Reviewing All Terminator Movies in Order of Release

Updated on July 30, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

In a couple of months, Terminator: Dark Fate is coming out. One way to prepare for this is by watching all the Terminator movies in order. I didn't try to watch them for continuity in the story, because frankly starting from Terminator 3 would become a troublesome ordeal. Keep in mind that Terminator: Dark Fate will also retcon the Terminator saga. Everything after number two will no longer be canon. I still believe it's ok to watch all of them, but it will be the last time I watch numbers three to five on the list.

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

1. The Terminator (1984)

Movie Details

Title: The Terminator

Release Year: 1984

Director(s): James Cameron

Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, a.o.

The Terminator is the embodiment of James Cameron’s stubbornness and self-confidence. His written treatment of a cyborg who travels back in time to assassinate the mother of his most feared human enemy raised all possible eyebrows at that moment. Even his own agent immediately dismissed the idea.

But Cameron couldn’t shake the nightmare that inspired his film idea: a metallic torso with knives in its hand, slowly crawling from an explosion. It was an image too iconic and too terrifying. He had to fight for it.

What did Cameron do? He fired his agent and went ahead with his idea. Slowly and progressively, he got people on board with the project. In a reunion with producer Gale Anne Hurd, Cameron enlisted the help of his friend actor Lance Henriksen, who disguised himself as the Terminator, kicked the office door open and quietly sat down while listening to Cameron’s pitch. Cameron was committed to his idea.

After selling the rights to The Terminator’s script for a dollar with the promise of having the film directed by him, Cameron remained firm, gradually and progressively convincing those involved. It wasn’t easy; Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone rejected the call while Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Biehn accepted with strong reservations.

Even after the shooting was finished and the directorial talent of Cameron was confirmed, Orion Pictures executives were convinced that the movie was going to be a flop. They ended up releasing the film after the blockbuster summer season.

Of course, The Terminator was a box office hit, received critical acclaim and ended up leaving its indelible stamp on pop culture.

Other factors played in its favor, like its incredible pacing and groundbreaking special effects. Arnold Schwarzenegger was reaffirming his movie star status, and this stoic, powerful and intimidating role was perfect for him. The empathy achieved by the characters of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn was, on the other hand, the perfect emotional counterpart to the Terminator.

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But above everything, Cameron showed that there was a future in this thing he called Tech Noir, a hybrid of genres between futuristic sci-fi and film noir that had clear precedents in movies like Soylent Green and Blader Runner. With a clean battlefield after the end of the so-called “New Hollywood era,” Cameron’s storytelling inspired and opened the door to future projects such as Dark City, Brazil, The City of Lost Children, Gattaca, 12 Monkeys, Ghost in the Shell and most importantly for me Terminator 2.

The legacy of The Terminator goes well beyond its four sequels. The themes about technophobia, the role of the human being in the construction of his own future, in addition to the eternal debate between predetermined destiny vs. free will, all in sci-fi/action popcorn fashion, ceased to be B-movies plots and started to have a significant role in pop culture. Thanks to The Terminator, we have movies like Back to the Future, The Matrix, Donnie Darko, Ghost in the Shell and most recently Looper, Ex Machina, Edge of Tomorrow or Predestination.

Like John Connor in his universe, Cameron was adamant in his ideals. Imagine how different the view would be without the stubbornness of a single individual.

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Movie Details

Title: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Release Year: 1991

Director(s): James Cameron

Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick a.o.

Let's say it from the start. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the pinnacle of what a blockbuster should be. It's the highest quality point of comparison when it comes to making a high budget film that aspires to have wise storytelling, memorable characters and unforgettable elements of action, sci-fi or both.

For current standards, T-2's visual effects are beginning to look a little outdated. It doesn't matter. Not only have they flawlessly endured almost two decades, but they also marked a trend and influenced millions. Only The Matrix's bullet-time effect can recently be compared to the impact that T-2's morphing and CGI had in film history.

Of course, FX aren't enough to raise a movie to the status of a classic. The characters in T-2 are iconic, incredibly well written, ideally planned and perfectly cast.

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The one character that impresses from the first second is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Sarah is all that she wasn't in The Terminator. She's tough, self-aware, independent and the complete opposite of naive. The fact that Hamilton makes it credible (You can see glimpses of good old innocent Sarah when she is at her most vulnerable) speaks volumes about her incredible histrionic abilities. This is an excellent physical performance.

Arnold Schwarzenegger manages to deliver the necessary twist to his T-800 stoic role, being now one of the good guys who also can learn and understand human actions and emotions. His role as John Connor's brief father figure is perfection.

And then there is the revelation. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is the heart of the film and the perfect abstraction of the "cool rebel spirit" of the early 90s. John wears a Public Enemy t-shirt and a grunge flannel. He listens to Guns N' Roses, talks like Bart Simpson and has the Johnny Depp/River Phoenix hairdo. The magnetism of the future leader of the resistance is strong.

When I first watched the movie I was seven or eight years old, and I remember Robert Patrick as the T-1000 scaring the hell out of me. An enemy that could change into anyone, was nearly unstoppable and was able to have blades for hands.

And of course, a great story is as good as its villain. The adamant-looking, clean-cut killer T-1000 is as menacing as they come. The T-1000 is simply one of the best villains in cinematic memory.

And then, of course, there is the fantastic script, full of explosions, violent deaths, persecutions and profound musings about our destructive nature. I still laugh out loud--while dying inside--at the scene where John Connor sees two children angrily playing with toy guns, sighs and then sadly asks "We're not gonna make it, are we?” before continuing working towards their plan. T-2's greatness is that even though it is surrounded by pessimism, our protagonist trio power through.

The temporal paradox, a subject suggested in The Terminator (with the relationship between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor conceiving John and creating the whole situation they wanted to prevent), is even bigger in T-2. John Connor's favorite phrase is, "the future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves." But all his actions (both in the future and present) seem destined to create that same future. In general, all of T-2's actions appear to fit perfectly with the unwanted future... but there's also definitely a change.

That's the greatness of Cameron's storytelling. When a sci-fi film decides to tackle the theme of time travel, it must decide whether its version of the future will follow the theory of the "predetermined fixed timeline" (as seen in films such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or 12 Monkeys) or the multiverse theory (Back to the Future, Star Trek reboot). T-2, determined not to be defined by any stereotype, resists the norm and manages to be ambiguous and satisfying at the same time.

Has the future been modified or have all the chips fallen perfectly in their respective positions?

The answer, sadly, was found in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Luckily I only have great youthful memories from the first two installments and I'm happy to ignore later mistakes. Terminator 2 is the best of all Terminator movies IMHO.

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

Movie Details

Title: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Release Year: 2003

Director(s): Jonathan Mostow

Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Claire Danes, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, a.o.

For years, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has lived unpunished under the fallacious "it could have been worse" argument. A little truth that has been magnified to the point of vindicating a film that doesn't deserve it.

Terminator 3 is an empty shell. All its directing, scriptwriting, casting and special effects decisions seem to have been designed just to create an attractive crowd bait summer trailer. Terminator 3 is a film infinitely inferior to its predecessors, with an unclear artistic reason for its existence.

The movie, almost in a childish and rebellious fashion, decided to or rather tried to, implant its "personality" by taking the opposite route of the previous films. It's a forced, disrespectful and sad act.

The first great blasphemy of Terminator 3 is to have completely sucked the mojo of the John Connor character. Nick Stahl, although a good actor, isn't even the shadow of what Edward Furlong created years ago. Terminator 2's John Connor is rebellious, intelligent, perceptive and brave. Terminator 3's John is nothing like that.

The argument that this John is broken because he feels worthless without a Judgment Day is a greater offense to a character who would never have given up his life in that way. But still doing the mental exercise of accepting that fact (because, you know, drugs are bad and all that), the character doesn't generate any inner journey.

John is always overcome, intimidated, manipulated and manhandled by all the other characters. If picking up a microphone and saying "John Connor" and "I am" makes you the leader of the resistance, well, what the hell does anything else matter?

Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 returns with the objective of apparently parodying himself. From the "talk to the hand" bit to Elton John's star glasses, this T-800 has neither the macabre mystery it had in The Terminator nor the heart it achieved in Terminator 2. It's a role meant just to give some twists to the famous one-liners.

The two new female characters (Kristanna Loken's T-X and Claire Danes' Kate Brewster) are interesting ideas on paper. But when one ends up admitting that Robert Patrick's T-1000 is much more threatening than this supposed vastly superior killing machine, something was wrong in the execution.

Kate, meanwhile, is an ok character with the less believable calm reaction to her perfect life being destroyed in a matter of hours.

And, of course, there is no Sarah Connor. Linda Hamilton read the script, saw who was involved in the project and preferred to pass. Maybe rightly so. Terminator 3then unceremoniously kills her character off via leukemia. She leaves a coffin full of weapons and a pathetic weak son who lost all the spark he had at age 13.

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But the primary mistake made here was to terminate the main subject of the saga, the relationship of humankind with their own future. That constant debate around making our own fate with the perennial feeling that nothing has been changed.

Terminator 3 eliminates any possible future motivation: Judgment Day is inevitable, and modifications in the future are just cosmetic. The central tension of the saga has been removed, the mystery has been torn out, and the result wasn't epic. Why fight for the human race if its ultimate, irreversible destiny is self-extinction?

Terminator 3 didn't learn from one sister saga who made the same mistake when it reached the third chapter. Terminator 3 and Alien 3 deserve each other.

The worst was yet to come. After a failed attempt to expand the mythology to a post-Judgment Day scenario with Terminator Salvation, the low point of the saga would arrive with Terminator Genisys and its humorless, cannibalistic self-parody.

4. Terminator Salvation (2009)

Movie Details

Title: Terminator Salvation

Release Year: 2009

Director(s): McG

Actors: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, a.o.

The best thing you can say about Terminator Salvation is that it's self-aware of the quality pit in which its saga is in. That's why instead of trying to emulate the structure and themes of the original trilogy, this movie commits itself to the new post-Judgment Day reality.

There is no actor from the original saga, there is no time travel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is reduced to a 30-second digital cameo.

In Terminator Salvation, the central theme is the sci-fi favorite philosophical question: "what makes us human?" Formulaic, yes, but effective. The mythology introduces the character of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death row convict.

Thanks to his relationship with ex-Cyberdyne scientist Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), Marcus decides to donate his body to science. The year is 2003, days before Judgment Day.

Years later, in the middle of the machine wars (2018), John Connor (Christian Bale) and his unit attack a Skynet base. In there, they discover human prisoners and the T-800 prototype schemes. Marcus (whose body can be seen inert on an operating table minutes before) mysteriously survives the attack and, confused, begins to walk towards Los Angeles in search of answers. He crosses path with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who brings him up to date before being captured by Skynet.

After a series of clashes and fortuitous encounters, Marcus is captured by John Connor. It's at that moment when Marcus realizes that he is a cyborg. His interior is a mechanical endoskeleton. The conflict intensifies; Marcus claims that he is human while Connor is convinced "it" is an infiltration machine designed to assassinate him.

They both have good points in the argument. All this tension builds while Skynet is about to execute young Kyle Reese, which would "reset" the entire timeline, wiping John Connor and the resistance from existence.

Terminator Salvation's story (not the screenplay) is certainly interesting and engaging. This setting is a good way to try to renew the saga. The plot, more focused on the dystopia, provides a nice look at the relationship between humans, machines and their gray area.

The casting is superb and considering his multicolored summer pop background directing Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, and The Offspring music videos and rebooting Charlie's Angels, director McG is a pleasant surprise. Restrained, cold, intelligent and professional, he does with the fragile script (written and reviewed by too many people) the best he can.

But in the end, the film suffers from high standards syndrome. It's a solid sci-fi action movie, but by having the Terminator stamp on its title makes expectations understandably greater and more demanding. Terminator Salvation, simply put, is not an unforgettable movie.

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The script doesn't have a clear narrator, so the protagonism quickly dissolves between characters. Christian Bale is too much of a Christian Bale for his version of John Connor and ends up eclipsing the character with his star power. The female characters (a cornerstone of the saga) are forgettable sidekicks.

And although in the last few minutes, the movie makes a, borderline cheesy, effort to resume its motif about the dichotomy of the human and artificial, it simply doesn't have the depth or the heart (not by a long shot) of the first two films.

Perhaps the quality of the saga is irreversibly linked to James Cameron. Linda "Sarah Connor" Hamilton said it better:

“The series was perfect with two films. It was a complete circle, and it was enough in itself. But there will always be those who will try to milk the cow.”

The undeniable fact is that the salvation of Terminator this was not.

5. Terminator Genisys (2015)

Movie Details

Title: Terminator Genisys

Release Year: 2015

Director(s): Alan Taylor

Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, a.o.

Some years ago, when James Cameron was asked if he had plans to return to the Terminator saga, the director bluntly replied:

“The series has kind of run its course [...] frankly, the soup's already been pissed in by other filmmakers.”

That couldn't be truer in Terminator Genisys, where we see a new Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), a new John Connor (Jason Clarke, who became the fifth actor playing the character in films), a new Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, third actor) and even a NOT-Robert-Patrick-T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun).

Brand new faces, united in the same reality with an aging Schwarzenegger, who is playing good ol' T-800 one more time. It's incredibly distracting and a perfect allegory of the movie.

Beyond the casting, this is how the movie feels. Convoluted, muddled by its history, too focused on paying homage to the first two movies while fixing the flaws of the two last ones.

As far as the Terminator saga and time travel are concerned, there are three options. The first, and more complicated, is to achieve, by using superior storytelling, a mysterious gray area between determinism and free will (Terminator 1 & 2). That constant uncertainty, that slight anguish about the future was the essential pulse of the Terminator mythos.

The second option, a wrong one, is to eliminate what made the first two movies great and claim that the future is fixed (Terminator 3). Terminator Genisys then assumes the unprecedented third option, and also apparently a wrong one, of introducing the theory of multiverses. Inspired by Back to the Future 2 (no, seriously), the actions in the past butterfly effect the future, creating multiple timelines.

The problem is that Terminator Genisys does so in the worst possible way. We see just one timeline, filled with changes and sometimes unexplained variations. T-800 (various), T-1000, T-5000, Skynet, Kyle, Sarah, John, John-T-3000, Daniel Dyson, the son of Miles Dyson, whose absence is never explained, all dumped in the same present, coexisting. The plot raises dozens of unanswered questions.

Even the characters in Terminator Genisys are confused with this mess. The same T-3000 John Connor, who should have all the answers, has no idea: “You know what I think? We’re marooned, the three of us. We’re exiles in time”. And then an improvised “You hear that, Kyle? That’s the dice rolling”. Incredible.

Skynet is now called Genisys, and it's some sort of an app/OS (a paid one!) about to be released. Everyone is super excited about it for no apparent reason, because it isn't clear what it truly does, beyond the interconnectivity that social media has already offered us for years.

Seeing an absurd and unrealistic male nurse (Douglas Smith) chewing gum explaining Genisys as something "super cool" that will keep him "totally connected" doesn't help at all.

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One of the few hits of this movie is Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, of course, the idea that Terminator's living-tissue exterior was vulnerable to aging, came straight from James Cameron.

Defending this movie is hard. For example, there's a "funny" scene in which Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, and the T-800 are arrested, and while they make funny grumpy faces for the mugshots, Inner Circle's "Bad Boys" is playing. It's a horrible, cringe-inducing forced bit that has nothing to do with the rest of the film.

After seeing that, I was convinced that Terminator Genisys was going to display a blooper reel on the final credits. In an act of infinite mercy, that didn't happen.

What did happen was that Cameron, an initial supporter of this project, has now decided to return to the franchise by planning a final rebooted movie (Terminator: Dark Fate) that will serve as the saga's definitive conclusion. Although he is only a producer while Tim Miller is directing, the film will at least have Linda Hamilton again.

Throw that sour soup away, James.

That's it, these are all Terminator movies before the release of Terminator: Dark Fate which will branch of after Terminator 2 in a separate storyline. Let's hope this time we will have a decent film so we can talk about the good trilogy. Some things do worry me like Arnold's role without being a gimmick. We get an older Sarah Connor, but do we get an older John Connor or a good explanation on why he isn't there, etc.

The Terminator movies are still one of my favorite science fiction movie series. I could handle everything till Genisys, which was bad and boring instead of just bad.

© 2019 Sam Shepards


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      2 months ago

      I agree. Arnold is always a plus in a terminator movie.

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      2 months ago from Europe

      For me Salvation was ok, If you see the movie as a general standalone sci-fi.

      Genisys really tried to connect to the original storyline and then just started messing with it. That makes it hard to pull this one away from the legacy on which it builds. A lot of things just didn't work for me, seeing Arnold again is a plus.

    • profile image


      2 months ago

      Good review of the franchise. T 2 is my favorite film in the franchise after all this time. I have yet to see salvation but I might check it out. Genysis is probably the worst in the franchise but I had fun watching old Arnie fight young Arnie at the beginning and some of the action scenes were decent. If you turn your brain off it is tolerable.


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