 3 ends with Judgment Day finally happening, and John and Kate effectively watching the world end from the safety of her dad’s nuclear bunker. This more or less leads directly into the events of Terminator Salvation, which takes place 13 years later, in 2018. John and Kate are leaders of the human resistance battling Skynet, which is now trying to kill Kyle Reese in the war-torn present, before John is able to send him back in time for the fuckadox. I know, it’s exhausting.
Salvation introduces a cyborg character named Marcus Wright, but neither he nor anything else that happens in this movie really affect the overall timeline in any way. Thanks to Terminator 3, we know John has about 14 years of robot war left before he’ll be killed by the same T-800 that Kate sends back to 2005 to safely carry them into a bunker before Judgment Day. So he’ll be like 47 when he finally gets blown away.
And that’s where the first timeline ends. The second timeline starts in roughly the same place, with John Connor sending Kyle Reese back in time to become his dad, but then immediately splits into the Terminator Genisys timeline, which stands alone in its hooting wackiness. Reese arrives in 1984 to discover that Sarah has a reprogrammed T-800 of her own, that was sent back in time to protect her when she was a little girl, alongside a second Terminator that was sent to kill her. Her protector bot, whom she calls “Pops,” destroyed the evil Terminator and essentially became her surrogate father. It’s wild. Anyway, Sarah explains that this is the point when the new timeline was created, because she now knows everything about what’s going to happen to her in the future, as if Pops brought copies of Terminator and Terminator 2 with him for her to watch. Meanwhile, Kyle begins to have visions of a soldier and Sarah coming to warn him about Skynet’s rise in the year 2017. With me so far? Ok good, because here’s where things get really weird.
Pops has managed to build a time machine for he and Sarah to use to travel to 1997 and stop Judgment Day. But Kyle manages to convince them to go to 2017 instead, because of his visions. They hop to 2017 and discover that Skynet’s rise in 1997 was merely delayed, and will now occur as the result of an operating system app called Genisys going online. Genisys will be downloaded to every computer, mobile device, and military machine in the world simultaneously, which seems like a terrible idea even if the possibility of an insane AI suddenly becoming self-aware and destroying the planet wasn’t on the table. Meanwhile, John Connor shows up and reveals that he has been transformed into an evil robot. Skynet infected him with nanobots and turned him into the T-3000, and now he’s actively trying to murder his own parents to protect his new robot overlord.
With the help of Pops, Kyle and Sarah kill their future son and destroy Genisys, preventing Judgment Day yet again. They stop by Kyle’s childhood so that adult Kyle can deliver a message to his child self about Genisys and the year 2017, thus creating the visions he saw that led them to the correct point in time to thwart Skynet. It’s… exhausting.
Luckily, that convoluted timeline was confined to a single film. This year’s Terminator: Dark Fate starts a brand-new branch that immediately follows the events of Terminator and Terminator 2. The film starts three years after Terminator 2, with Sarah and John relaxing on a beach in Mexico in 1998. But a T-800, one of the many Skynet sent to several different timelines in its desperate last-gasp effort to prevent its own destruction, strolls into the seaside bar and absolutely blows John away. Just a full-on shotgun assassination. Then it simply strolls off, because you can’t really do shit to a Terminator.
The movie flashes forward to 2020, where we met a young woman named Dani. Dani has been targeted for Termination by a Rev-9 cyborg, a sort of mix between the T-1000 and a T-800, which was sent back in time from the year 2042 by a new apocalyptic AI named Legion. Apparently, even though Skynet was stopped and Judgment Day in 1997 was averted, Judgment Day at the hands of a sentient AI is inevitable, and at some point in the future a system called Legion will essentially do all of the exact same things as Skynet. (For a movie franchise that constantly assures us that there is no fate but what we make for ourselves, fate sure seems to play a huge part in everything that happens.) Dani, like John Connor, will eventually lead a resistance against Legion, so Legion is lobbing timebots into the past to try and prevent that from happening. Grace, an augmented metahuman, is also sent back to 2020 to protect Dani.
They meet up with Sarah, who has spent the last few decades eradicating random Terminators when they pop up (like I said, Skynet just spammed a bunch of them into the timestream, so they still show up occasionally even though Skynet no longer exists and John is long dead). We learn that Sarah, living way off the grid because she’s essentially a domestic terrorist after everything she did in the first two films, receives text messages from a mysterious source giving her the exact coordinates every time a new Terminator shows up, which is how she finds Dani and Grace and the Rev-9.
The trio track down the source of the text messages and discover that they’re being sent by the T-800 who killed John, now living as a family man named Carl in rural Texas. Yeah, I know. It’s bonkers. Carl can feel the time displacement when new Terminators show up, and he sends Sarah the coordinates, because he somehow got her number at some point. He’s developed a robot version of guilt over killing John, and this is his way of making up for it. It makes absolutely no sense (John is already dead, so what use is it to destroy these new Terminators when they show up?), but it moves the plot along and gets us a new Terminator buddy to hang out with.
Carl joins up with Dani, Grace, and Sarah, and together they destroy the Rev-9 in a hydroelectric plant. Grace is killed in the process, and Carl is destroyed as well. The film ends with Dani vowing to prevent Grace’s death, and going off with Sarah to train for her future role as leader of the human resistance. We’re never given a date or exact set of circumstances for Legion’s eradication of humanity, and as far as the audience knows, Legion’s version of Judgment Day is still coming.
And those are the timelines of the Terminator films! It’s interesting to note that the only constant element of every timeline is that John Connor ultimately ends up dying in every single one. And the Dark Fate timeline is the only one of the three in which Skynet is emphatically defeated (although that means John should’ve faded out of existence years before that Terminator showed up in Mexico to blast him into the next world). I’m not sure if we’ll see more sequels, if they’ll try rebooting part or all of the timelines again, or if this is the end of the franchise, considering the abysmal box office performance of Dark Fate. But if you take nothing else away from this in-depth timeline breakdown, let it be the word “fuckadox.”
For more on the Terminator series, check out our review of Terminator: Dark Fate and our ranking of the Terminator movies from worst to best.