The Terminator franchise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bullets, and explosions, seasoned with themes of destiny, paranoia, and technophobia. Subtract or substitute too many of these ingredients and you wind up with something not-Terminator. Terminator Salvation is the first episode to dare to omit the foundational time travel element. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the previous films, and the closest thing to time travel is the very conventional storytelling conceit of a flashback. It’s curious that in a media landscape where fractured, non-chronological narratives are the norm (particularly on television, most notably in Lost and Breaking Bad) that the Terminator series would retreat to a safer, more linear narrative structure.
While one might imagine that would result in a more straightforward continuation of the saga, I found it raised more questions than it answered. I’m either over- or underthinking things, or more likely expecting too much of a post-exhausted escapist action franchise, but the Terminator chronology seems more entangled with paradoxes than ever. Let’s start with a condensed overview of the four feature films to date, compiled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Terminator Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omitting The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series and any other spinoff comics, games, novels, or whatever other assorted ephemera that has since only muddled things further:
- 1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Connor born
The Terminator (1984)
- The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
- Judgement Day: August 29, 1997 (specified in T2)
- The future: 2029
- 1985: John Connor born
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
- The present: 1995 (John Connor is 10)
- Judgement Day: August 29, 1997
- The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)
- 1997: Sarah Connor dies of leukemia (T3)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
- The present: 2004
- Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
- The future: 2032
Terminator Salvation (2009)
- Prelude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
- Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (not specified; I’m assuming it’s the same as predicted in T3)
- The present: 2018 (the earliest vision of the future seen yet)
So across four films, our heroes succeed in delaying the dread Judgement Day only once, and never outright prevent it. Perhaps the supremacy of artificial intelligence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the coming Technological Singularity.
Four movies, four Terminators: T-600 (Terminator Salvation), T-800 (The Terminator), T-1000 (Terminator 2), T-X (Terminator 3)
Perhaps easiest to straighten out is the evolution of the villainous SkyNet’s footsoldier: the titular Terminator. At the time of Terminator Salvation, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basically a tank on legs that could be mistaken for a human only at a great distance. Terminator Salvation also shows an intermediate stage in SkyNet’s plan to create “infiltration units”, cyborgs that can ingratiate themselves into human enclaves. The prototype turns out to be not very reliable — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine successor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese successfully destroyed one of these in The Terminator, but fragments survived destruction and were (paradoxically) used to create SkyNet. So, not only is Judgement Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the version of 2029 seen in Terminator 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Terminator. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet developed the more high-tech liquid metal Terminator model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judgement Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet developed the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model utilizing both an endoskeleton and a liquid metal skin) seen in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evidences an enhanced sense of aesthetics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.
The adult John Connor we see in Terminator 4 has not yet become the leader of the resistance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Terminator. So, in Terminator Salvation, what does he think when he’s presented with a plan to permanently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fighting SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best interests to actively thwart the plan.
Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Connor and Kyle Reese must be assassinated? Neither has yet become a leader. Neither has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judgement Day.
The easy way out of these questions already exists in the Terminator canon: according to the rules of time travel as established in the Terminator universe, the timeline is not fixed, and may be altered. This conceit only raises more questions: if the plan succeeds, he will never become the leader of the resistance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save humanity. If he succeeds, will he be erased from history? If so, why do we not seem him grapple with this interesting existential question onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revisiting the long-running character of John Connor as an adult? It would seem the filmmakers are more interested in special effects spectacle than character or deeper themes.
Three movies, four John Connors: Edward Furlong (Terminator 2), Nick Stahl (Terminator 3), Christian Bale (Terminator Salvation), Michael Edwards (Terminator 2)
All of which brings me to my biggest philosophical problem with the core of the entire Terminator concept: what makes John Connor so important? Terminator Salvation is the first installment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influential acts of leadership we see are mere motivational radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated humanity to keep fighting, a far cry from the messianic military commander that will supposedly lead humanity to its salvation. His supposed destiny is described by the cynical General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) as a religious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resistance that he’s anything special, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loyalty (except for a colleague’s act of spectacular treachery in releasing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t anybody just call him “John” or “Connor” or “hey you”? He’s apparently so important that everyone always refers to him by his full name, perhaps so the audience is perpetually reminded of his portentous initials, which rather obviously reflect the character’s creator James Cameron, as well as another mythological savior of humanity from two millennia past.
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