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Ranking the Terminator Films

Alex has been an online sports and pop culture writer for five years. When he's not writing about sports, Alex is an aspiring screenwriter.

The Terminator

The Terminator

The Terminator. For the longest time, the franchise was known for two of the best sci-fi action films ever made. Then more sequels were released. Then more. And more. And yet, most people see it as a two-film franchise. But, with so many attempts to revitalize the franchise, how do the films stack up? Let's go from worst to best.

Ranking The Terminator Franchise

6. Terminator Salvation (2009)
5. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
4. Terminator Genisys (2015)
3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
2. The Terminator (1984)
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation

6. Terminator Salvation (2009)

This… was a movie alright. Admittedly, I missed this movie when it first came out – meaning I had to watch it somewhat recently. And I STILL have a hard time remembering anything that happened. I mean, there was the awkward scene where they used CGI to plaster Arnold’s face onto a Terminator. (Yeah, remember that trend?)

If anybody remembers anything about this movie, it’s Christian Bale’s on-set rant. And if you don’t remember, apologies for digging up that best-forgotten piece of history. Ditto, this movie. SOME film about the actual war between humans and machines felt inevitable, but maybe some things should be left to the imagination.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate

5. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

One of the most frustrating things about the Terminator franchise is that whoever owns the rights seems to believe “Practice makes perfect.” They keep making these movies, and they keep selling them on the premise that “This is it. This is THE Terminator movie.” Those claims were somewhat believable since James Cameron himself was returning to the franchise.

And honestly, there were some decent ideas like a half-human, half-terminator. That almost makes it more frustrating that good ideas are wasted on a movie that feels more like fan-fic. There were a bunch of other Terminators sent back to kill John Connor? (More bad CGI faces no less.) And there just happens to be a company that’s like Skynet, but worse, man! The idea that a bad Terminator somehow became self-aware enough to realize its wrong-doing and acclimate with society because it has nothing else to do. Why… was this not its own movie?

Terminator Genesys

Terminator Genesys

4. Terminator Genisys (2015)

When trailers came out for this movie, many of us dismissed it as a greatest hits remake of the first two films. Then studios got cold feet and gave away that John Connor would be a Terminator. And this movie has its share of problems: The pacing feels rushed, it goes for a ton of humor that falls flat – even missing several obvious punchlines. JK Simmons is set up like he’s going to be an important character, but he’s killed off unceremoniously. Not to mention, this movie basically erases the first two movies. Yeah, next time someone goes off on a tangent about modern sequels disrespecting their franchise, bring this one up.

While not exactly a great movie, this is one of those flicks where if someone shuts off their brain for a few minutes, they might have a good time. There are cool ideas – like the new Terminator model being made up of tiny mini-robots. That does create a pretty spectacular fight between Connor and T-800. The helicopter chase is also pretty entertaining. Even the T-1000 has some cool new tricks like creating a javelin and dripping metal parts like water. Also, the movie was criticized for being a PG-13 Terminator movie – at a time when it felt like every movie was getting that rating. This led to awkward moments like Pops battling the original evil T-800 buck naked. Then again, editing around that – I don’t know if I’m mad or impressed.

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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

When this movie was released, hating it was a pretty cold take. After all, Judgment Day had a pretty conclusive ending. It also felt like the end of an era as Arnold began his career as California Governor. Time hasn’t exactly improved people’s opinions on this film, other than “At least it’s not the last two.” But this one is kind of decent. Yeah, there’s little justification for it. But comparing it to the most recent films, this one stays in its lane as just a solid action movie. And yeah, it borrows way too much from Judgment Day. But there are some solid action scenes, especially the truck chase. This film was criticized for having too much comic relief. Honestly, the humor is hit and miss. Stuff like the Terminator not wanting to wear stripper glasses feels like it needs a laugh track. But some of the jokes about the Terminator’s lack of social tact actually land.

The Terminator

The Terminator

2. The Terminator (1984)

Yeah, no surprise that the first two movies are the top two. And while I’ll go to bat for Rise of the Machines, this ranking does not communicate the gulf in quality. We’ve gone from decent action flick to legendary. Besides being a great movie, because the series spent so much time copying homework from T2, this one stands tall as a wholly original film. What can be said that hasn’t been said? Arnold is genuinely intimidating in a role that plays to his strengths. The film oozes atmosphere as Cameron drew inspiration from film noir. Nowadays, people love mixed-genre films, but in 1984 James Cameron gave them a film that combined action, sci-fi, noir, and even a bit of slasher horror.

Sarah Connor has become one of the legendary women of action (and rightfully so). But in this movie, it’s interesting watching Linda Hamilton’s transition from a sweet, vulnerable girl next door type who slowly transforms into a fighter. Michael Biehn is a solid hero but also brings some heart to this role.

Do I have any beef with this film? Well, while most special effects look good, I’ve never understood why they resorted to that weird Arnold animatronic during the famous eye-surgery scene. Later in the movie, when the Terminator’s face is even more messed up, the makeup effects look great. I’m somewhat loath to complain about these things because The Terminator is one of those rare movies where its roughness actually adds to its strengths.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

If someone wants to make an argument that the top two should be flipped, I’ll understand. In many ways, this is what a sequel should be: doubling down on everything that works, building off everything, and continuing the story. Skynet sending someone back in time to go after John directly seemed like such a natural continuation of the story, but this one upped the ante in every imaginable way.

T2 was a massive hit and a huge leap for special effects. And considering the glut of CGI in the last few years, this movie had the right idea: Mix CGI with practical effects. Every action set piece in this movie is spectacular. Not to mention, it was a bold move to take a strong anti-violence statement. Look, whether we were supposed to watch these movies as kids or not, we did anyway.

Now that Arnold was the biggest action star in the world, it went without saying he’d be the hero this time. And the new villain is the T-1000, a shapeshifter cop who Robert Patrick plays with such iciness. Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor. But she’s not just continuing her role in the first film: The events of the first film have driven her mad and turned her into one of the legendary ladies of action.

Plus, there are two versions of this film (three if you want to get picky). Whether you prefer the more concise/direct theatrical cut or the fleshed out special edition, you can’t go wrong with this film.

Full Terminator 2 Review

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© 2022 Alex deCourville

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