One day, during his publicity tour for his feature movie debut, blood-spattered horror Piranha II, James Cameron woke from a nightmare he couldn't shake: a chrome skeleton wedged in the dirt. He immediately began sketching a metallic torso dragging itself across the ground – the horrific visual that would inspire the Terminator franchise and over three billion dollars in box office revenue.
In the decades since, the series cycled through a slew of varying Terminators in each sequel, riffing on variations of the same story. Man vs. Skynet, the self-aware artificial intelligence that starts a nuclear war.
Powered by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the series followed the Terminator, a cyborg assassin sent back in time from 2029 to 1984 with instructions to Sarah Connor. whose as yet unborn son John will one day save mankind from extinction by Skynet.
From Cameron's humble beginnings with the 1984 original right through to 2019's Dark Fate, this sci-fi series has respun tales of time travel, evil cyborgs and mankind's survival to varying degrees of success. Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic line "I'll be back," uttered with stoic menace in The Terminator resembles more than a warning, a guarantee that this series, like its central antagonists, will survive no matter what.
So, let's clear this up and dive into all six of the Terminator movies, ranked for your pleasure.
Genisys was a second attempt at rebooting the series and it had failed before it really began.
The movie's bizarre marketing strategy hindered the movie months before audiences clapped eyes on it. From a baffling Entertainment Weekly photoshoot featuring the cast firing guns in an empty parking lot while yelling to revealing major twists in its trailer, these bizarre promotional efforts sealed the movie's fate.
A hasty attempt at keeping the rights before they reverted back to Cameron, Skydance's PG-13 pic was positioned to repeat the company's recent Star Trek success. With new franchise blood in the shape of Game Of Thrones' Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, and Jason Clarke as Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, and John Connor, Arnold back as the T-800, and a seemingly-fresh spin on the lore, it's a shame the finished product resembles a gloopy mess. Not even J.K Simmons, the film's only highpoint, can save it. (Seriously, a spinoff about his cop would've been a lot better than this nonsense.)
The idea of tinkering with the established mythology is one worth exploring. And for the first hour, Genisys somewhat sticks the landing. But after a midway twist betraying a main character, it falls flat. From that point onward, the characters stumble from one barely coherent plotline to another. A victim to the "let's leave unresolved plotlines dangling to guarantee a sequel" move, a slew of major story beats are never addressed as all future sequels were canceled in light of its poor performance.
Clarke, a solid actor, and Courtney, an actor, are also woefully miscast. The former makes the most of what she's given and the latter lacks the heft of Michael Biehn. Together they have zero chemistry and for a movie that hinges on their romantic union, their casting is a straight-up head scratcher.
The future war teased throughout the franchise takes center stage in McG's $200 million-dollar reboot. Where in earlier films the grizzled John Connor leading the resistance in a world decimated by nuclear destruction is only glimpsed, here he takes the lead.
Early scripts positioned Connor as a supporting character who only appears toward the finale, yet Christian Bale's interest led to a rewrite casting him in a central role. Does this take on Connor work? He doesn't feel like the same John we've met before, making it all the more heart-breaking that he's lost his humanity. The very thing he's trying to save.
The movie follows 2003's Rise of the Machines with Connor, his wife Kate Connor (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard after Claire Danes turned down the role) and a resistance squad continuing the fight against Skynet. Across the country, a young Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin) leads the LA resistance, joining forces with a drifter named Marcus played by Sam Worthington.
While Worthington's character is the movie's newest, weirdest Terminator – a human/machine hybrid – it's in a movie that doesn't support exploring his idiosyncrasies. Salvation's flaw is its entire premise.
The future war is the least interesting part of the franchise. Advanced technology in the present, its contrast against contemporary life, the threat of global annihilation, heck, the 'fish out of water' antics of T2 are what lend the series its intrigue. If you like flashy explosions amid grey landscapes, Salvation is the Terminator for you.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
With a global box office haul of approximately $515 million it's hard to believe it took 11 years for a sequel to the hit follow-up Judgment Day to emerge. The delay was caused by a tangle of licensing rights, forcing Cameron to leave development on the second sequel, the seeds of which he planted in the T2 studio ride, Battle Across Time.
The Terminator 3 we received is far from the franchise's worst, but its existence does leave you pondering what Cameron had planned for his main trio of actors who were all on the hook to return.
Nevertheless, Jonathan Mostow's sequel delivers solid blockbuster entertainment with one hell of a sting in the tail. Time has done wonders for this 2003 pic, which includes Schwarzenegger again as John's protector fighting against the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken), another shape-shifting Terminator. Connor (Nick Stahl) is a drifter here, alone following the death of his mother, until he crosses paths with Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). Danes and Stahl's chemistry is arguably the movie's strongest component, forging a human connection amid all the action.
While it doesn't boast the same calibre of set-pieces, the early chase scene between the good guys and the T-X is exceptional. Its weakest spot comes in the form of poorly-timed jokes becoming flat-out mockery as Arnold's T-800 performs a dated "Talk to the hand" reference. Despite it lacking the sheer power of Cameron's sequel, Rise of the Machines offers a sublime ending, a finale of solemn surrender never bettered since.
Terminator: Dark Fate
Like Genisys, Dark Fate ignores every sequel since Judgment Day. In turn, we have a legacy reboot with grit. Despite being the best flick since T2, it failed to bring in the cash at the box office. Roping in franchise stalwarts Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, in her first appearance since T2, Dark Fate softly reboots the series by following an alternate timeline. Not in the awkward, botched way of Genisys, but by acknowledging that Sarah and John did stop Judgment Day but a different self-aware AI is now the one responsible.
With the story, Deadpool director Tim Miller treads the same path Cameron did with Terminator 2 which is no bad thing. Where the lesser reboots veer drastically off course, Dark Fate leans into familiarity. It hits recognisable beats without mimicking them. Interwoven is a tale of immigrant rights as the action begins 25 years after T2 south of the border in Mexico City. This time, a new Terminator model the Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna) is sent back to assassinate Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) along with an enhanced-human Grace (Mackenzie Davis) sent to protect her.
This is a classic Terminator tale of survival with flourishes here and there to distinguish it from earlier entries. Perhaps its strength lies in the numerous novelists Miller approached to cook up story ideas, Cameron's involvement in that process along with Josh Friedman who created the superb Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles series lend it an edge.
The result is what every other sequel strived for: compelling action sequences, likable characters, and a heart-wrenching finale. While its treatment of a long-standing franchise favourite in the opening scene divided some viewers, it works to clear the decks for a new story. One that focuses on its three female leads, giving them agency for the first time in the series.
"The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…"
From its opening text laying out that chill-inducing premise, The Terminator promises no flashy, futuristic battle against machines but something better. A movie based on the war would've been a showier calling card for Cameron's skills, especially at that point in his career. But financing a mammoth production of that calibre proved tricky so he opted for a taut, sci-fi thriller set in present day Los Angeles as a way to work within budgetary restraints.
Unlike the later sequels beholden to mythology or a desire to craft something so new it becomes impossible to enjoy, the original spins from a simple concept. With a future war between man and machines underway, a cyborg assassin known as a Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the leader of the human resistance. The resistance also sends back a human protector to prevent the terminator from fulfilling its mission.
Those financial "shackles" led to cinematic gold, a mesmeric blend of retro-futuristic iconography woven into the grime of urban California. The Terminator is an original slice of cinema, a sci-fi horror with a nasty heart beating at its centre. Michael Biehn, as soldier Kyle Reese born after Judgment Day is the franchise's best protector. Sarah is played to perfection by Hamilton, who nails the twenty something waitress-turned-warrior all across the span of one movie. It's no easy feat and one that lends an edge of sadness to this scrappy, terrifying slasher.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The seeds for Cameron's sequel appear in an extended alternate ending from The Terminator, where it's revealed that the factory where the original Terminator and Kyle Reese both die… is CyberDyne Systems. Cameron knew this kernel of an idea was too good to leave unexplored in a fleeting moment and saved it to fully flesh out in his script for Terminator 2.
Judgment Day is not only the best movie in the franchise, it's one of the best sequels ever made, one of the best movies ever made… It is note perfect. With Aliens and The Abyss under his belt, this is a confident Cameron whose knack for marrying action, theme, exposition all into iconic set-pieces is unrivaled.
T2 evolves every element from the first film into another stratosphere: from Robert Patrick's terrifying villain, the shape-shifting T-1000, to the endless fight sequences, the phenomenal practical effects delivering action sequences that still look better than modern movies. And let's not forget, this is a lean, mean movie. Not one shred of extra material hangs off this sequel even though it clocks in at 132 minutes.
Similarly to the original, the story is straightforward: eleven years after the events of T2 Skynet sends an upgraded Terminator back in time to kill John Connor and the resistance sends a reprogrammed Terminator as his protector. Hamilton and Schwarzenegger return as Sarah and the T-800, their strained interactions forcing a dynamic onto the movie which ratchets up the tension nicely. But the heart of this movie lies in the relationship between Edward Furlong's John Connor and the T-800. Their bond drives the movie, it's their connection which forces us to believe in the inherent good of the universe, making that final goodbye as poignant as any melodrama.
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Gem Seddon is a Seattle-based freelance entertainment writer with bylines at Vulture, Digital Spy, TechRadar, GamesRadar+, Total Film, What to Watch, and Certified Forgotten. Librarian by day, scribbler by night, Gem loves 90-minute movies, time travel romance, single-camera comedy shows, all things queer, all things horror, and queer horror. Alien and Scream are tied as her all-time favourite movie. She won't stop raving about Better Things.