I’m sure there’s a whole pun about the Terminator franchise coming back but being the serious, hard-hitting journalist we are, we’ll spare you our corny dad jokes. Ah, what the hell. James Cameron is back baby! So you can say hasta la vista to hamfisted reinterpretations of the Terminator mythos because he’s here to get this franchise back on track, fingers crossed. So with Terminator: Dark Fate coming out this week, we figured that now would be a good a time as any to take a retrospective look back at the franchise thus far. Whether you love them or hate them, the franchise has made great contributions to pop-culture history and to the wider canon of science fiction. It made high metaphysical and philosophical concepts like determinism, alternate timelines, artificial consciousness and destiny accessible to the common man.
Over the years we’ve seen the films evolve and change for better and for worse. It’s time to see where this fresh new take on the Terminator story ranks among its brethren. We’re counting all 6 Terminator films in order of worst to best!
6. Terminator: Genisys (2015)
This film gave me a headache. Not in that fun, cerebral Christopher-Nolan-puzzle-box kind of way. I mean it actually hurts my head to think about how much Terminator: Genisys screws up the franchise’s timeline and how revolting these renditions of some of action cinema’s most iconic characters are. Genisys’ premise sees Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed T-800, or Pops, go back in time to save Sarah Connor long before his younger, future self does. He raises Sarah as his daughter so when Kyle Reese goes back in time, it turns out Sarah and Pops are already waiting for him.
Okay, still following. Then it’s revealed that a T-5000 Terminator from another Skynet from another timeline came and infected John Connor before sending him back in time to quicken the coming of Skynet. So now Sarah Connor, Kyle and Pops have to stop John Connor…before he kills them? Wait what? If this sounds nonsensical to you, then you’re absolutely bloody right. If John Connor kills his mum and dad, he dies! When Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor tries to explain this to a now Terminator John, he literally answers back “Says who?”. Says who?! Says freaking logic. This is the kind of answer a 3-year old gives.
Look Clarke does her level best with the material given to her, even if her British accent does come and go at times. Schwarzenegger is phoning it in and Jai Courtney’s being Jai Courtney, mediocre. I don’t blame the actors, really I don’t. I blame the writers who thought it would be a “cool” idea to turn John Connor into the bad guy. Terminator: Genisys epitomizes everything I hate about reboots. Lazy writing, cheap gimmicks that were meant to be subversive, and toothless characterization. Genisys is heresy, plain and simple. A distorted aberration of the original first two films.
5. Terminator Salvation (2009)
Otherwise known as Michael Bay Presents Terminator! How the hell did we get here? What is this garbage! Apparently, badass Christian Bale’s John Connor isn’t the actual leader and messiah of the human Resistance. He’s some glorified lieutenant to generic, angry military man played by Michael Ironside. Turns out that Skynet made some half-human, half-Terminator hybrid that they thought would be useful in luring John Connor into a trap. Which is a really stupid and convoluted plan, like insanely far-fetched. Sure Skynet has time-travel tech but I hardly doubt they have the divine foresight to have their random hybrid bump into Reese and taken to Connor. Talk about stretches! Even director McG’s large action set pieces aren’t enough to be the film’s salvation. What a colossal waste of time.
Christian Bale is fine as John Connor I suppose but there really isn’t much depth beyond him screaming real good. Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese is serviceable at first and abysmally dull at worst, playing a typical plucky kid with a ton of heart and grit. The most egregious offender here has got to be Sam Worthington. With all due respect James Cameron, screw you for saddling us with this guy. He was a bore in Avatar and he’s a bore here as well!
We had to spend nearly the entire film with him as he plays catch-up with the world around him. There has to be a better way to introduce the War between Machine and Man than this walking potato-of-a-man. His only two modes are confused intensity and rage. Terminator Salvation is the kind of movie you watch playing at a bar without sound. A mild distraction to infinitely more interesting things happening around you.
4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
By all accounts, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines isn’t a terrible film. Dare I say, there were even moments of inspired storytelling in the film. The film is set during the final days before Judgment Day, not the film but the event. A female Terminator, Terminatrix (my eyes have officially reached the back of my head) has been sent back in time to assassinate key players of the future Resistance movement. Once again, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is also sent back in time to protect John Connor as a T-850. This time he’s reprogrammed by John’s future wife, Kate to save the man he murdered in 2032. The world is on the edge of annihilation and it’s up to a young Kate, John Connor and T-850 to stop it from ever happening.
The redeeming note in this otherwise bland, lacklustre follow-up to its phenomenal predecessor would be the ending. It is revealed that Judgment Day was an inevitability and that the T-850 ‘s only mission was to keep Connor alive. I really do respect the film for not trying to throw us another hamfisted time-travel plot twist. Instead, it leaves us with this grim, sombre message of accepting fate and carrying on in spite of the pain. Honestly, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the film.
What I do take issue with is the lack of personality given to the T-850 and the lack of charisma for John Connor. There’s some contrived bullshit reason on why the T-850 isn’t built with enough empathy processors or whatever but it doesn’t change the fact that feels like the franchise has taken two steps back. Nick Stahl as a wandering John Connor hiding from his destiny has a lot of potential but we never quite see him come into his own. So we’re left with a boring T-850 and an unbelievable John Connor.
3. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Yes, Dark Fate is the best film since T2 but that really isn’t saying much on its own. While I didn’t exactly love Dark Fate, I’ve gotta say that I enjoyed the film quite it a fair bit. Without giving too much away, the plot of this film fits organically well after the events of T2. Skynet is for all intents and purposes, dead. There’s no real reason for John and Sarah Connor’s story to be the main focus. So I’m glad Cameron didn’t try to cash in nostalgic brownie points. In Skynet’s place, we get a new, more terrifying version of the A.I., Legion. A little on the nose but sure, why not? The Rev-9s in place of the traditional T-800s are a sight to behold. They move with such animalistic speed and ferocity, it is almost akin to the kinetic insanity of the Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow. So whenever we saw Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 on-screen tearing ass, it was an absolute treat.
Linda Hamilton’s return as a traumatized, grizzled Sarah Connor serves to be more than just a neat callback. There is a genuine chapter of her story in need of closing along with Schwarzenegger’s T-800, or Carl. Mackenzie Davis gives a spirited performance as Grace, the cyborg-human defender of mankind’s new messiah, Dani Ramos. Davis demonstrates moving sincerity in moments of maternal protection and is more than capable of channelling that heart into her rage in the heat of battle.
Natalia Reyes’ Dani Ramos, however, hasn’t quite sold me the idea of her being the new John Connor. There’s a particular scene in the film that was meant to connote the gravity of her words and presence but fell flat in my opinion. Near the end, I started to see glimpses of her coming glory but I’ve yet to put my faith in her. Dark Fate is no cinematic classic but it certainly is a promising start to a new trilogy that I wouldn’t mind following. If you’d like a more in-depth review of the film, take a look at our resident film critic’s thoughts on Dark Fate.
2. The Terminator (1984)
We went back and forth with regards to which of the first two films belong at the top of our list. Some would make a case for The Terminator (T1) seeing that is the one that it is the film that made cinematic history. And while I can understand why they’d choose T1 for their top spot, we love T2 just a little more than its prequel. That being said, T1 was a watershed moment for sci-fi cinema and James Cameron. It, along with films like Back to the Future, would go on to inspire a generation of time-travel based sci-fi films to come. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the film has a fairly simple premise: An unstoppable killing machine from the future returns to the past to kill the mother of humanity’s future saviour. A Resistance soldier also travels back in time to ensure humanity’s survival.
The beauty of T1 is that it is essentially a chase thriller. While there are some stunning action sequences and brilliant moments of drama, the film is constantly propelled by this foreboding sense of danger. The moments of peace, clarity, connection and ultimately love are savoured in the quiet before a hurricane of death comes blowing through. The film doesn’t feel the need to beat us over the head with exposition like other future films. So when the twist does come, it feels both mind-blowing while at the same time totally believable. Kyle is John’s dad!
It’s a simple predestination loop concept before the coming of diverging timeline nonsense (looking at you Genisys). T1 is perfection in simplicity and has forever become a household name whenever anyone thinks about androids, time-travel and Schwarzenegger.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Was this really a surprise? This is Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2) we’re talking about here. It is a rarity for a sequel to top the original but when it does, history has informed us that we are in for a masterpiece. While Terminator was a superb sci-fi thriller film with dystopian elements and time travel, T2 is all of that and so much more. It takes its predecessors Robo-slasher DNA and incorporates a surprising genre into the mix: family drama. Amidst the insane action of the T-1000 and the jaw-dropping SFX of the time, there’s a really fine attention to detail when it comes to character development and story.
Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, a victim of trauma and loss after the murder of her lover Kyle Reese, lives in a constant state of martial paranoia. A warrior waiting for the fight to come. In her obsession over wars of the future, she has neglected those who need her in the now, a young John Connor. Then Cameron has the brilliant idea of bringing back the T-800 but this time as a friend to Sarah and a paternal figure to John. The machine that tore her life apart in the first film is the one to teach her the meaning of it in the second.
Arnold’s performance here is the best it has ever been in the franchise. He takes all the stoic focus of the original and plays it off brilliantly for laughs. Oblivious without ever becoming moronic. Charming without ever quite becoming too much of a smart ass. Arnold had to play a machine on the verge of grasping humanity.
A tall order that demands nuance and tact with each movement, expression and word executed with mechanical precision with a hint of sentiment betraying each of them. There are many reasons why we chose T2 to be our top pick from its impressive, stylish action to its engaging road-trip odyssey of a story but for making a whole generation of manly bros shed a tear, T2 has earned a permanent place in our sci-fi hall of fame.