Review: Terminator Genisys and the mind-bending world of alternative history

Back with a bang. Paramount Pictures

Franchise reboots using alternative time lines are currently all the rage, blurring the lines between sequels and prequels on screens across the globe. JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is both an alternative time line prequel to the original and a sequel to 2002’s Nemesis. Meanwhile, X-Men: Days of Future Past is something of a reboot of 2000’s X-Men, and a sequel to 2011’s X-Men: First Class prequel. This can get confusing. Lacking a catchy term for alternative reality sequels and prequels, let’s call them “alterequels”.

Terminator Genisys takes the alterequel to a whole new level. Having your alterequel deliberately contradict its original source is one thing: but Terminator Genisys lands slap-bang in the middle of its source, and blows it all away. After a prologue set in 2029, Genisys revisits the original T-800 Terminator’s nude landing in 1984. But this time around, another T-800 (played by an older and fully-clothed Arnold) shows up and biffs its past self. Rather than Kyle Reese rescue Sarah – as in the original Terminator film – this time Sarah rescues Kyle. Not the original Sarah, either, but an alternative Sarah who was orphaned by one Terminator and raised by another.

Much alterequel hullabaloo ensues. Skynet – humanity’s artificially-intelligent nemesis – now seeks birth in 2017 via the oddly-spelled (and vaguely-described) “Genisys” app. The usually formless antagonist even has its own body in 2029. A liquid-metal T-1000 – originally sent back to 1995 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day – turns up in 1984, while 2017 boasts a nanomachine-Terminator, which changes into fog when roused. Adding to the chaos, each of the settings – 2029, 1984 and 2017 – has its own time machine.

Time laws

Time travel fiction offers you three options: either you can have one constrained history, many histories or one contradictory history. In the first option, you can go back in time, but you’ll find that there are some things you cannot do there: for instance, you won’t be able to kill your grandfather, because that causes a logical paradox. The second option will allow you to travel to a time which is different to your own, but not necessarily back in time: so, instead of landing earlier in your own history, you’ll end up in an alternative reality.

Both of these options are logically consistent; one and the same world never contains anyone who is both alive and dead at the same time. In contrast, the third option allows you to travel back in your own history, over-write events and laugh at logic as you go. Inconsistent though it may be, this option seems to fit Terminator Genisys best. But fiction notwithstanding, it’s worth examining if any of this has a factual basis.

Terminator Genisys trailer.

Of course, ultimately, Genisys is fantasy with a light dusting of references to “quantum fields”. But physicists have actually speculated that later events can not only affect past events (consistently help make them what they were) but can even over-write them (inconsistently make them different from what they were). Unfortunately for Genisys, though, scientists overwhelmingly favour the “one constrained history” or “many histories” options.

The former received a big boost of support, following some remarkable results in “postselection” quantum tunnelling modelling, which eliminates problems like the grandfather paradox. And no less a person than John S Bell (of “Bell’s Inequality” fame) suggested that – if we accept the idea that there are many worlds with different histories – then “there is no association of the particular present with any particular past”. If this is the case, then perhaps no event is final or safe – in theory, it may all be flux.

Indiscriminate flux

Aspirant history changers beware though: there may be no way to control or predict what shape which any revised history takes. Human or cyborg, physics will likely treat you as just one more object in the flux. Unsurprisingly, time travel stories usually make their point-of-view characters the people who make changes to history, rather than those who suffer them. Try picturing what historical deletion might feel like for the deleted: it’s difficult to imagine what, if anything, is it like to be made such that you never were.

But once inconsistency gets in, it’s difficult to correct: maybe revisions to events never end, and everything is provisional. If you are (even partly) what befalls you, and what befalls you is fluid, maybe you’re fluid too. I devoutly hope that reality follows consistent rules, but perhaps history, identity and consistency are just local. A classic Zen parable suggests that when we see a flag blowing in the wind, neither wind moves nor flag moves – rather, mind moves. Maybe we should conclude that neither human moves nor T-800 moves but rather, mind moves: from Terminator to Zen via quantum physics?

Overall, this new incarnation improves markedly on the third and fourth Terminator films, which wobbled between graveyard slapstick and Christian Bale’s grumpy stubble. But alterequels threaten diminishing returns – as a shaky first weekend at the box office can testify. Genisys’ Skynet taunts its enemies that its existence is inevitable, and it may be right – at least, fictionally speaking. A slightly perfunctory mid-credit sequence ensures that Genisys well and truly clears the way for any future films. While cinema can remould fictional histories ad infinitum, audience patience may be finite. The worry is that history-changing franchises will start to seem (forgive me) interminable.

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