When I was a kid, I viewed the film The Terminator as little more than a sci-fi horror flick. When I was in junior high, I saw the acclaimed Terminator 2: Judgment Day and loved it, but still saw it as something of a horror movie. As I grew older and matured (a little), I began to see something else in those films, something beyond scary robots and graphic death scenes. Then Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was released, and despite being a mediocre film that butchered the time-line of the story (which I’ll expand on later), it gave the story an opportunity to logically continue after the finality of T2, and it allowed me to see how incredible the story arch of this fictional universe actually is. Now that Terminator Salvation has hit theaters, I’m on a full-blown Terminator kick. I loved it. I know lots of people hated it (one of my best friends at work seemed angry with me when I told her how much I enjoyed it), but I’m telling you, that film has brought this flawed-yet-great story beyond being just a Schwarzenegger movie. (Oh, and for the record, while some people enjoy The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series, its very existence bothers me therefore I refuse to watch it and thus do not consider anything from it to be canon.)
Just to get this out of the way up front, this will NOT be one of those discussions that takes a secular story and equates it to the Gospel, as many people have done with the first Matrix movie. Don’t get me wrong, I like those discussions when they’re done well, but this is not my intention and it’s important to understand that because the character John Connor can very easily be seen as a Christ-like figure. So are we on the same page? Good.
Okay, here’s the game plan. First I’ll summarize the full story as it stands by the end of Terminator Salvation. Next I’ll rant a bit about the things that actually bug me to nearly no end, including (but not limited to) the complete disregard to the time-line that the films seem to take. Finally, I’ll get into what I think makes The Terminator, despite its flaws, one of the best stories to come out of late-20th century American culture.
The Story Thus Far
The story of Terminator, which could be logically re-named “The John Connor Story,” could be said to begin on August 29, 1997. In this fictional time-line, this was the day that a global defense network called “Skynet” became self-aware, and “in a millisecond” decided that the human race was a threat to its existence. Since it had absolute control over all the United States’ nuclear weapons, it launched every one against Russia, which started a chain-reaction of counter-attacks across the globe and annihilated 3 billion people. That day was called “Judgment Day” by the survivors, who would go on to live in hiding from Skynet’s race of machines. A resistance was formed and a war started that raged on for decades. It was led by a man named John Connor, who led his forces to victory by the year 2029 when they smashed the defense grid of Skynet. As a last-ditch effort to survive, Skynet sent two Terminators back through time to kill John Connor before Judgment Day. Connor learned of this and sent defenders for himself back to the exact times the other two were sent back. The first defender was one of Connor’s best soldiers, a man named Kyle Reese, who volunteered for the mission. The second defender was a re-programmed Terminator, which was actually identical to one of the two Terminators sent back in time by Skynet.
The first of the two Terminators, which was Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, or a “T-800” (aka “T-101”, which is a robotic skeleton covered in living human tissue to give it the appearance of being human for the purpose of infiltration) was sent to the night of May 12, 1984, to kill John Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor, before John was born. Kyle Reese was sent back to the same date. Kyle found Sarah and, after fighting off the T-800 a few times, took shelter in cheap motel. Kyle taught the young future-mother-of-a-war-hero how to make an explosive called plastique, which apparently made the room a little hot because they had a spontaneous pre-marital romp when they were done. Unbeknownst to either of them at the time, their actions that night actually conceived John Connor himself. Kyle would meet his end hours later in a factory as a result of the exploding plastique that he placed into the abdomen of the bare, charred, metal endoskeleton of the T-800. The still-operating top half of the T-800 was terminated itself moments later in a large metal press, which was switched on by a rather witty and potty-mouthed Sarah.
Sarah continued her life, soon to be a single mother and bearing a horrible burden of knowing the fate that awated every face she would meet from that point forward. Also, not long after the night she lost Kyle, workers from the company that owned the factory, called Cyberdyne, found the remains of the T-800 and salvaged the forearm and hand, and an oddly-shaped computer chip that had been in the Terminator’s head.
The second Terminator was sent back in time to the year 1995, to kill John as a 10-year-old (as I’ll discuss later, these dates and John’s age are debatable, but this is what’s most commonly accepted). This second Terminator was a prototype, comprised entirely of a “mimetic polyalloy,” which means it’s liquid metal that can take the shape of over living organisms and simple metal objects. John’s defender, a reprogrammed T-800, arrived at the same time. While fighting and avoiding the T-1000, John actually becomes attached to the T-800 and views him as something of a father-figure. Sarah, who at this point was hardened by her hard years, attempts to assasinate a man named Miles Dyson, who would be responsible for the designing of Skynet (information courtesy of the T-800 with files full of future history). Dyson worked for Cyberdyne and was studying the first T-800’s two remaining pieces (the chip and the forearm). After almost killing Dyson, Sarah is intercepted by John and the T-800. They explain themselves to Dyson, who agrees to help them destroy all his research. Dyson later dies in a self-triggered explosion in his office building, and the T-1000 and the T-800 both are destroyed hours later in a vat of molten metal in a nearby foundry. After both Terminators are destroyed, John throws the original T-800’s arm and chip into the same vat. He and Sarah leave the scene believing that they have stopped Judgment Day.
Shortly thereafter, Sarah contracted leukemia. She would die by the fall of 1997, living just long enough to see that Judgment Day didn’t happen.
However, they did not stop Judgment Day – they only delayed it.
In 2003, a convicted murderer named Marcus Wright was executed by lethal injection. He had sold his body to scientific research to be conducted by Cyberdyne. More on him later.
On July 24, 2004 (again, dates debateable), an even newer model of Terminator, called the T-X, which is designed to not only kill humans but destroy other Terminators, arrives from the year 2032 to eliminate top officers in Connor’s future army, including John’s future wife, Kate. John was something of a “bonus target” to this Terminator because John was “off the grid” at this point in his life, never staying in one place for long, not carrying a cell phone or a job, etc. A third T-800 (and the second to be reprogrammed) is sent back in time to defend John and Kate. This third T-800 was not sent by John, but by Kate, because John had been killed by the same T-800 before Kate reprogrammed it.
The T-800 explains to the young John and Kate that Judgment Day is inevitable, and that it had been delayed to July 24, 2004, at 6:18 p.m. This meant they had less than three hours until it began.
Years earlier, the USAF had purchased Cyberdyne. In their purchase, they found remaining records of the research of the late Miles Dyson and began developing a defense system, which they would call Skynet, which would be capable of controlling all the country’s weapons, including nuclear warheads. The Air Force Lieutenant General in charge of the project, Robert Brewster, happened to be Kate’s father.
By the time John and Kate learned that Judgment Day would begin in less than three hours, they were already too late. A seemingly-unstoppable computer virus had been spreading around the world for days, shutting down everything from PC’s to military defense grids. The only remedy that seemed plausible to the US Government was to activate Skynet and send it into all the world’s systems to eliminate the virus. Lieutenant General Brewster activated Skynet moments before John, Kate, and the T-800 would arrive in an attempt to stop him. The activation made Skynet immediately self-aware, and it first used its already-built robotic soldiers, called “T-1’s,” to eliminate all personel at the base in which it was activated. A mortally wounded Robert Brewster would give John and Kate directions and access codes to what he said was the core for Skynet, but turned out to be a Cold War-era fallout shelter for U.S. VIP’s. The two of them were secured and safe in the shelter when the nuclear missles launched at 6:18 p.m. due to both its location and the T-800 destroying itself and the T-X in an explosion that collapsed the entrance under a mountain. John’s only connection to the outside world is an old radio, on which someone is crying out for help and John replied to them.
By the year 2018, the human race is hanging on by a thread and the resistance is hard at work in its full-on war against Skynet and its machines. John Connor is not yet in charge of the forces, but is already revered as something of a prophet because of his intricate knowledge of Skynet’s tactics and research (such as the development of the T-800). John’s primary mission to himself is to locate the teenage boy that he knows will be his father, Kyle Reese, and protect him. Meanwhile, the young Kyle Reese meets a revived Marcus Wright, whose last memory was dying in the year 2002. Kyle is captured by the machines, but Marcus escapes and is brought before John, only to find out that Marcus was unkowingly a cyborg, with only his brain and heart remaining in tact. After a few scuffles, John comes to trust Marcus and they work together to get John access to Skynet’s central base in what was San Francisco to rescue Kyle. John finds Kyle, frees him with many other human prisoners, and manages to destroy the San Franciso facility, but not after facing an early-model T-800 that manages to scar his face and stab him through the heart. Marcus, seeing that he has no future and understanding John’s importance, sacrifices himself and donates his heart to John, who was now leader of the resistance due to the machines cleverly locating the original leadership’s submarine base.
At this point in the story, I can only fill in that the war rages on for another 11 years, at which time John leads his armies to victory by smashing the defense grid of Skynet. Skynet issues a last-ditch effort to win by sending two Terminators back in time, and John sends Kyle and the reprogrammed T-800 after them. Somehow (if the third movie’s story will be regarded as canon) the war will continue for 3 more years, at which time John will die at the hands of a T-800 that is later reprogrammed by his wife and sent back in time after the T-X.
Well, that was brief, wasn’t it? Now that you’re caught up on the story, I’ll give a decent-sized rant about the carlessness of Hollywood writers in regards to plausible time-lines, among other things.