Ranking All the Movies In the Terminator Franchise

Terminator 3 Arnold Schwarzenegger

Well, it’s that time of the decade: time for the decennial Terminator movie.  It’s been a while since we’ve shaken off the last one and this franchise is, if nothing else, always flush with young blood discovering the first two films.  And since it looks like we’re due for a fresh influx of sequels after the most recent reboot to the franchise, I figured that we should take stock at what James Cameron’s fever dream’s given us to work with thus far.

5) Terminator 3 – Although not quite “bad” or “unecessary” enough to write off completely, Terminator 3 is universally considered the worst of the franchise for good reason.  Coming off of two exceptional films, the makers of Terminator 3 were confident that the franchise could simply run on auto-pilot: no innovation needed for a guaranteed windfall of money.

So even though the movie mostly succeeded at what it set out to do, it was everything that the first two movies had already done, and better.  Arnold was a good deal older than he was in 1991 and wasn’t quite up to the task of the robotic assassin-cum-savior of the future.  The T-X was pretty cool, but was essentially just the T-1000 with a factory-installed flamethrower.  The absence of Sarah Connor, not to mention rewriting Judgment Day‘s perfect ending, didn’t do it any favors either.

Interestingly, the thin justification for its existence – that Judgment day was a temporal necessity spawned by the inherent need of the universe to send Terminators back in time to simultaneously prevent and ensure the machine uprising – is the sole justification for watching this movie.  It connects Judgment Day to Salvation with a incessently logical proof: not especially fun, but canonically necessary.

Terminator Salvation Arnold Schwarzenegger

Photo via Flickeringmyth.com.

4) Terminator Salvation – I have to give Terminator Salvation its due credit.  After its immediate predecessor closed off the relative past (our present) as a viable franchise setting, the makers of this movie basically decided “screw it, set it in the future instead.”

And, oddly enough, it worked.  Salvation explored the post-apocalyptic world of Skynet with nihilistic glee: ranging from Human concentration camps to Human insurgencies like a kid in a candy store trying to decide what to taste first.  The special effects department had finally caught up with Cameron’s dystopic vision from 1984, able to render it stunningly before our eyes.  They were even able to recreate vintage Schwarzenegger for the final  boss fight, which was an especially awesome not to its wibbly-wobbly narrative.

What Salvation earned with its ballsy direction, it lost out with an overly complicated – and only marginally interesting – plot about an out-of-element convict turned into a semi-Terminator designed to infiltrate and destroy John Connor’s Human resistance: as if Kyle Reese’s desperate survival in an apocalyptic wasteland while trying to join up with mankind’s prophetic last hope wasn’t enough for one movie.  Salvation is a fun and well-shot blockbuster, and almost makes me wish that they had done more in this particular moment of the franchise’s tangled narrative.  Almost.

Terminator Genisys Arnold Schwarzenegger Pops 1

Photo via Blastr.com.

3) Terminator Genisys – Despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews, the latest Terminator is easily the best we’ve seen in decades (excepting rewatches of the first two, of course).  It succeeded in going to the franchise’s only possible conclusion: turning back in on itself like a temporal ouroboros.  It brought the franchise so far into the future that it had no choice but go back to where it all began on that fateful night in 1984.

And other than a head-scratching second-act decision to further time-jump into the 2015 in order to cash in on society’s need to villify Steve Jobs, it works.  It’s fun, it’s exciting and it finally addresses why the actor playing an ageless machine is considerably older than he was decades before.  There are awesome, if brief, callbacks to the first movies, including another vintage T-800 and a few new tricks that the T-1000 can pull off with his maleable anatomy.

While Terminator Genisys was as intently focussed on setting up future sequels and spin-offs as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, it never did so at the expense of the movie that we had just paid $10 to see.  And like Terminator Salvation, its over-written plot could have cut out most of its extraneous details (traveling three decades into the future in order to bring us back into the “present”) and just focussed on the time-warped night in 1984: where Sarah Connor’s pet Terminator (aka Pops) helps an out-of-his-element Kyle Reese destroy the revamped T-1000 that should have been sent back years later.  The movie that we did end up seeing, however, was an exciting – if somewhat unfocussed – version of what I’ve been waiting my entire life to see.

Terminator James Cameron Arnold Schwarzenegger

Photo via Blastr.com.

2) The Terminator – It’s easy to forget that most of the great action franchises to spawn out of the 70s and 80s – like Alien and Predator – began with horror movies that needed something new for their inevitable sequels.  Terminator is no exception.  The 1984 film that started it all was slasher movie born of writer-director James Cameron’s fever-induced dream about a chrome torso dragging itself out of a massive explosion and toward him using kitchen knives.

And that’s basically how the entire first movie plays out: a surreal slasher narrative that’s far more ephemereal than anything that followed it.  Despite its notably dated special effects, the movie holds up so well to modern scrutiny because it is, at its core, an evocative and well-designed story.  The Terminator‘s specific technical faults are a minor gripe, and easily overlooked due to Schwarzenegger’s inherently robot appearance making everything mostly seem intentional.

It also can’t be understated just how exccceptional a director Cameron actually is.  He took as mind-warping a subject as time travelling robotic assassins erasing from existence the very reason why they were sent back in the first place and made it a resounding mainstream success.  These kinds of movies – if they’re even green-lit in the first place – are supposed to be schlocky, disposable genre flicks that fill in programming gaps on late-night TV, not tentpole summer franchises.

Terminator 2 Judgment Day Arnold Schwarzenegger John Connor

Photo via Thedissolve.com.

1) Terminator 2: Judgment Day – If there’s one movie that every Terminator fan has seen, it isn’t the first one.  It isn’t whatever the latest one to come out has been.  It’s Judgment Day: the shockingly stand-alone sequel that distills everything that’s awesome about the entire franchise into two hours.

It replaced the T-800’s standing as the bad-guy with that of being the hero: a lone protector from the future sent back to save the very person he had previously tried to prevent from ever existing.  The new assassin, the T-1000, is easily the coolest sci-fi villain to ever hit the big screen: a assassin made of liquid metal, allowing him to transform into literally anybody, not to mention reshape his body into any number of melee weapons.  It even gave us Sarah Connor – badass hero at large – to replace the timid victim from the first movie.

The thing is, though, that the movie gets even better the more you look into it.  Check out the Director’s Cutsometimes referred to as the Skynet Edition – which is vastly superior to its still-awesome theatrical cut.  It goes a long way to developing the third-act character of Miles Dyson and shows in perfectly fluid terms exactly why the Terminator went from a read-only machine to one of the most endearingly Human characters in cinematic history.


  • Corey

    Perfectly in line with my rankings