As if the time travel paradoxes weren't complicated enough, the narrow thread of continuity holding this franchise together frays into two completely different--but equally disappointing--directions after the second movie.
According to the third movie, once Terminator 2 ends, Sarah Connor dies, John Connor becomes a migrant worker, and mankind gets blown to smithereens in 2004. Terminator Salvation will follow from this course of events, with Batman, new Chekov and the blind girl from The Village fighting off the machines of Skynet in a bleak, post apocalyptic landscape without sweet laser guns.
Not the John Connor these robots want, and not the John Connor they deserve, but the John Connor they need.
Alright, we can live with that. If we need to see a continuation of this series, might as well be with Christian Bale taking charge.
But then there's a television series out there.
According to The Sarah Connor Chronicles, our heroes stay on the run after Terminator 2. Sarah Connor is sick, but she ain't dead yet (and is surprisingly badass for someone who's supposed to be on her way out). More Terminators have been sent back to kill John and inexplicably fail at something a barely competent hitman should have no problem with. Summer Glau, another reprogrammed Terminator, has been sent back to protect him.
According to this timeline, Judgment Day doesn't happen in 2004, although odds are it will strike in 2011.
So... the two futures are obviously incompatible (the different Judgment Day dates completely change all subsequent developments, from the war to the resistance to the invention of time travel itself). So is this all in an alternate reality, like the new Star Trek movie? Does it mean that one course of events is legitimate, and the other isn't?
Or does it mean that none of the outcomes really matter, since no matter what happens, there is invariably some other alternate timeline where the opposite has occurred? Is there some timeline where the machines are friendly? Where the Terminator is a sassy black kid? Where the human sent to protect mankind is Zach Braff?
Huge sci-fi franchises often revolve around a central philosophical conundrum. For instance, The Matrix ponders existential questions like "what is reality?" and "should the sequels exist?" For the Terminator franchise, it has always been the question of determinism: Can the future be changed, or is it set in stone? Luckily for viewers, it's one of the very few franchises that has the balls to have an advanced machine from the future objectively answer the film's central question. Unluckily, it's also the only one with the balls to have the exact same machine give the exact opposite answer later on.
At first glance, the fact that the Terminators are sent back in time to kill John Connor would suggest that clearly the machines think they can alter the course of history so that they won't have to deal with his crap once they take over the world. A major theme of the second film is that the apocalypse can be avoided, that there is indeed "no fate but what we make."
By the end of that movie, it seems clear that Judgment Day has been avoided, and we can all rest easy, knowing that at least one pressing question from the franchise has been cleared up. And then Terminator 3 rolls around...
Arnold shows up again to protect John Connor, who insists that he and his mom prevented the destruction of mankind in the last film. Arnold clarifies things for the little twerp by confirming that Judgment Day cannot be prevented, only postponed. In his words, it is "inevitable."
Which is kind of funny, since he said the exact opposite in the second movie. You might remember the scene. Linda Hamilton has just woken up from the collective subconscious nightmare of every Cold War kid on earth...
IF ONLY I HAD HIDDEN UNDER MY DESK.
...and is dead set on killing the guy responsible for creating Skynet, hoping that his death will prevent the nuclear war. Little John Connor flips out annoyingly as is his tendency, at which point Arnold tells him that killing Dyson might actually prevent Judgment Day.
Got that? The objective, all-knowing machine just gave two different answers to the question "can we stop the end of the world?"
So... if Judgment Day can't be prevented, then the war and mankind's ultimate victory of the machines can't be prevented either, right? If fate can only be nudged a couple of years in one direction or another, then nothing any character does at any point in any of the movies makes any motherfucking difference at all.
Enjoy Terminator Salvation, kids!
Before you go dismissing the franchise, just remember that it could come true, as evidenced by the movies in 7 Completely Unrealistic Movie Plots (That Came True). Or check out some more mind-boggling bad guy schemes, in The 6 Most Pointlessly Elaborate Movie Murder Plots.
And go to our Top Picks if you want to live.