Time travel has got to be one of the tougher story elements to write, cause and effect dancing your characters close to the edge of paradox is tricky stuff, but filmmakers still line up to give it a shot with some doing excellent takes on this trope while others don’t even give it as much thought as Mister Peabody or his boy Sherman ever did. In 1895 H.G. Wells gave us the classic story The Time Machine, but he really was writing a story about society and where man was going, the mechanics of the device were not all that important to him, and his hero only really went forward in time thus eliminating the dangers of paradox. Since then hundreds of writers have dabbled in time travel, and almost as many filmmakers, but today we are going to jump into the Wayback Machine and look at The Terminator franchise to see how they handled it.
With a 6.4 million dollar budget James Cameron, a graduate of the Roger Corman School of low budget filmmaking, brought the world an iconic character and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star with The Terminator. The story is practically perfect; in the future a computer system named Skynet has almost wiped out mankind but one human freedom fighter, John Connor, has rallied the survivors and is now slowly winning the war, Skynet decides to send one of its robot killing machines back in time to kill the heroes mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), before he is even born. Because turnabout is fair play John Connor sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back to thwart this Terminator and in the process of doing this Sarah and Reese fall in love resulting in Reese leaving a bun in the oven that will one day become John Connor savior of mankind. Though the Terminator is defeated its remains will lead to the creation of Skynet. This is beautiful closed loop; Skynet’s plan created their destroyer, as well as ensured their own creation, which would eventually lead them to their downfall. This story does not lend itself well to a sequel.
Because The Terminator became this huge sleeper hit Cameron was given keys to the kingdom this time around with a budget of $102 million dollars. A slight increase over the last one. Question is how do you follow up a story that had a perfect circular structure? Answer, you cheat. In the first movie Reese explained to Sarah that once he was sent through time to stop the Terminator John Connor and company would destroy the time complex, “Nobody goes home. Nobody comes through. It’s just him and me.”
John Connor discovers that a second and more advanced Terminator has been sent back in time to kill his teen self, so he runs down the hall to a room full of the T-800 series (That’s the Arnie model for those not in the know), reprograms it to protect his younger self and sends it back in time. So right out of the gate the wheels are starting to get a bit wobbly. If John Connor had time to reprogram a Terminator, and had full use of the time portal, why in the hell not send a reprogrammed T-800 to go back and assist Reese? And why not send two Arnie models to take on the T-1000 liquid metal Terminator? Cameron dodges these issues by having these scenes cut from the script and we just get a brief expository moment from Arnold giving a brief explanation as to what happened in the future. Because this movie is a balls to the wall action filled funfest the audience either won’t think of these plot inconsistencies or if they do they won’t care. $520 million dollar box office lends one to believe he was right.
The time travel element that I question the most in this film has to do with the very ending; the chip from the first Terminator is tossed into molten metal, Arnie is then lowered in to be melted down as well, after which Sarah and young John drive off into the uncertain future. Now with Skynet erased from the timeline shouldn’t the events of the first movie no longer have taken place? Once both chips are destroyed the movie should have faded to black and then faded up to reveal Sarah Connor back working as a waitress at Big Boys with no memory of Skynet or Terminators. I will admit this wouldn’t be a very satisfy ending for most viewers, even if it makes more sense, so I understand Cameron’s reasoning here. The next film does try to patch it up a bit with a little metaphysical stucco.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The third installment no longer has James Cameron at the helm, Jonathan Mostow is in the directors chair, and here we find adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) tooling around America on his bike, all alone because Sarah has since passed away from cancer. Judgement Day August 29th 1997 never happened but John is still leery of Skynet sending more robots to kill him so he’s been living off the grid. As he should be as it seems Skynet only has one arrow in their quiver and they’ll keep using it again and again and again. Unable to locate John Connor Skynet has opted on the plan of killing his future wife and lieutenants, so a third Terminator is sent back in time this one a T-X which has the morphing ability of the T-1000 but also can form complex weapons to blow shit up. What happened to only living organics can travel through time? Both the T-1000 and T-X can camouflage their appearance to look human but how does that fool the intrinsic principle of the time machine? In Terminator 2 we are told the T-1000 can only make bladed weapons, nothing as complex as a bomb or gun, but apparently this new prototype does not have that limitation. This is a clear case of making up shit as you go along without a care for series continuity.
The interesting thing this movie does is make time itself a sort of thinking being, it will not be messed with, whatever we puny humans do certain events will bloody well happen. John is injured in a bike accident and ends up in the veterinary clinic where Kate Brewster works (Claire Danes) to steal some meds, turns out they briefly knew each other before the events of Terminator 2. If the T-1000’s battle with Arnie had never taken place those two kids would have hooked up, gotten married, and when the robot apocalypse happened would have eventually become the leaders of resistance, but because John had to go on the run with his mother after the battle at Cyberdyne that didn’t happen. So time fixes this by throwing them together years later. John, Kate and another Arnie Terminator do battle with the T-X (Kristanna Loken) while also trying to prevent Skynet from going online and initiating Judgement Day. Kate’s father, head of the military complex that has taken up the torch that Cyberdyne dropped, sends John and Kate to what they believe to be the facility that houses the system core for Skynet. Turns out it’s just a nuclear fallout shelter and Kate’s father sent them there so they could survive the coming Armageddon which he knew at this point could not be stopped.
This is one of the coolest elements of The Terminator franchise, the idea that Judgement Day was going to happen no matter what humans or Skynet did. That all the time traveling done by robots and humans were basically wounding the time stream which time, or forces unknown, does its best to heal. This kind of flies in the face of Sarah’s declaration “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Because it seems destiny is a bitch and some things are fated to be whether you like it or not.
This chapter is set in 2018 and is the first movie to take place post Judgement Day and deals with the ongoing battle between the human race and Skynet. It’s also a pretty stupid movie. We are introduced to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who was on death row before Judgement Day, and who volunteered for some rather radical medical experiments which are later revealed to be cyborg related. Marcus wakes up in the ruins of a Skynet facility to find himself in a bleak war torn world with no idea what has happened, and worse he discovers he is no longer human but a robot with a partially artificial cerebral cortex.
Marcus was created by Skynet to lure John to their main facility so they can finally end the Connor threat. I call bullshit! In this film John Connor (Christian Bale) is only a low level mission leader, not yet the resistance leader that is going to bring down Skynet, how do they know he is a future threat? We even find out that Skynet has been looking for Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) who is just a kid at this point. Is Skynet getting emails from their future selves, “Dear us, look out for these two, they’re going to be trouble in a few years, thanks.”
We see no evidence of time travel in this movie so the only way Skynet could know to watch out for Connor and Reese is if they had a cyber-scrying pool or maybe robotic oracles. Either way it makes no sense whatsoever. The film’s original ending had John die and Marcus grafting Connor’s skin onto his cyborg body thus allowing him to continue to lead the resistance, this was a ballsy ending and clever way to explain how a human became such a threat to the machines, but the script got leaked and so they changed it so Marcus just gives his heart to the wounded Connor. That is a weak sauce way to end your franchise. Thanks McG.
In director Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys the franchise takes the messing with time to a whole new level and by that I mean they haven’t a bloody clue at what they are doing. We have Kyle Reese arriving in 1984 to save Sarah Connor but instead of the events playing out as they did in the original movie he is saved by her instead, and this is made possible because she is being aided by another Arnie model. She and old robot Arnie team-up with Kyle to defeat a robot infected version of their son John Connor and this involves them jumping forward to the year 2017 to stop the launch of a new operating system called “Genisys” which will of course turn out to be Skynet. This popping through time makes little to no sense and is only to justify having an old version of Arnie and some big action set pieces that take place during our present, if you think even a little about how this works you will probably sprain your brain. The biggest paradoxical fuck you is that if Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese leap forward to 2017, without bothering to have sex and give birth to John Connor back in 1984, this ends the existence of John Connor which has been the goal of Skynet for four movies.
The first Terminator movie is brilliant and one of my all-time faves, the second is an amazing action flick and even though kind of mucks up the continuity a little it is still a lot of fun, the third gets major points for dealing with the immutable nature of time but loses some for the stupidity of the T-X, the fourth installment is mess due to a wrecked script and unlikable characters, and the fifth movie just pisses over everything and is best forgotten. Only the original nailed the time travel plot elements beautifully while all of the sequels muddied the waters to a certain degree, but nevertheless we still got some badass action out of them. So I guess that’s okay.