Get Your Timelines & Deadly Cyborgs Straight With This Terminator Franchise Recap

by Danielle Burgos
Mackenzie Davis as Grace in Terminator: Dark Fate
20th Century Fox

Well, he said he'd be back. Once again, the threat of A.I. looms, and humanity's only hope must be protected from killer cyborgs. Yet, proving that time is truly cyclical, Terminator: Dark Fate takes the series back to its original Terminator premise without retreading Sarah Connor's story. Before the latest in the franchise hits theaters Nov. 1, here's a full Terminator movies recap to get all those twisting timelines in some kind of order.

For over 20 years, the Terminator franchise has dangled a cataclysmic near-future where nigh-indestructible machines work to eradicate humanity before our very eyes, yet facial technology only recently reached a point where de-aged star Arnold Schwarzenegger rose out of the uncanny valley. Luckily, Dark Fate chooses to embrace aging as part of its plot. Both Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Arnie's T-800 appear at their current age, having lived to present-day in a timeline where Judgment Day was averted, but another danger is rising.

Alas, Terminator didn't predict the real danger of A.I. — it assumed that tangible machines would hit us with a bang, when the reality is that artificial intelligence computing has slow-boiled us with a whimper. A.I. has integrated itself into our daily lives in ways that appear convenient, like predictive text filling or chatbots answering common questions. They certainly help save time. But as we come to rely on something so heavily, A.I. blind spots can have some terrible real-world consequences.

The Terminator series is almost a comforting throwback to a time when we feared that our automated issues would be tangible, human-shaped exoskeletons coming to kill us. Even within the series, machines morphed into the real danger — emulating and emphasizing humans, including their biases (which is part of the reason so much sci-fi looks the same as it did back in the '70s and '80s). It only seems fitting that Dark Fate features an cyber-enhanced human assassin. Perhaps fate really is what we make it.

'The Terminator' (1984)

Those only familiar with latter-day Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) will be surprised to see her start off as a sweet, naïve waitress in the film that began the entire franchise. All that changes as she's hunted down by an unstoppable killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger as the title Terminator) sent back in time as ultra-aggro birth control to keep future Resistance leader John Connor from being born. Luckily future soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) was also sent back by John to protect Sarah. Kyle's the only one who understands how dangerous the Terminator is and what's at stake for humanity. Having grown up hearing about Sarah's strength and resilience, he's also in love with her, making this story a bittersweet romance as well.

'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991)

Ah yes, we come from a timeline where machines didn't take over and enslave humanity...

Allow me to clarify: in 1997, an artificial intelligence named Skynet was put in charge of strategic defense. It achieved sentience, and when its human creators attempted to pull the plug, launched and detonated all nuclear warheads in a cataclysmic event killing over three billion humans called... Judgment Day (cue the theme).

Sarah Connor's become a ripped militant bent on stopping the future. Unfortunately, she's locked in a mental institution after trying to blow up the lab that would create Skynet, and has to break out when she realizes her son's (Edward Furlong) in the same danger she once was. She has an unlikely ally in a reprogrammed T-800 (still Schwarzenegger) as they work to save herself and John from a new threat, liquid-metal murder machine the T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

The film is basically cyborg-Shane, following the misadventures of 10-year old John Conner teaching a reprogrammed T-800 humanity as he, Terminator, and mom track down Skynet's creator to swerve the future.

'Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines' (2003)

Simultaneously brooding and goofy, this film is a direct sequel to T2 and at the time, one of the 50 most expensive films ever made. John and Sarah weren't able to stop Judgment Day, only delay it, and Skynet has sent its latest Terminator model, T-X (Kristanna Loken), back to kill key figures in the human resistance.

Notably John Connor (now Nick Stahl) is not among them, as Skynet doesn't know his location. Turns out the weight of humanity's salvation is a heavy burden John doesn't want to carry. He's gone completely off-grid, working at an animal hospital alongside Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). Unfortunately Skynet and the T-X do know that Kate is John's future wife, and in tracking her, find them both. John is dragged back in to saving humanity with the help of good ol' T-800/101 (Schwarzenegger, yet again), reprogrammed by The Resistance after this particular model killed John in 2032. Terminator's instructions aren't to stop anything, but to save Kate and John by driving them out of harm's way to spare them for the future. John rejects this and decides to stop Skynet at the source.

In a convenient coincidence, Kate's dad happens to be a high-ranking Air Force general supervising Skynet's development. The kids stop by to keep Skynet from going online but arrive too late. Kate's dying dad gives her the location of Skynet's system core for her and John to shut it down. There's a Terminator face-off between old and new, with both ultimately destroyed to get Kate and John safely into the facility. Turns out Kate's dad and the Terminator had the same agenda. Skynet has no core (it's cloud-based); the location's a military fall-out bunker where she and John can sit out the destruction and inevitably rejoin the endless loop of past and future.

'Terminator Salvation' (2009)

Salvation takes us to the future we keep hearing so much about — all the way to the distant year 2018. John Connor (Christian Bale) leads an attack on a Skynet base where he discovers human prisoners and T-800 schematics; the building is destroyed and Connor barely survives. Also climbing out of the wreckage is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row inmate convinced to sign over his body to medical science.

The Resistance has a code they believe can shut Skynet down. They plan to attack Skynet's San Francisco headquarters (a dark joke at Silicon Valley's expense) in four days, the same timeframe in which they've learned Skynet plans to kill a number of Resistance members, including teen orphan Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). In Los Angeles Kyle is kidnapped during a skirmish, and Marcus is injured. Attempting to save him, Resistance members and Marcus discover he's a cyborg. Despite Marcus' ignorance of his own condition, the Resistance assumes he was sent to kill them. It takes saving John's life for Marcus to strike a bargain: he'll help them rescue Kyle and others if they let him live.

Going ahead of the others, Marcus learns from Skynet itself that he was part of an intricate plot to lure John and all other Resistance members into a position where Skynet can finally wipe them out — the code was part of its plan. In the ensuing T-800 attack, John is gravely injured, though they destroy the base and rescue the prisoners. At the hospital, Marcus sacrifices his own heart as a transplant for John, ensuring the war against the machines can continue.

'Terminator Genisys' (2015)

This one reboots the series back to the original Terminator — now with more time travel twists. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) once again volunteers to head back to 1984 to save Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) after Skynet sends a T-800 to kill her. He arrives in a timeline where a well-prepared Sarah was mentored by reprogrammed T-800 "Pops" (Schwarzenegger; insert your own "he'll be back" joke) since age nine. The two have already disabled Skynet's T-800 and destroy a T-1000 that's attacking Kyle with acid. Not only that, but they've built their own time machine and plan to visit 1997 to head off Judgment Day.

Based on childhood visions and seeing John (Jason Clarke) attacked just before he left, Kyle convinces them to head to 2017 instead. There they're promptly arrested, but learn Skynet's now called Genysis and the public's psyched about it going online. John appears, but turns out to be a super-advanced T-3000. In the cyborg showdown, T-3000 is destroyed; Pops gets a metallic alloy upgrade; and he, Kyle, and Sarah blow up Genysis' facility. They head back to kid Kyle's home and tell him about Genysis before driving off into the sunset... but of course Genysis has a backup core.

'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' (2008-2009)

Picking up four years after T2, the two-season Fox TV series follows Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) on the run with John (Thomas Dekker) from T-888 Terminator Cromartie. They're helped by Terminator Cameron (Summer Glau), reprogrammed and sent back from 2029 by John to protect them.

Sarah is told by Cameron in a straightforward timeline that she'd die of cancer by 2005, something weighing heavily on her throughout the series. She, Cameron, and John track down leads to what could possibly become Skynet, including an A.I. called The Turk and a three-dot symbol leading Sarah to Dakarta systems. The show ends on an uncertain note, with John heading to the future to track down Cameron and Sarah remaining in the present to continue fighting.

'Terminator: Dark Fate' (2019)

Original Terminator director and Dark Fate producer James Cameron has said that this film is a direct sequel to Terminator 2, with Rise, Salvation, Genysis, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles all part of "alternate timelines." Twenty-seven years after T2, Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is sent back to terminate Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman with importance to humanity's future. Cybernetically-enhanced assassin Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent back to protect her, joined by a wary Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton is BACK, BABY!), and an aging T-800 (yep, still Arnold) who abandoned its mission and lives in seclusion after its learning programming gave it a conscience.

The future's always in flux for the Terminator series, but with a fresh re-reboot featuring the real star of the series Sarah Connor, things are looking more hopeful than ever.