Having just critiqued a manuscript using time travel, and found myself trying to explain the clash between Bootstrapping and Branching models with reference to particulr movie uses, I got to thinking about a thing that's always kinda niggled me with the Terminator movies. I mean, I'm by no means a tedious hard-ass about science fictional Correctitude in Hollywood movies--I can forgive the cludging in Looper for the sake of the story--but I do hate to see a premise firmly and clearly established and then just ripped up and thrown away in the name of expedience. It doesn't irk me at all that Terminator 2 has the T-1000 coming back from a future that, by the end of the movie, is averted; it just irks me that it does so after the original movie establishes in no uncertain terms that we're dealing with a fixed timeline.
In the original, the Terminator and Reese have ever already arrived in 1984, you see. The movie has ever already taken place with Sarah Connor being hunted by the Terminator, Reese saving her and fathering John, and pregnant Sarah having headed off to Mexico, getting her photo taken along the way--the photo Reese will know her by. It's ever already the case that Cyberdine will build Skynet, that it will go rogue and try to wipe out humanity, and that John Connor as leader of the victorious resistance will send back Reese after the Terminator, as much to bootstrap himself into existence as to save his mother. Really, John Connor knows throughout the war that the Terminator didn't just fail but was instrumental in his very conception. Skynet brought about its own downfall. No wonder he's the leading light of the resistance; from his mother's tapes, he knows he's already won. (Predestination? Meh. This is post-destination; it's all in Reese's past in 1984.)
But then Terminator 2 comes along and scraps that, insisting that "There is no fate but what we make," deciding to set Judgement Day in 1997, only to have it averted by the actions of the characters. The future Reese came from is now only one potential, a Timeline A of how things will play out if allowed to run their course. Spurred by a sequence of events leading back ultimately to the moment the T-1000 arrives, the characters decide they're not having it and instead bring about a quite different potential future, a Timeline B. With its two futures, the movie overturns the Bootstrapping model and sets a Branching model in its place. (Timeline A might be a dead branch now, but it's still a branch.)
I suppose you could ignore Terminator 3 (wouldn't you rather?) and imagine that it still all happens, (because it still ever already happened) that we're still dealing with the Bootstrapping model in which Reese arrived back from a future that's still going to play out exactly as established: Skynet still goes online (now established as happening in 1997); the machines still rise, but the resistance still wins; John still sends back his own father to bring himself into existence. I guess you could do that.
But clearly the movie is trying to sell you on the idea that they all prevent that holocaust. That's the payoff of the story. A new timeline is created in which things might go along a similar path, but at very least the human race has more than a couple of years before things go to shit. T2 isn't just slipping another bootstrappy loop inside the loop, telling of another attack along John's timeline, equally fated to fail in a fixed history where it's ever already failed, succeeding only in giving John the very belief which made him resistance leader. It's changing the whole model of time travel. Now we're suddenly plunged into a Branching model, with these arrivals causing a counter-attack in Timeline B which somehow never happened in Timeline A.
Never mind that this rules out bootstrapping, that John's father now comes from a timeline which has been written out of reality.
The Bootstrap Gambit
It's like an inverted variant of the Grandfather Paradox, the classic hypothetical: if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather at birth, doesn't that mean you're never born to go back in time and kill your own grandfather at birth? Turn that around: if time works like that, then logically you can contrive rather than thwart your birth; you can send someone back in time to become your grandfather, arranging your own existence--hauling yourself up by the bootstraps. And if you do that, you've ever already done it.
If you're bootstrapping your own knowledge rather than your own birth, it still works the same. Where do you get a time machine? How do you know who to send back? Simple: when you were sixteen, your gramps gave you a million pounds, specs for a time machine and a 2013 email address. Cause when you sent him back as a young man, you paid him a million pounds and told him all he had to do was live off the interest, and pass on the money, the specs and his 2013 email address when you came of age. He was surprised to be emailed out of the blue, but he was up for it. (You sent him a photo of your gramma when she was young. It was love at first sight.)
That's how the first Terminator movie works, basically. It's his father John Connor sends back rather than his grandfather, but it's the same principle. Whether it's a photo which ensures your father finds your mother and causes her to get the photo taken, or a million pounds, time machine specs, and an email address, you're bootstrapping the prerequisites for the bootstrapping to work as much as you're bootstrapping yourself. You can do so because you've ever already done so.
The Dead Mother Paradox
But what happens if the Powers-That-Be suddenly decide that this fixed timeline is mutable after all? Suppose your mother died when you were two. That's clearly the sort of thing you might want to change. So, despite the fact that your very existence depends on a fixed history, for some reason (i.e. because Hollywood wants a sequel,) you decide to try and prevent that death. And for some reason, (i.e. because Hollywood wants a sequel,) it actually works. Wait, what?
I mean, if it's a mutable history, it could be easy enough to prevent her death. Let's make it a piece of piss: all your mother needs is a million pound operation to save her life. So, it's a year after your birth, when gramps gets a message from you in the future: without the operation, you tell him, that death is a stone cold certainty. So now, when your mother needs it, her father-in-law slaps a million pound down and, hey presto, she lives! Her Judgement Day is averted.
Except the million pounds is no longer around when it comes time for gramps to pass it on to you. You no longer inherit one major prerequisite for the bootstrapping to work; he had to sacrifice it to change the timeline. Hmmm. But never mind that! It worked. Your mother lived, so now... now there's no need for you to send back a message about her dying. Never mind need; there's no possibility of you doing so. I mean, that's another variant of the Grandfather Paradox, right? If you go back in time and save your dead mother, doesn't that mean you're never spurred to go back in time and save your dead mother? Because once you've changed history, when 2013 comes round she's not dead anymore. Call it the Dead Mother Paradox. (It's a positive version of the Hitler Paradox.)
The resolution to these is fairly simple though. The Grandfather Paradox doesn't apply if going back and killing your grandfather just creates a Timeline B in which you were never born. You came from the Timeline A you've just undone, so it doesn't matter. The Dead Mother Paradox doesn't apply if you're sitting in Timeline A, and you send back the message to gramps, and he spends the money on her operation, but that just creates a Timeline B where she lives. That's Branching versus Bootstrapping.
But the million pound problem is still a problem. Cause the message's arrival is what causes the branching that saves your mother, and the only way you can have a Timeline A in which she didn't live is if that message arrived in Timeline B, created Timeline B with its arrival. And that means the same would have happened with the million pound--with gramps himself!
The Million Pound Problem
Thing is, the million pounds is just a symbol, really. It represents the sum of innumerable chance events that each had to have ever already played out as they ever already did--e.g. with your mother dying when you were two--to result in the same you sending the same young man back to the same past to do the same things. It represents the causal legacy of the past which your 2013 depends on, a legacy which is carried back, inherited by the past, and remains intact all the way through to 2013. (In Terminator, it represents the post-destination of Reese's past, carried back with him to 1984.)
If it doesn't remain intact, if the causal legacy that you get in 2013 is different from what it would have been because the time travel has changed the course of events, then you have a Branching model that doesn't do bootstrapping at all. If you sent back a message loaded with the causal legacy of your 2013 and it created a Timeline B that reaches 2013 with a different causal legacy, then the same thing happened when you sent back gramps with his million pounds: a new timeline was created, and that million pounds traveled down it, the legacy inherited by his grandson in that timeline while you're left in Timeline A with your dead mother and exactly no million pounds.
You have no money to pay the young man you were going to send back. Which is a moot point, because you don't have the email address to contact him either. Which is also a moot point, because you don't even have the specs for the time machine you'd need. Which is also a moot point, because your grandfather having arrived in another timeline, you never existed. Bootstrapping is fragile. If your existence depends on a briefcase packed with a million pounds in period money, specs for a time machine, and the email address of the guy you need to send back in order to exist, if it depends on this causal legacy you can only inherit from the past because you sent it back there, you're completely fucked if the Powers-That-Be decide that actually, after all, something like that arriving in the past has not ever already done so (as per the established premise,) but is instead a graft from which a new timeline grows.
That's how Terminator 2 completely smashes the premise established in the first movie. By the end of it, they've changed the future at the most massive level, causing the innumerable chance events to play out wholly differently. They've spent the million pounds on preventing Judgement Day, so to speak. If Judgement Day doesn't take place in 1997--and Terminator 3 cements the fact it doesn't--2029 arrives without that million pounds, with a whole other causal legacy. Whether it's a T-1000 or a message to your grandfather, if it creates a Timeline B in which Judgement Day never happened, then Judgement Day and all that followed is the Dead Mother of the paradox here. For Terminator 2 not to nullify itself in that paradox, it has to nullify the first movie in its very foundations.
Being the type of person who can't resist a challenge, however, I did get to thinking about how you might make it work. And it seems to me that if you can recast the first movie as working in a Branching model, maybe it's possible. What if the stuff that looks like bootstrapping isn't actually bootstrapping at all? Suppose there's an original timeline--let's say it's our reality--in which the Terminator and Reese never appeared in 1984. Sarah got pregnant with John by a different father. He grew up without a single appearance of Arnie in his life. Then Cyberdine and Skynet happened, the war, the resistance. As a last ditch effort, Skynet sends back Arnie. John sends back Reese. That creates the timeline of the first movie, in which Skynet has actually succeeded in thwarting this John's birth, but it doesn't matter because Reese has fathered another John.
There are only two things, really, that need to happen in this timeline as per the first movie: the pregnancy and the photo. If these could be sourced in an original branch timeline sans Terminator and sans Reese, then you can resolve the whole thing into a Branching model and you have none of the problems that come from overturning one approach to the premise and slapping in another. The pregnancy isn't really an issue. If she hadn't been running around being chased by a T-101, Sarah could easily have been having a one night stand. It's the frickin 1980s, for fuck's sake. She's out on the club scene, as I recall. The photo is the only gnarly issue as that requires specific circumstances--her on her way to Mexico.
Rewatching the epilogue of the first movie, however, I can imagine it tweaked to become the pre-credit sequence of a Terminator Zero. That whole scene of Sarah driving along the dusty road, recording herself, pulling into a gas station where she gets her photo taken... actually there's only one shot where her dialogue explicitly ties what's happening to time travel, where she's sitting in the car, saying, "Boy that's a tough one. Will it affect your decision to send him here, knowing that he is your father. If you don't send Kyle you can never be. God, a person could go crazy thinking about this." That's a whole two sentences waving the flag about time travel; I only include the lines before and after because they're part of a continuous shot. The rest of it?
Tape seven, November ten. Where was I? What's most difficult for me is trying to decide what to tell you and what not to. But I guess I have a while yet before you're even old enough to understand these tapes. They're more for me at this point, just so I can get it straight. Should I tell you about your father. I suppose I will tell you. I owe him that. Maybe it will help if you know that in the few hours that we had together, we loved a lifetime's worth.
And then the kid takes the picture, there's the back and forth about a storm coming, and she drives off.
Terminator Zero: Prologue
So what you might do, I'd say, is you open on that epilogue, maybe tweak it in the subtlest ways--change the colour of the Jeep, say. You cut the giveaway lines, and you take it up to the shot of the photo. Then you segue to a young John Connor of Terminator 2 era, a 10 year old of 1995 who is most definitely not Edward Furlong, looking at that photo, playing a tape voiced by Linda Hamilton--diegetic, not voiceover so the noise disguises any change in the actress's voice with age. And you have him listening to this after her death in this original timeline.
You have her telling him of his original father, some terrible but non-fantastic backstory of meeting and losing his father and having to leg it for Mexico. She worked in a night club (as I recall) in the 1980s, right? A world of drugs is a world of dealers. It doesn't have to be detailed; it's only there to establish that Reese was not this John Connor's father, that he was instead someone she met and had a few hours with in some sort of deadly circumstances that ended with her getting the hell out of town. To take the roughest, dodgiest stab at something along the right lines:
Maybe he wasn't as good as the man I saw in him, but I know he wasn't as bad as the man he saw in himself--a soldier turned murderer, killing for criminals instead of for his country. I don't know. All I know is that his job was to kill me, and instead, after it was all over, he let me go, told me to run and keep running. To stay alive.
In the background, TV news shows NATO air strikes on Bosnia, references the first use of Predator UAVs aka drones. As Sarah's voice is faded down, John's adult voiceover comes in: He never knew his father. It was only when he was ten, when his mother died, that he found the tapes telling of the crime she witnessed, and the man sent to kill her. Sometimes you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, she said, but he was in the right place at the right time. And instead of a shallow grave out in the desert, she found herself with a gun in her lap, in a Jeep bound for Mexico. The next time she crossed that border she was already dying.
Kicked around from foster home to foster home, he tells us, by the time he was nineteen, it was a choice between army and jail. As the TV flicks channels, the scene around the screen flicks between foster homes and teenage Johns, aged twelve, aged fourteen, and so on, camera slowly zooming on the news images (war, violence) until they fill the frame, segueing now to John as a nineteen year old soldier in Iraq, 2004. The year of Fallujah. The urban devastation, choppers in the air, it's an all-too-real analogue of the opening of the first movie, the destruction of 2029.
You use his voiceover and the action to conjure the mechanisation of war versus ground troops dealing with insurgents, show the seeds of 2029, with the contemporary era of drone strikes and oil wars as an obvious stepping stone along the way. Because Terminator Zero is set now, in our world. Judgement Day wasn't in 1997 because the base timeline is our real world development of drones.
This much I know, if we don't stop it, there's a Judgement Day coming, the day when we reap the whirlwind. The machines we built to fight our wars for us will rise against their masters, and we'll fight back, but it doesn't matter...
A recorded voice comes in now, takes over:
... but it doesn't matter. We all die. Everyone dies. Even the machines die, in a mutual annihilation that leaves this planet an empty waste. Only the two of us got out in the last seconds, before the end of everything, one man and one machine.
It's 2013 and a bloody-shirted John Connor is listening to a recorded message, his own voice from 2029. It's a flash-forward to the meat of the movie, see, in which this John Connor is going to be found by his dying future self and handed this message.
It's out there, John. You have to stop it. You have to believe that I am who I say am, that I'm you. You're the only person I can turn to, in the hope that you'll see yourself in me, see me in yourself. If you can't trust yourself, John, who can you trust?
And now the shot changes, reveals that John Connor is listening to this as he stands looking down on the body of his Future!Self. Cut. Opening credits.
And From There...
As for the movie itself, you open with the arrival of Terminator and Future!John together, a fight scene in which Future!John is mortally wounded but escapes--dives into a river, say. The Terminator doesn't care as it stands on a bridge, looking down into the water. Its internal PoV HUD comes up, flicks through files to faces till it stops on that of Future!John, identifies him as a lieutenant. Disregards him as irrelevant. Nope, he wasn't the resistance leader in the baseline future, just a soldier who dived into the machine as the Terminator was sent back to take out its actual target: the retired General who did lead the resistance, (and who set off a doomsday device when all was lost, we'll learn, so at least the machines wouldn't win.) Now that HUD comes up with its mission objective, the face of that general... who is of course Arnie. Arnie isn't the Terminator here. He's the target.
And so you have a movie in which the John Connor of 2013 is an Iraq War veteran who meets his future self and is tasked with foiling a Terminator set on killing a five star general, thrown into a straightforward plot where he has plenty of obstacles just to get near the guy he's trying to protect, to persuade him that there's a threat. You've got the scene where the Terminator attacks and Arnie is finally persuaded as John rescues him. But hey, the army still insist they'll take it from here, and John is interrogated over his crazy story. And the Terminator attacks again, of course. We reveal that the General is in on the ground floor of Skynet, a drone project for automated airspace control in the Middle East. Maybe he's the hawk who's pushing for it. Maybe he's the guy insisting on an emergency kill code. You want a finale? The Terminator sets out to bring the project online now, and they have to blow the whole shithouse up.
With Arnie as the target... well, he gets to do some action heroic stuff, but you don't have to carry the movie on a guy in his 60s playing either main hero or implausibly aged Terminator. And to make it a bit less of a sausage-fest, why not bring in Reese's mother to be a strong heroine? Make her the widow of an army buddy that he's close to, someone he'd turn to when he's on the run with Arnie. By my reckoning, Kyle is 8 years old at this point, a surrogate son. (Let's not make John secretly his father though. That would mean in the first movie, Reese is shagging his gran. Yeahno.)
Oh, yeah, and another twist... the Terminator wins. Sorta. It gets what it wants, Arnie dying in the end, sacrificing himself to blow up the robot and the test facility of Skynet drones unleashed in Hollywood havoc. Its target has been terminated. But it's a Pyrhhic victory, as the General will become a symbol to the resistance, the first martyr to the cause. (Hence the modeling of the T-101 on him, in a post-credit scene, as a psychological tactic for unnerving the humans in 2029 or in an initial plan to send him back to the 1980s on an infiltration mission... until the resistance kicked the machines' asses before they could do so, and a last minute plan to kill John Connor pre-empted it.)
It's even a loss, ultimately, as this is what spurs John to become the man who wins the war in the altered timeline from which the first movie is created. He's set on proving that even if they can destroy a leader like the General, someone else will step up to the role. And even if they kill a John Connor, he says in a closing voiceover, another will rise in his place. I'd end with him heading out into the wilds, into forested mountains rather than the desert, with Reese's mother and the kid--maybe knocking on a cabin door that's opened by an old comrade. He's gathering the resistance to be ready. He doesn't know how it will play out now, but if Future!John came from a world where the General was alive, that's not what's ahead of them now. Maybe they have no future at all, but he refuses to accept that. There is no fate but what we make. If the machines think they can write our destinies for us, they better prepare themselves. There's a storm coming, and its name is John Connor.