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In the movie Terminator Genisys, we learn at the start how the time machine works. Specifically, one of the humans explains its limitations:

Kyle Reese: No weapons?

Female soldier: We've measured the magnetic field. It'll rip apart anything not encased in living tissue. Think "tin foil in a microwave." Times a few billion. Nothing left but a crater. Oh, no clothes, either.

Later on, we see

John Connor, infected by the machines to become one of them, gets torn to pieces in the incomplete time machine and causes a massive explosion.

Based on what we know in-movie, the time machine's field cannot touch anything that is not living tissue: even clothing which is dead tissue (e.g. cotton) would not be good. So far so good.

This explanation also agrees with the results of the final usage of the time machine, operational or not.

However, it is unclear why non-living tissue would cause such a violent reaction.

  • If it is due to a strong magnetic field, said field would easily penetrate living tissue and interact with the metal of terminators that use the time machine. Other terminators sent back in time would also have caused catastrophic failures.

  • If it is due to some other form of electromagnetic radiation, it would likely also cook living tissue (e.g. Kyle Reese) if strong enough to cause an explosion with exposed metal.

Is there any in-universe explanation from any of the Terminator movies regarding why metal would cause a time machine to explode?

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No. The movies do not delve into the specifics of the time machine's workings, other than what is stated. The Time Displacement Equipment must work on physical properties that are different from real world physics, as we know it. We know that even a common MRI machine would affect the nanites in the infected John, so the Time Displacement Equipment does not produce a common electromagnetic field.

But it's mentioned that a biological organisms bioelectric field protects them. Terminators have a thin living skin that produces this field.

It's possible that this field couples with something produced by the Time Machine, reducing or changing how it effects metal. How two fields couple can increase or reduce em field strengths.

Alternatively, the bioelectric field can act as a sort of Faraday Cage, conducting the Time Machine's field around the skin, instead of through it. Typically, real world Faraday shields are made of fine mesh metal, and used to isolate things in the inside from RF interference outside of the cage (or vis versa). Common in electronic testing.

Finally, the organic field can act like a material that's opaque to certain wavelengths of radiation. Think lead to X-rays.

As to why the Prototype Time Machine seen in Genisys exploded with John Conner, a simple physics reason would be inductive heating, which would be very dangerous to any number of battery types. Not knowing what powers the nanites, we do know that the T-800 series Terminators have Nuclear Power Cells (The T-850 has 2 Hydrogen Fuel Cells, and the T-900 (SCC) has an Iridium Fuel Cell). Any sort of melting or heating of such a fuel cell can easily produce explosive potential. As seen in T3, a damaged cell explodes in the same manner as a nuclear bomb, on a smaller scale.

  • All we have is speculation, but it makes sense even if it begs the question how a terminator without skin could time travel. I guess Pops' magnet helped disturb John's outer shell so he blew up the second time, even though they were both inside a bigger magnet. – user9311 Nov 16 '15 at 4:41
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It is mentioned in the beginning (when we first see the new time machine) that it is not complete and they are still working on it.

Hence, it could be speculated that as it was not complete - the necessary tools/mechanisms were not in place to prevent an overload; which led to the explosion.

  • The Time machine Kyle used was complete and in the future. The one that ripped John apart was an incomplete prototype. But the TDE has always been known to be unfriendly to machines, from Terminator 1 and 2. – cde Nov 16 '15 at 7:21
  • It is said in the beginning of the scene (when we first see the new time machine) that it is incomplete - "if we can get this to work..." - which is why I mentioned it. – Burhan Khalid Nov 16 '15 at 8:20
  • Interesting. I assumed that that line was referring to the Humans/Rebels not knowing how to use it. They only found it cause John knew it existed via the original movies. – cde Nov 16 '15 at 8:23
  • The character that says the line is the figurehead of Genesys Corporation - he would not know about Humans/Rebels as that timeline hasn't happened yet - for all they know Kyle is just a super smart human. – Burhan Khalid Nov 16 '15 at 8:26
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    Yup. Pops knew that the only thing stronger than the MRI that could affect John (other than his MagnetFist thing) would be the time machine; it just so happened that it exploded because it was incomplete; and destroyed Genesys/Skynet with it - at least in this timeline. We know its not done in all timelines as Kyle has to explain it to Kyle Jr. at the end what to remember. – Burhan Khalid Nov 16 '15 at 8:49

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