The Many Ways the World Ends

Ranking all the Terminator Continuities

The Definitive List

There was a time with the name TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other. got people excited. James Cameron wrote (with co-writer Gale Ann Hurd) and directed one of the great sci-fi action films of all time, and then came back with a sequel so much bigger, better, and more bombastic that it absolutely sealed his works in the pop-culture pantheon. To this day, when conversations turn to “what is the best sequel?” (you all have those conversations, right?) The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are always referenced (and, it’s not without note that Cameron directed one of the other best sequels of all time, Aliens).

Cameron, for his part, was done with the franchise after two films. He told the story he wanted to tell and felt, at the time, that it wasn’t necessary to keep making more stories set in that universe. Hollywood, though, really wanted to keep the money train going (because Terminator 2 made half a billion dollars at a time when movies never made close to that), and so they found other writers and directors to try and revive the series. That’s how we have six movies, shows, and more media that we can possibly cover on a single website, with most fans lamenting that the series has ever really been the same after those first time.

So let’s look at that, all the continuities that have come up from this franchise about time-traveling robots, to see which versions of the series are worth watching:

Genisys Timeline

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My dislike of Terminator: Genisys doesn’t stem from the fact that it’s an unnecessary sequel. If we’re going by that metric, every sequel after Terminator 2 was unnecessary, and for that matter most sequels to most films are unnecessary in a general sense. But we enjoy seeing where characters go and how stories evolve. Just because you don’t need a sequel doesn’t mean you don’t like one, and there were ways that Genisys, which is as much a sequel as a reboot to the original films, could have worked. As I noted in my original review for this film, there were points where I though the film actually brought in some interesting ideas and really could have been a winning film.

Most of those points come in the first act, mind you. Kyle Reese (played in this film by Jai Courtney, who is both too physically imposing to play Kyle, and also wooden as hell in the role) comes back to the 1980s to find, and save, Sarah Connor, just like in the original film. Except, instead of getting chased by cops and then having to find her on the sly before effectively kidnapping her so he can try to convince her that robots are real and they want to kill her, he’s chased by a T-1000 dressed as a cop, and is then saved by Sarah Connor who, herself, already knows robots are real and want to kill her because she was raised by a Terminator programmed to be her defender.

It’s a lot, and a massive twist, and yes, in the film this whole sequence becomes dumb as hell. But, for a few brief moments it really changed up the formula of the film and made things interesting. For a fleeting few minutes this whole change of the setup, the reinvention of familiar scenes, the idea that we could go off-script and make a different kind of Terminator movie, gave me hope.

And then the film dashed it all by having Kyle and Sarah jump to the future so they could run away from Terminators and then try to prevent the end of the world. You know, like in every other Terminator movie. Oh, but this time John comes in from the future and is actually now a Terminator, too. The film goes wildly off the rails after its first act and gets progressively dumber with each new twist, until we get to a point where nothing matters and no one in the audience cares.

Terminator: Genisys was supposed to be the start of a three-film trilogy (this is an idea that comes up a lot, as we’ll cover) but it performed so poorly at the Box office (making $440 Mil on a $158 Mil budget) that it sake this series and let audiences with nothing to care about… until the next reboot sequel.

Salvation Timeline

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The first time Hollywood attempted to resurrect the Terminator franchise was also its most successful attempt. I qualify that by saying “success” here is defined by how much the sequels made at the Box Office ($433.4 Mil for Terminator 3, but then a far more disappointing $371.4 Mil for Salvation, with the budgets escalating in between) than the quality of the films. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a trash movie that barely had some good ideas, while Salvation is a film with plenty of good ideas that doesn’t understand how to execute them properly on film. Both feel like pale imitations of Cameron’s masterpieces, and we would have been better off if the studio, Warner Bros., could have left well enough alone.

The problem begins with the concept. Terminator 2 ended with the company behind the Terminator project, Cyberdyne, getting destroyed, thus stopping both Terminators and their leading A.I. control program, Skynet, from ever getting designed. To get around that, this film has to then say, “Skynet was inevitable, you only delayed its creation.” If you love time travel stories and like to think about how a story like The Terminator (which was a closed-loop timeline) could work (which I’ve done in the past on this site) then that does make sense. If you destroy the closed loop the original inciting incident has to happen. But, in the world of these movies, that means that everything we witnessed in the first film, the whole reason for the story, didn’t really matter and nothing they did in the sequel (aside from keeping John alive) was of consequence. It ruins the first two films even if its concept makes a certain bit of logical sense.

On the subject of logical sense, I did appreciate that the film gives its new villain, the T-X, new targets to hunt. Just killing John Conner, the future leader of the Resistance, was fine for the first films, but there’s a certain cold logic to then trying to take out every other possible general in the resistance as well. Sure, that’s just a repeat story beat from the previous movies as well (the Terminators killing people because of their future role) but it expands the idea and does more with it… at least for the first act.

But then once the T-X gets sights on John (played by Nick Stahl in this film), she (because the robot is played by Kristanna Loken) single-mindedly goes after John for the rest of the film. John is joined by Kate Brewster (Claire Daines in this film), a girl he used to know back in the day who, apparently, becomes his wife in the future. And this is where things get really dumb. See, because the loop was reopened John doesn’t need to be the leader of the resistance (go see my article about all that which I linked above), but even if he was going to be, the actions we see here only set up another closed loop. John survives so he can meet Kate so Kate can be in the future so she can send a robot back so the robot can save John so he can survive so he can meet Kate, and on and on. We didn’t need this. Hell, arguably we didn’t even need John, but the film does what it does because, beyond its first act it’s simply out of ideas.

In comparison, I like what Terminator Salvation wanted to do – tell a Terminator film without time travel, set entirely in the future of the war – but the execution was lacking. We follow a new character, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who is confused about who he is and how he got into the future. Marcus meets Kyle Reese when that guy was just a boy (played by Anton Yelchin) and ends up saving the kid… for a time, anyway. Then Marcus meets up with John Connor (Christian Bale in this movie) and Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard) as he tries to get into the Resistance (having seen what the machines are doing to people in the war). Except Marcus, as it turns out, is some new kind of Terminator, a robot that thinks he’s a human. There is much yelling and threats to kill Marcus, but in the end Marcus and John have to fight together to save Kyle, and then Marcus gives up his life to save John. It’s fine. That’s the best I can say: the movie is fine.

I don’t want to say this continuity ends on a whimper… only because it didn’t start very well with Terminator 3. But Salvation, which was supposed to be the start of the three-film trilogy (the second time this happens, but just wait for it…) but the lackluster performance at the Box Office ensured the end of production company Halcyon Company, and the end of this continuity as a whole. Which then led to Annapurna picking up the franchise rights and making Genisys, so that wasn’t really a win either. These four films, from the original through Salvation aren’t necessarily a bad series as a whole, but that’s mostly because the first two films are so watchable and you kind of want to see where the original story goes. Had these two sequels been better, maybe we’d have a long-running franchise that people still glorified. Instead we got Terminator 3 and Salvation, which drove people to say, “maybe we don’t really need more Terminator,” for the first time…

Dark Fate Timeline

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After Genisys underperformed at the Box Office, the franchise was put on hold again. Eventually, Tim Miller was brought on to direct a new film (ignoring the events of Genisys) and, with his helming the project, he brought in other minds to come up with ideas. This included bringing in James Cameron to throw in his insight, the first time the original creator was involved with any new works after Terminator 2. This should have been it, the time to get the sequels right and deliver a new kind of Terminator film with new energy and style.

Instead, despite major changes to the story of the franchise, this was just another retread of the basics of the series. The opening of the film takes place some months after Terminator 2, when Saran and young John are out in Mexico, hiding away just in case the machines eventually rise up. But then a Terminator shows up and blows John away. In an instant the franchise has eliminated it’s main character, and its whole point for existing, in a single gunshot. Sarah is left devastated while the Terminator walks off, its mission complete.

Jump forward 25 years and we find our new protagonist, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), working at a factory. An immigrant, she’s worried about supporting her family (father, mother, brother) while not getting deported. But then a Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) shows up to try and kill Dani, and a protector, the human-robot hybrid Grace (Mackenxie Davis) stops the attack. She grabs Dani, runs off with her, and we’re in the middle of the standard “run from the Terminators” chase, just like we’ve seen so many times before. Oh, but Sarah Connor shows up to save the girls, and she’s now part of their team, still fighting the good fight.

Nothing about this film really feels all that fresh or new. Grace is basically Kyle Reese mixed with a Terminator, which is interesting on the surface but doesn’t really add much new to the structure of the story. The Rev-9 is just another Terminator, a mix of liquid metal (technically nanites here, just like in Genisys) and a hard endoskeleton, so he’s essentially the T-X. And both Linda Hamilton’s Sarah and Arnie’s T-800 are in this film. And the film even plays it up that Dani is going to be the mother of the future leader of the Resistance (a la Sarah) but then she’s revealed to actually be the leader herself (making her the next John). It’s all so… expected, really.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Terminator: Dark Fate on its own. If this had been the first Terminator film released in the franchise after 28 years it probably would have hit hard. But coming when it did, after three previous failed movies, each trying to launch the franchise into a new era, and each stumbling as it moved along, it left viewers tired. Everything in this film was just a variant of something we’d seen before, over and over as the franchise flailed around. Dark Fate met the same, heh, fate all because it couldn’t provide what people wanted: something new in a franchise that hadn’t produced another really good idea in the last three decades. It was overly ambitious to think people wanted yet another Terminator film just four years after the previous had been met with audience indifference. It was shockingly silly to think this film could have been the start of a new trilogy of movies (because of course it would have been). Its lackluster performance at the Box Office sealed that (dark) fate.

Chronicles Timeline

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Now here’s one that hurts. While Terminator 3 was a lackluster continuation of the original two films, there was a solid idea of how to take those first two films and make a proper sequel in style and tone and, surprisingly, it arrived on TV (and not in cinemas). Originally called The Sarah Connor Chronicles before the Terminator moniker was added during production, this TV series disregarded the events of the third film (at the time the only Terminator sequel that had been released) to give an alternate idea of how the future could still meet its dark fate.

The show rocked. It took the concepts from the movie, the war between man and machine that was inevitable no matter what actions Sarah and John took, and then expanded it all out. The opening episode introduces Sarah (Lena Headey) and John (Thomas Dekker) to their new robotic protector, Cameron (Summer Glau), and then immediately has them jump to the “future” of 2007 to avoid the robot chasing them, Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt). But being in the future changes things, sending them on a new timeline where Judgement day is inevitable in 2011, and now they have to try and stop the rise of the machines once more… except the machines are now sending robots back to ensure their own rise, fighting the war for the future in the present.

The show contends with a lot, most of it new for the series (and sometimes never explored again). With the introduction of Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), John’s uncle, we get to see sides of the Reese family we didn’t get to see before (or since). Derek also knows other members of the Resistance, which have been coming back in time to fight the Terminators throughout the timeline. This introduces the idea that each change in the past, due to time travel, causes a new timeline in the future, and they can conflict, overlap, make changes, and get messy. And as more and more time travel happens to the past, things get messy indeed.

What I liked about this show was all the ideas it had, wrapped up in a series that wasn’t concerned with just being yet another Terminator story. It focused on characters, on story, on seeing what the ramifications of all these actions would be. It worked hard to be more than just an action and chase story like the first two films. Maybe that doomed it because at that point people just wanted more Terminator (ensuring this show was canceled after just two seasons) but, over the years, it’s made this series the highwater mark for Terminator continuations. If only more of the sequels were willing to be this daring with the continuity and timeline.

No Fate Timeline

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It should come as no surprise, though, that the best continuity for the franchise was the one that saw no sequels. The original two films are solid action adventure films with just enough sci-fi horror thrown in to make them feel like something new and interesting. To go from the low-budget original to the high-flying action of the sequel, evolving and expanding the concept while giving fans the twists and turns they wanted, it was brilliant. Cameron made two fantastic films here and we honestly didn’t need much more afterwards (as the rest of the sequels proved).

Now, saying these two films were the last time Cameron worked on the franchise until Dark Fate is a bit of a lie. He did also work on the Terminator 2-3D: Battle Across Time experience that used to show at Universal parks. That one is of questionable continuity, but some sources (like Wikipedia count it). It did feature all the original actors, and Cameron’s own assistance, so that’s something. Still, the original two films end on the perfect note, with Cyberdyne destroyed, and Terminators dead, and Sarah and John riding off into an uncertain future. It’s melancholic but that suits the films perfectly.

Or you could take the alternate ending Cameron originally wanted, where Sarah is an old woman now living in the future, assured that Judgment Day never happened and the robots never rose up. Had that been our ending we never would have gotten the sequels but, of course, the studios put the squash on that idea. How do you leech money when the films assure no new adventures could happen? Whichever ending you like, though, these films were best at two. Everything else that’s come since (even The Sarah Connor Chronicles) has been playing in the same pool, and we frankly got the best version the first time.