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Ranking the "Terminator" Movies

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Matt Bird writes all sorts of nonsense, but he dedicates a large chunk of his time to writing game walkthroughs.

Copyright 1984 by Orion Pictures.

Copyright 1984 by Orion Pictures.

Though its history has been... tumultuous... at times, the Terminator franchise is still celebrated as one of film's great sci-fi offerings. Blending a neat, time-twisting story with elements of action, thriller, and horror, the Terminator films are a grim look at what could be if we give too much away to the machines that run our lives.

Though two of the films on this list are nigh-indisputably great, the rest are... well, let's just say that ranking them will be interesting. Shall we?

Copyright 2015 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2015 by Paramount Pictures.

6. Terminator Genisys

Off to a bad start with its wonky name, Terminator Genisys committed the cardinal sin of the franchise: It spent too much time thinking about the time travel. Sure, its cast wasn't that strong and the over-reliance on action wound up being a mistake, but the very idea of going back and changing how the original Terminator happened was the big problem. The result is an occasionally entertaining but generally confusing film, and Terminator films should never be confusing.

Opening on the eve of humanity's victory against Skynet, Genisys shows Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) going back in time to save Sarah Conner (Emilia Clarke) just as resistance leader John Conner (Jason Clarke) is being assassinated. This shifts things around, and when Reese tries to accomplish his mission he finds the original Terminator being destroyed by an older, more humane version of Arnie, the long-time protector of Sarah in this new timeline. More changes lead to more Terminators to destroy, and the trio hop around time to stop a new version of Skynet that begins life as an app. Because of course cell phones are responsible for the apocalypse.

Does the story sound overstuffed? It should. The plot of Genisys is all about changing the future by messing with the past, and while that's a common theme in Terminator it's the entire point in Genisys. There are attempts at character work to bind these plot points together and make Kyle and Sarah into a couple, but Jai Courtney is not Michael Biehn and Emilia Clarke is not Linda Hamilton. Their chemistry is poor, and if you've watched the original films it's tough to even picture this duo as the characters from The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger has some fun as an older, more sarcastic T-800, but he's not nearly good enough to save this bloated mess of a film.

Given that the proposed trilogy meant to blossom from Genisys never happened, you can safely skip this movie. The intro is a neat update of the future teased in The Terminator and T2, but the rest... meh. Meh!

Copyright 2019 by Paramount Pictures.

Copyright 2019 by Paramount Pictures.

5. Terminator: Dark Fate

The latest attempt at growing the Terminator brand, Dark Fate is in equal parts a solid action film and a misguided storytelling decision. It's fun to watch, but trying to square it with the Terminator franchise as a whole doesn't work all that well.

Dark Fate disregards all but the first two movies, a common choice in Terminator films, and proposes a world where John Conner is killed shortly after the end of Terminator 2. This averts one version of Judgment Day. Skynet is thereafter replaced by an AI named Legion which, surprise surprise, triggers the apocalypse, prompts a human uprising spearheaded by a charismatic leader, and sends Terminators back to kill said human before they can become said charismatic leader. Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger return to help the new guard save the day.

This is a soft reboot of the series, using the familiarity factor of Hamilton and Schwarzenegger to usher in a new cast. It's a solid cast, too, and their struggle against a new model of Terminator (Gabriel Luna) has a lot of tense moments. Luna is genuinely scary, and unlike previous models of Terminator he goes from personable human to killing machine at the flick of a switch. Very neat. Unfortunately the actors are saddled with a dumb story that only switches a few names and faces around, creating the exact same scenario from the original Terminator. If the series creed is "No Fate," then why does every danged Terminator film seem to loop back on itself? What's the point of bringing in Legion when it is functionally identical to Skynet?

Dark Fate was an attempt to wipe the slate of sequels clean and start the Terminator franchise over. Instead it just created another single-film flop to add to the pile of failed trilogies. Sigh.

Copyright 2003 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Copyright 2003 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The first stab at a sequel to Terminator 2, Rise of the Machines gets a lot of things right. Nick Stahl is a great John Conner, Claire Danes provides a solid foil to John's fringe antics, and Kristanna Loken is a more-than-passable Terminator. Why, then, does this movie make so many dumb choices? Why does a Terminator decide that inflating its chest is a smart tactical move?

Continuing the narrative from Terminator 2, Rise of the Machines is a future where Judgment Day has not happened... yet. John Conner lives on the edges of society, and seems content to be a drifter - that is, until a new Terminator comes looking for him. Or perhaps not just him? Pretty soon the obligatory Schwarzenegger model shows up to keep John safe, and everyone takes off on a breathless race towards the grand finale.

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There is little to no tension in Rise of the Machines, so don't assume this will be a taut thriller like The Terminator. No, this movie is all about big action sequences, and the cast flops from one battle to another, taking very little time to talk to one another. Stahl and Danes get a few bonding moments, but aside from that Rise of the Machines wants to gets itself over with while making cheap, stupid jokes. The moment Arnie does a 'talk to the hand' gesture, you know this isn't going to be a Grade-A experience.

It's a shame, too, because the underlying idea - this movie is Judgment Day - is really cool, and watching modern-era machines come to life and attack humans in the third act is great. But there's ultimately too much dumb for Rise of the Machines to become a classic like its predecessors. This is still the best 'third' film in the Terminator franchise, but that's sadly not saying a lot.

Copyright 2009 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Copyright 2009 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

3. Terminator: Salvation

Of all the films on this list, Salvation is perhaps the most upsetting. It should have been a shoo-in for a new trilogy, striking out into new narrative territory and largely leaving The Terminator and Terminator 2 alone. Alas, a few storytelling missteps - and legal problems - doomed Salvation to be the first one-and-done Terminator film.

Salvation jumps into the future beyond Judgment Day, before John Conner (Christian Bale) is leader of the resistance but well after humanity has been hit by the machines. It largely follows Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a confused convict from the past who finds himself flung into the middle of a resistance plot to destroy Skynet. Marcus meets Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and the third act of the plot revolves around saving Reese from a Skynet base.

Salvation feels a wasted opportunity, though not wholly. This isn't quite the laser-filled future teased in The Terminator, but it's still a cool, blasted landscape where humans struggle to survive against massive odds. Rather than filling out said future, though, Salvation focuses on - and meanders between - its characters, never fully committing to a central protagonist. This should be a John Conner film, but Salvation spends a lot of time with Marcus, meditating on what it means to be human. It's an unfulfilling line of thought. There's also no villain in this movie for a long time, and in a series usually defined by its antagonist that hurts Salvation quite a bit. (And when the villain does rear its head, its plan is... kinda stupid?)

For all its faults, Salvation is still worth watching. The acting is solid, if not spectacular, and getting to see machines that aren't Terminators is great. (Though, that said, a last-minute battle against a T-800 is easily the best action sequence in the film.) Just don't get too attached to the storyline, 'cause it ends here. What a shame.

Copyright 1984 by Orion Pictures.

Copyright 1984 by Orion Pictures.

2. The Terminator

Ranking the Terminator films almost always comes down to two debates: Where to rank the latter four films, and which of the first two films deserves the top spot. All of the Terminator instalments are fun to some degree, but The Terminator and Terminator 2 are in a league of their own. Considering how much of a technical wonderland T2 turned out to be, it's quite an accomplishment that The Terminator still holds its own so well.

Focusing on Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner, The Terminator is a tight, tense thriller from start to finish. Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 has been sent back from the future to eliminate the mother of John Conner, hero of the resistance, and Sarah - rescued by Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese - must go on the run. The T-800 is a relentless killing machine, and will do anything to put a bullet in Sarah's head. It's a simple, effective plot that doesn't dwell on the mechanics of time travel for too long.

It's difficult to pick a favorite among the leads in this film because they're all great. Hamilton shows the most range, evolving from a fun-loving working girl to a harried, horrified, determined survivor by the time the credits roll. Biehn shows Hamilton the way of the warrior, and despite his innate charisma he also displays an appropriate amount of social anxiety in the film's quiet moments. Schwarzenegger is the least emotional of the three, and that's perfect for his character. His Terminator is terrifying, mowing down anyone who tries to fight him as he's slowly reduced to a ghoulish endoskeleton. Mix all three characters together in a series of grim chase sequences and you get one hell of a film.

The Terminator is not perfect by any stretch. The music is... questionable... and many of the effects have not aged well. The pros of the film more than make up for the cons, however, and anyone who thinks they can skip right to the second movie is missing out on a classic horror (yes, horror) experience.

Copyright 1991 by TriStar Pictures.

Copyright 1991 by TriStar Pictures.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

One of the best sequels ever made - perhaps the best sequel, though Aliens and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back make strong cases - Terminator 2: Judgment Day does almost everything right from the get-go. It looks great, it sounds great, it's tense, it's suspenseful, it's well-acted, and it has a surprising amount of heart. Terminator doesn't get any better than this.

Picking up a decade after the events of The Terminator, Judgment Day throws Sarah in a mental institution and leaves her teenaged son John (Edward Furlong) in the care of foster parents. No one believes Sarah's crazed ravings about robots from the future... that is, until two of them show up to mess with the present. One wants to kill John, one wants to protect John, and Sarah, sick of all this Judgment Day stuff, decides to take Skynet out before it's ever born. Tension ensues.

The trio of John, Sarah, and their Terminator protector is great. They all have believable personal dynamics, ranging from Sarah's fear of the T-800 to John's growing bond with the machine. Boy and robot engage in some fun antics without ever getting too goofy, and Schwarzenegger proves again and again that he can play an inhuman killer better than anyone. The one exception may be co-star Robert Patrick, who provides a slimmed-down foil to the T-800 in the more-advanced T-1000. Patrick is as unstoppable here as Schwarzenegger was in The Terminator, and includes numerous, tiny touches that make the T-1000 even more unsettling than its predecessor. (Have you counted the number of times the T-1000 blinks in this movie? It's not often.)

A magnificent fusion of big-budget action sequences and quiet, low-key suspense, Terminator 2: Judgment Day more than earns the top spot on this list. If you want the ultimate Terminator experience then you need only watch The Terminator and Judgment Day duology. The rest feels like filler by comparison.

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