Terminator: Twisted Timelines and the Horror Within! 2007 – 2032 (and beyond…)

Terminator twisting time lines

The final part of a Terminator retrospective that mixes its twisting timeline with some of the horror roots behind each instalment. Jokerside’s looked back at 1964 to 2004, but now the twist gets harder, from The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Terminator Genisys. Spoilers abound…

THE CHANCES OF THE TERMINATOR FRANCHISE REGAINING THE CRITICAL APPRECIATION OF ITS EARLY DAYS ARE AS REMOTE AS SKYNET AGREEING A TRUCE WITH HUMANITY’S LAST UNDERGROUND CITY OF ZION. Still, The Terminator remains intriguing; relatively distinct from and self-assured compared to young pretenders like The Matrix. After years in the ether, the Terminator film rights are due to revert to T-Master James Cameron in 2019. But amid terrible marketing, reviews and release, the latest attempt to reboot, a film superior to its immediate two predecessors in many ways, has somehow managed to gross over $400 million at the international box office. Impressive work, showing that there’s still fuel left in the endoskeleton. Arnie wasn’t lying about T-800s lasting 120 years.

Against expectation, The Sarah Connor Chronicles appeared late last decade and wowed a small but influential audience. As it’s the most consistent and longest running Terminator story it makes the cut here, in a franchise that happily rides roughshod over previous instalments. And following the seminal first two parts, and the major time split caused by Judgment Day’s arrival in the third film, that’s where this glance at the horror of The Terminator series begins…

Terminator Time lines Clock

2007 – 2008 (via 1999) – Key series: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Released 2008 – 2009)

Where we are: Sarah and John Connor emerge on a freeway in San Francisco, swapping 1999 for 2008 with their guardian Terminator Cameron (not as beardy as the franchise creator who gifted her name). Judgement Day has been deferred, but as much as the Connors have bought some time with their disappearance, resistance and Skynet forces are growing in a past increasingly forming a temporal civil war. Sarah and John set about stopping the armageddon once and for all, leaping twists and turns as they go.

“Come with me if you want to live”: Several times, courtesy of the delightful and mysterious new Terminator model – the T-900 series Cameron.

Skynet mechanism: Military. Via AI, chess machines and temporal sabotage. Or is it?

Horror: Psychological / And Then There Were None

“The future’s ours and it begins now.”

Splitting the timeline, and deliberately ignoring the events of Terminator 3 (the clue’s in the title), the two short seasons of The Sarah Connor Chronicles may be Terminator’s finest hour(s).

“Great, it looks like a robot serial killer lives here”

Where to start. Praising The Sarah Connor Chronicles could take volumes, and perhaps it will take over Jokerside one day… But let’s get it over with succinctly here. For all the trauma of the material, fan expectation and behind the scenes machination, possibly no other series has carved an original and captivating narrative from a simple pitch, while retaining the essence and maintaining the sanctity of two seminal blockbuster films. No, not even Timecop. But, there are inherent problems with taking that one line pitch from the first film and fixing it to an ongoing narrative.

“Have you ever heard of the singularity?”

Leaping into the 21st century is picked up as a key plot point, with such success that Genisys would hope to nick/homage/mirror it a few years later. The primary mission, rising above the stalk and slash road trip, has to be the prevention of Skynet. To flesh that out Chronicles presents a real temporal cold war, with both the resistance and Skynet taking routine trips back to our present, not solely for assassination but to stockpile provisions and slithers of advantage for the world to follow. Slot that into a fine Highlander the Series type flashback mechanism, and stir in some cues to the future taken from the released films and the brewing script for Terminator Salvation. Still, in a world crawling with T-800s, here the catchy and beefier Trip-8s (T-888), it’s a relentless slog. Those Trip-8s are beefed up versions of the 101 we all know, and the disaster would have been to weaken their threat by dispatching one a week. But somehow that’s a pitfall this series avoids. As if to demonstrate its skill, two hours of Genisys would later arrive with “nexus points” showing just how confusing this can get. Chronicles’ success is partly down to the excellent progression of time orphan and excellently named Trip-8 Cromartie, an exploration of the life of the Skynet villain far beyond the films. Similarly, it doesn’t drop the baton throughout its 31 episodes exploring a young John Connor who must combat the machinations of “Future John” and become the lone figure dedicated to man’s survival.

“That doesn’t bother you? Metal keeping secrets from skin?”

The resultant series is intense, wearing out the same nerves that the first films exposed. And the stakes keep their height, even while the core cast are on the move. And all the while things strain further and further, as the temporal web tightens and waxes. Absolutely no one can be trusted. There’s plenty of enigma to sustain this murder mystery as if a master writer had deliberately assembled those individuals together and implicated them all, only to see them dispatched one by one… While the horror from the future, as ridiculous and unbelievable as it is accepted as being isn’t in doubt, Chronicles never loses sight of the inner horror of humanity.

“There’s a lot of mirrors in this world, did you notice that?”

that naturally relates to the Terminators themselves, with riveting exploration of the Pandora’s Box that humanity opened and the subsequent deceit and façade that is necessary to avoid it/survive it. Even Connor’s longest serving protector Cameron has re-programming constantly questioned, all understanding that she “down deep wants to kill” him. And the pre- and post-J Day representation of humanity may as well be two different species, John the product of both.

“Skynet’s here Reese, I can feel it”

The series ended abruptly, on a high of extraordinary twists and brutally unexpected deaths. Many strands were left – could that mysterious girl at John’s school in the first season be Kate Brewster? What was that school graffiti? But rather cunningly, it ends with an explanation why Future John’s face is never seen throughout the series as the young John Connor of 2008 teleports forward to assume his future mantle and meet his compatriots, and father and uncle for the first time. It’s a brilliant move, unfortunately left hanging – why wouldn’t John Connor be a temporal traveller himself?  The series brilliance would prove very influential.

2009

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is cancelled. Terminator Salvation is released. No one laughs. Not even Skynet.

2011

Judgment Day happens here, according to the timeline set by The Sarah Connor Chronicles, four years on from Cameron telling Sarah this at their arrival in 2007. Although, with an amount of temporal espionage that would give a TARDIS a headache, that date was surely in a state of flux.

2015

Terminator Genisys is released. China saves the franchise.

2017 – Key film: Terminator Genisys (Released 2015)

Where we are: Taking a leaf from the alternate reality of the Sarah Connor Chronicles and powered by an old but not obsolete T-800 capable of single-handedly inventing time travel in 1984, the fuel of paradox returns as the grey-haired machine, a bemused and far too ripped Kyle Reese and toughened Sarah attempt to halt Skynet in the 2017 when Judgment Day seems further off than ever… Meanwhile Cyberdyne is in rude health under the direction of John Connor who rather strangely has helped Danny Dyson develop a time machine.

“Come with me if you want to live”: Sarah Connor to Kyle Reese. From the cab of a truck.

Skynet mechanism: Personal and mobile computing.

Horror: Public domain artificial general intelligence: Demon Seed.

From Christie to Koontz. Genisys is the franchise’s biggest reboot, one that dared to even step on the toes of the simple and direct original film. On the way it gets a lot wrong, through its cod-complicated plot and miscasting (muscle-bound Jai Courtney is a spectacular misunderstanding, while Emilia Clarke is brilliant as ever). But it’s confident, brash and most importantly it has a sense of humour that Salvation would have ripped John Connor’s heart out for.

“Yeah, I know how time travel works”

It certainly blisters along, and the intriguing dispatching of a the original T-800 in 1984 and the rather inexplicable T-100 that Reese runs into soon gives way to a jump forward and a reboot that happily lobs every meme of the franchise into a spittoon, desecrating everything with an abandon that marks the tightly plotted initial instalments in sharp relief. You can’t remake a James Cameron film, I guess no one ever will, but you can certainly chuck a lot of money at the screen to rehash it. At least the nods to the sublime Sarah Connor Chronicles show that someone could listen to reason.

“We’re here to stop the end of the world”

As may be expected, time has a way of righting itself around events. Again, like The Sarah Connor Chronicles much of the film sees the Judgment Day and the preparation for the subsequent war take shape in our present. It’s refreshing to find that we’re once again in the days before Judgment Day. But in doing so, it needs to take into account changed technology, something it does with relish.

“I’ve come a very long way to stop you…”

Cyberdyne is now developing AI under the gaze of Danny Dyson, Miles’ son in another nod to The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the Terminator nano-infested John Connor of the future. And it’s in our arms. There’s no sole military application here, but the launch of the Genisys software, counting down in every home and pushing the terror of the mobile revolution and cloud computing into focus. It would have been nice to have a more consumer but there’s little space in this blistering greatest hits. And anyway, few have driven horror into corporate satire since Romero in 1978. Still, this AI is less a silent version of HAL from 2001, but a less precocious Proteus from the novel/film Demon Seed. The anti-Demon Seed itself remains the quite unsavoury part of the franchise, especially with Sarah’s role is boiled down to an impregnation machine. That’s got to ruin the moment.

“Survival. It’s what you taught me”

Far removed from the military elite, the renewed timeline makes everybody complicit in the awakening of a Skynet that looks a lot like Doctor Who.  And in the real world, Windows 10 has subsequently come along to prove that yes, people really do pre-order operating systems. In a 2017, festering with more machine malevolence and influence than ever before, we’re well away from mankind’s near destruction falling to a military elite,  By the end, Reese is suddenly someone who knew about the world before Judgement Day, like the stretched timeline of parts three, four and The Sarah Connor Chronicles. We’re back not knowing what the future may be, and with an aged T-800 happy to hang around – having ludicrously upgraded to a T-1000 hybrid. Perhaps more chillingly, John Connor has died in the pre-Judgment Day chaos. With no Kate visible, although more plot strands left dangling than usual, it seems that the future’s lost if indeed there will be Judgement Day at all. At least, reminiscent of the first two films, the heroes ride off into the unknown at the end.

2018 – Key film: Terminator Salvation (Released 2009)

Where we are: Straight back into the Terminator 3 timeline, 2004’s Judgment Day has happened and as much as John Connor found himself at the right place at the time, he’s not the leader we’ve always seen. Yet. A prophet to a select few, well down the pecking order of surviving authority he’s a man who takes things very, very seriously. Time travel is a decade away, the future can’t be saved, but he’s intent on channelling his suspicion and knowledge of the future to save mankind. Cue strangely advanced Skynet tampering with bodies left to medical science…

“Come with me if you want to live”: Kyle Reese (yay) to Markus Wright (whoa).

Skynet mechanism: No doubt identical to Terminator 3, but then we’re way past that…

Horror: The Modern Prometheus

“You and me. We’ve been at war since before either of us even existed”

And then, with the Day reached and passed we find ourselves in the oddest of places. Not only looking at a film universe where our present day has been obliterated – for the first time in the franchise – but also at a fictional dystopian future where there is no longer any chance of altering the past. If it wasn’t for the grinning endoskeletons, you might not suspect this to be a Terminator film at all. Terminator’s strength was always that dark future waiting in the shadows and the slightest hope that it could be preventable. And if you take that away, there’s a big vacuum to fill. That’s what really needed replacing here, not just the trappings of time travel.

“This is John Connor. If you’re listening to thins you are the resistance”

What fills in the gap is horrid. The opening death row scene leaves a terrible taste in the mouth. But it sets out from the start that this pointedly realistic and gritty entry is the most gothic of them all. Which is just as well as the future dystopia on show isn’t a classic one. This future is far removed from the scenes we saw in the first three. A decade before the flash-forwards of what the first and fifth film suggest is the final assault on Skynet. We’re on the highway to that future, where humans scavenge on the surface or lurk under sea level. Where Skynet’s offices are strangely human friendly and their drones retain USB ports (bearing in mind that Genisys later shows endoskeletons rather bizarrely driving trucks). Where there’s bizarrely inappropriate Sony product placement. Where Christian Bale’s John Connor is obsessed with his future role, the prophet who discovers that Skynet’s creations are ahead of schedule. It’s unclear if the facilities destruction is what slowed the emergence of the T-800. Most likely that’s a plot route we’ll likely never see explained.  But then again, while the idea’s sound, it’s just a little too dull.

“Do you believe that people deserve a second chance?”

The film isn’t particularly stylish and we’ve all heard Bale’s view on the DoP. But its real problem is the lack of a sense of humour. It’s unrelenting, but all intensity is channelled through a rather deranged central performance that’s just a little too over-revved. Kate’s there of course, but Bryce Dallas Howard’s rather solid performance is a bit scuppered when her character’s only there for her husband to preach at. If only Nick Stahl had returned. At one point Bale shouts at a lift that won’t start. That’s the funniest part. His delivery of “I’ll be back” is enough to, utterly un-ironically, is enough to draw out tears.

“What is it that makes us human?”

On this rather straight adventure, there’s nods to mythic sci-fi, particularly War of the Worlds through the giant Terminator set-piece, and even some Christian allegory crowbarred in, particularly in Marcus’ crucifixion captivity. But for all of that and the forced weight of dystopian horror, it’s mainly a Frankenstein tale. Helena Bonham Carter barely appears as the creator, unaware of her adoption as the face of a Cyberdyne. Marcus is the creature, unaware of his origins until the end and his very literal act of redemption saving Connor. There’s no north pole sacrifice in honour of his father, instead the gift of a heart to John Connor. Quite why Marcus needed or has a heart for his infiltration mission is best not to think about. The first, and remarkably advanced attempt ultimately failed, although yet again, or for the first time, the T-800 gets very close to killing Connor.

 “Kill Kyle Reese, reset the future. No John Connor”

The creature sits on a production line, freshly skinned with a CGI Schwarzenegger face, and following Terminator 3 powered by nuclear fuel cells that are “enough to level this place”. It’s a huge moment that meeting, and not too shabbily handled, drawing back on the time John spent with the T-800 or 850 in the previous two films. It helps that there’s little script, the film’s real weak point But as a punchline it’s rather wasted, following Terminator 3’s slight plot. In its way, it’s has a true Terminator structure, with the arrival of the good then bad equivalents at the start of the film. And like the previous film’s T-850, most of Connor’s occupation is a mission of safety, finding and ensuring the survival of his father. A form of reversal. And it’s a reminder, with the mystical R&D project in San Francisco, that this franchise is very much about California (so, it’s no surprise when the action of the first three films switched to San Francisco for Genisys).

“I’m worried about the future of the human race”

Connor and the T-800 are locked in a vendetta, and under the piling up of temoral weight, it’s not hard to draw the parallel with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There are cages of captured humans in place of graves, and there’s the T-800’s ancestors finest hours since the first film. The first early experiments of the T-600s, satisfyingly bulky and coarse compared to the later ones, finely designed up from the rubber skin covered machines we’d seen all too briefly before. It’s a quirky side-story of a film compared to its predecessors, one that doesn’t enhance the story. At least Terminator 3 had a sense of humour. Again we’re told at the close that “There is a storm on the horizon,” seemingly setting up a trilogy, but those helicopters aren’t as effective as Sarah’s driving into the storm clouds so many years before. Still, we are now in that science fiction future, 34 years on. We’ve reached technological singularity.  There was no going back… Well, until the reboot that had the mercy to render this all irrelevant.

2026

As per the original two film’s timeline, this is the year Skynet finally got its act together and built the very effective T-800 series machines on mass. That’s the T-700 series endoskeleton with a real flesh covering. The Cyberdyne T-101 model had a Teutonic visage and strong Austrian accent. In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, this is also where the young John Connor arrives, resetting all his previous activity since Judgment Day and signalling the real start of the battle with the machines. Given the fact that 2029 is unlikely to lose its importance, he needs to hit the ground running.

2029

A busy year, as the first and second films show that the war with the machines is almost over, humanity eventually coming out on top thanks to the vision of their scarred and legendary saviour leader John Connor. But the machines have a secret weapon. Not only have they hastily developed the T-1000 series and variants, but quite possibly developed the T-5000 (realistic enough to deeply infiltrate Connor’s Tech Com and respond to the name Alex) and the nano-created T-3000 series as well. Their R&D department somehow found time to break the laws of physics and created a time machine in California, although knowing them Genisys probably proves that they fast-tracked this from their own paradox. During these last surges Connor gets his hands on the time device himself and sends Kyle Reese back to 1984, ensuring his existence and shortly afterwards a modded T-800 to 1995.

However, Terminator Genisys renders the latter moot when, during Reese’s transportation Connor the Tech Com resistance are slain and Connor converted into a T-3000 by Skynet’s last weapon – a T-5000 that Skynet had sneakily transferred its consciousness into. At last Skynet has a face, and with it the classic Terminator 2 is rendered obsolete. With a throwaway line about travelling a great distance to scupper Connor, it’s possible that this T-5000 Alex comes from one of the parallel timelines or quite possibly the future. That would be far more Terminator, and quite possibly add some more weight to the mystery of who sent the T-800 back to 1973 on the side of the resistance and wanted that kept secret, as well as when Skynet dispatched a T-1000 back to that same year but will no doubt fall to an ever more likely middle part of this trilogy.

2032

Purely a consequence of the Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation timeline, where Judgement Day was postponed and the war elongated with it. Skynet have had longer to mull new designs and improved on the T-1000 series by developing the T-X model, one of which is sent back to the date of Judgment Day in 2004. This Anti-Terminator-Terminator could be a special ops version designed specifically to take down reprogrammed Ts. The idea of having self-detonating chips was overlooked by the Ai in this timeline. Mainly, this is the year that the T-800 series finally wins, taking out John Connor at the ripe old age of 47, surely not laughably because he was lulled by fond memories of the machines from earlier in his life. Taking charge, it’s Kate Brewster who captures and reprograms this assassin and sends it back to ensure she and John survive Judgment Day in 2004. Clearly the most redundant of alternative time lines.

The End. Or is it?

Previously: The timeline was disrupted from the beginning – head back to the start for slashers, shape-shifters and nuclear fear…

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