Terminator Time Travel Logic and the Alternate Ending that Almost Was

Well, it appears that once again there is a film with an ending that never was -- lending us movie lovers and geeks alike something to ponder and discuss amongst ourselves. This time it is the summer actioner and sequel to the now 25-year-old Terminator series, Terminator Salvation. Initial reports had the film with a dark, grim ending that involved the skin of the dead John Connor being laid over the terminator Marcus, who would then become the leader of the resistance. Fan reaction was pissy to say the least. But as it turned out, there was much more to it than that.

McG

himself recently told Entertainment Weekly: Connor dies, okay? He's dead. And Marcus offers his physical body, so Connor's exterior is put on top of his machine body. It looks like Connor, but it's really Marcus underneath. And all of the characters we care about (Kyle Reese, Connor's wife, Kate, etc.) are brought into the room to see him and they think it's Connor. And Connor gets up and then there's a small flicker of red in his eyes and he shoots Kate, he shoots Kyle, he shoots everybody in the room. Fade to black. End of movie. Skynet wins. F--- you!" This was immediately corroborated by Christian Bale, whose answers seemed to intimate that he felt that was the better ending. So what do we think?

First of all, it would have immediately died as a summer film. A summer release would have been completely out of the question. This might have played decently as a fall film or something early in the spring, but you do not go bleak in the summer. You don't lure folks in with explosions and then send them reaching for the Prozac on the way out -- unless you've worked out some genius form of cross marketing with Pfizer. Terminate depression with Prozac! It won't be back! No. People would have been more than angry. And without major rewrites to the script, it simply would not have worked. Audiences would have lost their minds in a bad way and it would have been seen as one of the greatest missteps in cinema history. Heavy, downer endings are acceptable when the writing leads you to an ending that is inevitable. Not when it is stupid and gratuitous. Like the Terminator suddenly killing everyone in the room.

T2Things get even murkier when we put our geek hats on. As a lifelong geek (and a kid who dressed up as the Terminator three years straight in elementary school) I can tell you that the ending would have enraged geeks far and wide for more than just "downer ending" reasons. The time travel logic just wouldn't work. The Terminator series has long been regarded as one of the quirkiest and gleefully plot-hole ridden time travel films of all time. But recent advances in time travel logic have cleared things up to a degree that there can actually be a logic extrapolated from the films to keep the series internally consistent. And this new 'trilogy' has a chance to explain this and correct 25 years of questions. I mean, we're talking about a series of films predicated upon the idea that a guy sent his own dad back in time to protect and knock up his mom so she could raise him to be a badass that helps humanity fight the robot revolution. There's more than just a small logic problem there.

But recent works of fiction like Lost (season 4) and Nacho Vigalondo's brilliant Time Crimes (which is on DVD and Netflix Instant Streaming and should be sought out at your earliest convenience) have people thinking about a new type of temporal manipulation. The idea is that the moment a time machine is invented, all the havoc it wreaks happens instantaneously. All the meddling that will happen already HAS happened. So time travellers don't actually change anything at all. They simply experience the changes they've already made. In other words, at the moment of creation, all the time travel that is ever going to happen, happens, as the time stream is flooded with time travellers.

Terminator 3In Terminator terms, it works like this: Skynet invents a time travel machine in order to assassinate human foes before they are born. The moment that time machine exists, all the time travel (all the movies) happen at once. Now we simply have to sit back and watch how history plays out. But Skynet doesn't know this yet, because when it builds the machine it has never time travelled. It also doesn't know that before the time machine existed, there was never a man named John Connor. Skynet is responsible for his existence (we'll get to that). So it sends back three Terminators. A T-800 to kill Sarah Connor, a T-1000 to kill young adult John, and a T-X to kill Connor and his lieutenants. John and his buddies storm the facility just moments after the Terminators were sent back and take over the time travel device. John Connor knows all about time travel. He's been dealing with it his whole life. He sends back his father (who his mom has told him about) to protect Sarah and a T-800 to protect him when he's a teenager. At some point after this, Connor is killed by a T-800 who his wife (the redhead played by

Claire Danes

and Bryce Dallas Howard) reprograms and sends back to fight the T-X. She, having been witness to the events, knows to do this when the T-800 does its thing. (Still with me?) What we have is a logic loop that only exists because of the time machine. Without the time machine, there is no John Connor and no need to assassinate him. Ultimately Skynet defeats itself by creating the hero that is its undoing.

Now factor in McG's new ending. If Marcus kills Kyle Reese, then John can never be born. That means that we don't exist in the above logic. It means we exist in a state of eternal flux -- the time stream is constantly changing every time someone goes back in time (every time they make a new movie). What that means is while McG's ending sucks, we reset back to square one. Now there is a different John Connor (the one from the first movie who sent Kyle Reese back in time.) He doesn't look like Christian Bale. He has a different daddy (one from the 1980s). And he grows up to send a guy (Kyle Reese) back in time to protect his mom from Skynet -- a guy who gets her pregnant with another guy who gets named John Connor. Why? Because Skynet never sends a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor because they've already killed John Connor. Let's just say you're wondering "what if they did both?" Then John Connor would have never existed, they could have never killed him, they would have no record of him and thus they would never go back in time to kill Sarah Conner and NOW we're back to square one with John Connor being born, growing up and fighting Skynet again. At which point they send a Terminator back in time to kill his mom ...

See how convoluted and crappy that is? It's an ending that says We thought it would be bold and shocking but never actually thought about how the time travel would be affected in a movie series about FREAKING TIME TRAVEL! Thankfully they thought better of it. As much as I am a fan of dark, brooding, well-thought-out endings (like The Dark Knight or another time travel film, Donnie Darko), this would have resulted in a piss-poor story with logic that would just make people's heads hurt. Thank god they thought better of it. While many people might not be thrilled with this film, at least they have a chance to make a better movie next time.