The Terminator trilogy's time travels, explained in a simple -- and fun! -- diagram.

Critics have complained about the logic of time in T3: Groused Roger Ebert, ”The time-based paradoxes are used arbitrarily and sometimes confusingly.” To test the Terminator logic, we sat down with graph paper to work things out. Just call us dorks!


In the future, the land is stalked by Killer Robots. One such robot (a) — which bears a striking resemblance to an Austrian bodybuilder — is sent back in time, to 1984. He is naked, because while the time-travel device can transport both robots and flesh, fabric is beyond its capabilities. The future John Connor sends back his best friend, Kyle Reese (b), to rescue his mom, Sarah Connor (1). Reese winds up impregnating Sarah Connor, which means that John Connor sent his best friend back in time to have sex with his mom — which is sort of creepy. In any case, in this movie the time-travel model is a closed loop.


In 1991, Sarah Connor, now buff (2), and John Connor, now a whiny preteen (3), are visited by a pair of Terminators from the Killer Robot Future. One looks strikingly like an Austrian bodybuilder (c) and is good; the other looks like a character actor (d) and is evil. The good Terminator assists in destroying the remnants of the Terminator that had been sent back to 1984 (a), thereby helping ensure a Killer-Robot-Free Future. In this movie the time-travel model is a branching tree, in which some paths lead to a Killer Robot Future and some don’t. As for where all the robots — or John Connor’s father (b) — came from if there’s no Killer Robot Future, um…shut up. Just shut up.


In 2003, Sarah Connor is dead, presumably because Linda Hamilton had something better to do. In any case, her twentysomething son, John Connor (4), and a shriek-prone veterinarian, Kate Brewster (5), are visited by two Terminators from the Killer Robot Future, one of which looks like a supermodel (f) and the other strikingly like an aging Austrian bodybuilder (e). You might think that the Killer Robot Future was ruled out as a possibility by T2, but you’d be wrong. It seems that a Killer Robot Future is inevitable. It can be stalled, but it can’t be avoided. In this movie, then, the time-travel model is predestination, which holds that while there may be variables of time, date, and place, there will always be Killer Robots. Which, for an action franchise, is probably for the best. Sure, there could be a movie in which John Connor and his pals sit around and talk about how there almost were Killer Robots, and debate where John’s father came from, and then maybe take some bong hits and play Sega or something. But that would be, like, a Richard Linklater movie.



1984 The Terminator


2003 T3: Rise of the Machines KILLER ROBOT FUTURE

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Movie
  • 137 minutes
  • James Cameron