Ranking the Terminator Films

With The Terminator, James Cameron created one of the greatest movie franchises of all-time. The films have varied in quality, but the world and characters created offer so much potential. That’s likely why Hollywood keeps attempting to go back to that well.

For me, I view the Terminator films as an excellent duology of films followed by some big budget fan fiction. While I can appreciate aspects of all of the films, three of them seem more concerned with making a blockbuster than making a great Terminator film. Thus, they tend to violate some rules of the franchise, and miss the point of the series entirely.  

Still, it’s one of my favorite franchises, and tons of fun to talk about whether gushing on the best of the series, or trashing the absurdities of the weak points.



#5 | Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines [Blu-ray]
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, Claire Danes, Christopher Lawford

Terminator 3 is just as big and slick as Terminator 2, but it doesn't seem to understand what made T2 great. Whereas Terminator 2 attempted to do something very different from it’s predecessor, Terminator 3 treats Terminator 2 like a checklist for how to make a hit film; All the while failing to understand that Terminator 2 worked precisely because it didn’t try and copy what came before it.

Production-wise, this is probably the best produced and constructed of the non-Cameron films. But, it's also the least interesting. It has nothing new to bring to the table besides a female Terminator that controls cars and a new deterministic philosophy. John Connor is presented as weak and uncertain. It's not just that he doubts himself, it's that the film never once gives us a hint of the greatness promised by the previous films.   

One of the biggest problems for me is the change of the series’ philosophy. The second film presented a clear philosophy that we can change the future. It was hopeful. This film undermines that philosophy with clear determinism. The only reason for the change seems to be to justify the films existence and offer a 3rd act plot twist. This type of sequel in many ways is the worst kind to me. It’s inferior to what came before, and it damages the superior mythology that came before.

Since the film is the least interesting to me, and weakens the mythology of the series, I have to put it on the bottom.   


#4 | Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons

For many, this film easily belongs on the bottom. For the most part, I fully sympathize with those who wish to put it there. The film contains by far the clumsiest narrative, strangest casting, and insane ideas. 

But, for the same reasons that this is in last spot for many, it's an interesting film to me. On a basic level, it's just kind of fun to watch a train wreck. And in the places where this movie fails, it fails so miserably, it's at least interesting. The central premise is so apocryphal, offensive to what came before, and mishandled, it's hard to not watch in amazement.  

With all that said, unlike Terminator 3, this movie actually explores some interesting ideas. The idea of Arnold's T-800 raising Sarah Connor and growing old is an interesting idea. Kyle Reese going back in time to a changed timeline could have made for an interesting movie. Now, the idea of John Connor being an evil Terminator is simply an abomination…it's not even fan fiction…it is any fan's nightmare. 

For its many flaws, Arnold is still great in the role, and this film gives him something new in the role that matches his ages. Likewise, J.K. Simmons shines in his few minutes of screen time. Unfortunately, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke are HORRIBLY miscast as Kyle Reese and John Connor. While Emilia Clarke seems like a good casting choice for this Sarah Connor, the actual performance the director captures is seriously lacking. 


#3 – Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation (Two-Disc Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]
Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter

On paper, this seems like an easy hit. It explores a time period in Terminator mythology that fans are naturally interested in, and Christian Bale (2009) almost seems like too obvious of a choice to play John Connor at that time. Anton Yelchin might not have been obvious choice for Kyle Reese, but he delivered a solid performance. Likewise, Sam Worthington delivered an equally good performance. 

Yet, somehow, this movie is surprisingly dull and misguided, given the setting and cast. For starters, while the main plotlines do tie together, the story seems disjointed and meandering. The entire first hour of the film features Sam Worthington's Marcus wandering around with whoever will travel with him, while the robots are kidnapping people, and John Connor is struggling to lead the resistance as a radio host. It's unclear who the lead character is, and what the main plotline is.   

Most of this is likely due to the number of writers that worked on the project. The film is infamous for having been written and re-written by an unusually large number of writers. The director, McG, claims that Jonathan Nolan did the bulk of the writing (while on set), but he's not a credited screenwriter on the film. So much changed from script to screen that the author of the novelization had to pull his copy from the publisher and re-write the book once they started editing the film.   

The script issues likely happened due to the casting of Christian Bale. The origins film wasn't intended to focus as much on John Connor but, once Bale was cast, supposedly there was a sudden need to re-write the script to make him the star. The end result isn't an awful film, but it is an unfocused film that never lives up to its potential.   

It's also important to note that this film's marketing features one of the worst examples of a trailer revealing a major plot twist. The entire first hour of the film is centered on the mystery of who Marcus is, and the trailer blatantly gives away the answer to the mystery. 

It's important to note that there is a HUGE gap between spots 2 and 3 on my list.  The bottom three are pretty well equally disappointing entries in the series, and the top two are both amazing accomplishments in film. 


#2 - The Terminator 

The Terminator [Blu-ray] - Packaging Color may Vary
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen

At different times in my life, this has been my favorite of the Terminator films. The film's central ideas are at the same time simple and brilliant, and they provide the perfect context to get the best out of the horror, action, and sci-fi genres.   

The film manages to embrace the clichés and tropes of the genres, while at the same time justifying them. Take, for example, the sex scene. It was a fairly common action movie troupe in the 80s for the lead male and female characters to eventually sleep together. This movie fully embraces the cliché but, at the same time, it manages a way to make it possibly the most important scene in the entire movie. You don’t necessarily know it at the time, but that's James Cameron’s brilliance. He's able to both offer the audience what they want, while crafting something more intelligent and thought-out than his peers. 

The film follows a similar structure as his later film, Aliens, in that it starts out somewhat slow and builds tension but, once things get going, it never really lets up. Cameron even had the forethought to put the extensive expository dialogue primarily during a car chase. Thus, even when large amounts of information are being poured into the audience’s lap, it never feels like it slows down.  

A side of me wants to put this on top, but I feel it's a less ambitious film than its sequel. That film equally succeeds on delivering thrills and excitement, while also delivering on a few more emotional levels. Likewise, the low budget of this film can be distracting at times. At parts, it's difficult to not just see the dated special effects and prosthetic Arnold heads. 

Still, this is an amazing and thrilling film that launched its director and star into the stratosphere for good reason. 


#1 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Skynet Edition) [Blu-ray]
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick

In his career, James Cameron has directed two sequels: Aliens, and Terminator 2. In both cases, Cameron decided to keep the essence of the original, but increase the scale, and shift the genre. And, in both cases (in my opinion), he proved that sequels could be better than the originals.

On the most basic level, the film has a much larger budget than the original. Likewise, the film came out right at the beginning of the use of CGI. Thus, the film is possibly the peak of practical effects action movies with a bit of CGI to amplify things.  

But, the reason the film is great isn’t simply because of the slick blockbuster production. The film has surprising emotional depth. Throughout the film is a sense of sadness and hope. These themes are woven throughout the relationships, the arcs, and the music. Because you care about the characters, you feel the stakes.

While not immediately seeming like an ambitious film, it tackles multiple genres and themes all at once. The end result is a film with large amount of weight. It manages to touch many different emotions.

For me, this is one of the best films ever made. It swung for the fences, and it knocked the ball out of the park.