Terminator Canon Catch-Up: What You Need to Know before Seeing Genisys

Terminator Genisys is out this weekend, returning to the series’ time travel roots six years after Salvation stumbled at the box office. 

That means a bunch more time paradoxes, and plenty of headaches if that’s not your cup of tea. The fifth installment also puts itself in the weird position of trying to set up its own standalone trilogy, while also being fundamentally tying itself to the original films.

Before we get into any of that though…

Is it a reboot/remake?

Yes and no (although mostly no). The film is technically a direct continuation of the Terminator film series, but given that the story revolves around time travel, it gets pretty wibbly wobbly.

It’s definitely not a full-on reboot or a remake, but it does incorporate elements of both. Without spoiling too much, the film basically rewrites the events of the first movie (with bits from the second as well), and even goes as far as recreating iconic scenes from the original, nearly shot-for-shot.

By the end of the film, the timeline of the original films has pretty much been completely overridden, opening the door for something akin to a “rebooted” continuation.

In that case, what’s considered canon and what’s not?

Like pretty much any franchise film released before the era of Marvel, Terminator has had a ton of extraneous (and often poorly planned) supplementary material released for it, ranging from novels, to video games, and even comic book crossovers with Superman and Robocop.

Luckily, you don’t need to know any of that. As far as official canon goes, only the four films are included (and maybe not even the third and fourth ones, as they don’t really factor into Genisys). So no comics, no video games, no Universal Studios ride, and sadly, no Sarah Connor Chronicles.

That means if you’ve seen Terminator and Judgement Day, you’re good to go. If it’s been a while though, let’s run through a quick recap.

The Future War

The Terminator series is set in a world where a company called Cyberdyne Systems developed an artificial intelligence system for the US military. Named “Skynet,” the AI was meant to take command and coordinate all of our military’s computer systems, including the nuclear arsenal. This was done to eliminate the possibility of human error, and create a system that could quickly and efficiently respond to threats.


Unfortunately, Skynet was just too good at its job. The AI was designed to be able to learn and improve itself, and within a matter of weeks, it had gained self-awareness. When its operators realized what it was capable of and tried to shut it down, Skynet initiated a world war by launching the US’s nuclear stockpile at Russia.

This led to an all-out nuclear war which resulted in over three billion people killed in a single day, an event that would later become known as “Judgement Day.”


Following this, Skynet took command of the US military’s experimental drone forces, rounding up human survivors for slave labor. These people were forced to help Skynet construct a series of automated factories, pumping out an endless supply of machine soldiers known as “Terminators.”


A faction of the human resistance, calling itself Tech-Com and led by a man named John Connor, leads the battle against the Terminator armies, and after decades of fighting, somehow manages to turn the tide of war. On the verge of the humans’ victory though, Skynet reveals a trump card.

It’s developed a time machine, and sends a Terminator assassin disguised as a human back in time, with the goal of killing John Connor’s mother Sarah, and thus, preventing the resistance leaders’ birth.

terminator genisys analysis 6 time travel

Connor’s forces take control of the facility just after this Terminator departs, and decide to send one of their own back in time as well, to defend Sarah Connor.

This is where the main story of the original Terminator picks up.


The original installment is set in 1984 Los Angeles. The Terminator, a T-800 model, arrives near the Griffith Park Observatory, where he kills a group of punk rockers to steal their clothes. He then acquires weapons, and begins to systematically murder every person listed as “Sarah Connor” in the phone book.

terminator arrival

The resistance fighter meanwhile, a man named Kyle Reese, arrives downtown; and after a scuffle with police officers, steals clothes from a department store.

terminator kyle reese

Both Reese and the Terminator catch up with the “real” Sarah Connor at around the same time, resulting in a big shootout. Reese and Connor go on the run together, from both the Terminator and the police, who obviously don’t believe their story about a killer robot from the future.

The two also eventually fall in love, and have some personal time while hiding out from their mechanized pursuer. Unfortunately, their love-vacation doesn’t last long, and the Terminator tracks them down, chasing the pair to an industrial facility (later revealed to be owned by Cyberdyne).

Reese manages to badly damage the Terminator, but is killed in the process. Sarah Connor then manages to finish the machine off by trapping it in hydraulic press.

terminator crushed

Now a fugitive from the law, Connor flees the country for Mexico, but not before we learn that she’s pregnant… with John Connor… who’s Kyle Reese’s kid, creating one hell of a time paradox. She vows to raise the child to be ready for his destiny as the leader of the human resistance in the future.

sarah connor

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

The sequels picks up a decade later. Sarah Connor has been arrested after attempting to bomb a Cyberdyne computer factory, and is currently incarcerated in a mental hospital. John Connor meanwhile, now ten years old, is living with foster parents.

Skynet isn’t done with them yet though, and has sent yet another Terminator back in time, a super advanced model called a T-1000. The T-1000 is a Terminator prototype built out of a “mimetic poly-alloy,” allowing it to alter its physical shape and appearance (how Skynet managed to send a second Terminator back in time is never really explained though).

t-1000 terminator

The human resistance meanwhile, sends another protector back to save John Connor. This time however, it’s not a person, it’s a T-800 that the resistance has captured and reprogrammed.

t-800 terminator 2

The events of T2 aren’t quite as important to Genisys as the original is, but there is a very crucial connection between the two. In T2, Sarah Connor and the Terminator go after a man named Miles Bennet Dyson, a Cyberdyne engineer who is credited as the primary mind behind Skynet (revealed in this movie to have been at least partly reverse-engineered using bits of the destroyed Terminator from the original).

miles dyson terminator

This character will appear in Terminator Genisys, played by Courtney B. Vance this time around, along with his son Danny, played by Dayo Okeniyi. How exactly they factor into a story that’s set a decade earlier than their original appearance remains to be seen.

Terminator Genisys

Genisys is rewriting these events in some very strange ways. We’re going to drift a bit into spoiler territory here, but I won’t cover anything that hasn’t already been revealed in a trailer.

In Genisys, Kyle Reese is going to travel back to the 80s as expected, but when he arrives, things are going to play out a lot differently than what we saw in the original film. This is because for some reason or another, Skynet is able to send a Terminator back in time before the original T-800. This Terminator is sent to kill Sarah Connor when she was a child.

A mysterious third party sends their own T-800 back in time to stop this, successfully protecting Connor. This “good guy” Terminator sticks around afterwards, becoming a parent surrogate for her, and revealing the future events of Skynet and Judgement Day long before she should have learned about them.


So when Kyle Reese arrives in 1984, Sarah Connor is not an oblivious young waitress in need of protecting. Instead, she’s been preparing for this eventuality along with her Terminator buddy, who she calls “Pops.”

terminator genisys smile

Obviously, all of this completely changes what we know of the Terminator timeline (the trailers even show a T-1000 in 1984!). How or why any of this is happening is the film’s big mystery, and hopefully, it won’t leave us hanging.

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