Terminator films - the time line paradoxes explained

05 March 2023
I'll be back. 

So said Arnie in the original Terminator. 

And it's funny because the robots kept coming back from the future. 

But did that actually make logical sense?

The Terminator movie franchise revolves around a time travel paradox known as the "time loop" or "bootstrap paradox". This paradox arises from the fact that events in the past are changed by the actions of the characters who travel back in time, which in turn affect the present and future.

In the first Terminator movie, the future machines send back a T-800 Terminator to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor, the future leader of the resistance. The human resistance sends back Kyle Reese to protect Sarah and prevent the Terminator from completing its mission. 

It is revealed that John Connor sends Kyle back in time, making him his own father in a predestination paradox. The Terminator is destroyed, but a computer chip and arm are left behind, which will lead to the creation of Skynet, the artificial intelligence system that launches a nuclear war against humanity.

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a more advanced Terminator, the T-1000, is sent back to 1995 to kill a young John Connor, who has become a key target for the machines. The adult John sends back a reprogrammed T-800 to protect his younger self. 

It is revealed that the T-800's technology was reverse-engineered from the remains of the first Terminator, which were discovered and studied by Cyberdyne Systems, the company that will eventually create Skynet. The reprogrammed  T-800 ultimately ldestroys itself and the remains of the first Terminator, but the arm and chip from the first movie were already used to create Skynet, resulting in a time loop paradox.

In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it is revealed that Skynet was not prevented from being created, despite the events of Terminator 2, and launches a new and improved version of the T-X Terminator to eliminate key members of the human resistance. The T-800 is sent back once again, this time to protect John and his future wife Kate, but they fail to stop the activation of Skynet.

In Terminator Salvation, the events take place in the future, after Judgment Day has already occurred. John Connor, now a resistance leader, discovers that Skynet is developing a new weapon that could wipe out humanity. Marcus Wright, a former death row inmate turned cyborg, is sent back in time by Skynet to infiltrate the resistance. John and Marcus eventually team up to stop Skynet and prevent the extinction of humanity.

sarah connor terminator genysis

In Terminator Genisys, a new timeline is created when Skynet sends a T-800 back in time to kill Sarah Connor as a child, but a reprogrammed T-800 is sent back to protect her. When they arrive in 1984, they discover that a T-1000 is already there, sent back by an unknown entity to kill Sarah. They team up with an older T-800, who has been living in the past since the events of Terminator 2, to stop the new threat. It is later revealed that the unknown entity is an artificial intelligence called "Genisys," which is actually a rebranded version of Skynet.

Apparently, there was another film too...

Here's a list of the paradoxes:

FilmType of ParadoxParadox Context
The TerminatorPredestination ParadoxKyle Reese is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, ends up fathering John Connor, whom he was sent to protect, creating a causal loop.
The TerminatorBootstrap ParadoxThe remains of the first Terminator lead to the creation of Skynet, suggesting Skynet's existence is a result of its own future actions.
Terminator 2: Judgment DayTime Loop ParadoxThe technology from the Terminator is reverse-engineered to create Skynet, suggesting efforts to prevent Skynet inadvertently cause its creation.
Terminator 3: Rise of the MachinesInevitability of SkynetDespite efforts to destroy Cyberdyne Systems and prevent Skynet, its creation is merely delayed, not prevented, suggesting some events are inevitable.
Terminator GenisysAlternate TimelinesThe creation of alternate timelines with different events and character interactions challenges the idea of a single, unchangeable timeline.

The time loop paradox in the Terminator movies is a complex concept that is difficult to fully comprehend. Essentially, the events of the past are influenced by the characters who travel back in time, but those same events are also responsible for the creation of the future that they come from. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that seems to have no clear beginning or end, and it raises interesting questions about the nature of fate and free will.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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