Warning: SPOILERS for the Terminator film series are in play. If you’re not caught up with Terminator: Dark Fate, you should turn back now to avoid learning about the film’s events.
Usually when ranking a series like the Terminator movies, it’s best to wait until you have as clear a picture as possible for everything to fit into. Now, with Terminator: Dark Fate in theaters, and its less than great box office performance possibly having closed off the Terminator series for good, it feels like we have a full enough frame to rank these films with accuracy. Which means it’s now time for the hard work to be “dun dun-dun-dun” done, and rank each Terminator film in order of greatness, from worst to best.
Now this is purely subjective, and your rankings may vary; especially when the sequels past Terminator 2: Judgement Day come into play. Also, it should be noted that we’re only talking about the movie franchise. So if you thought we were going to pull a fast one and include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or T2-3D: Battle Across Time, that’s not happening.
Come with us if you want to rank, as it’s time to set the record straight on how the Terminator food chain works.
6. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Acting as a partial reboot to the Terminator saga, Terminator: Dark Fate imagines an alternate timeline that progresses after Skynet was destroyed and Judgement Day as we knew it never happened. Instead, a totally different A.I. was created, a new battle for humanity was waged and Natalia Reyes’ Dani Ramos is the new John Connor-style leader of The Resistance. But even bringing back Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, as well as creating possibly the most effective Terminator possible, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), Terminator: Dark Fate is the last place finisher in the Terminator saga.
While rewriting the series’ history isn’t the worst thing in the world, and taking John Connor off the board makes total sense without Skynet to pursue him, the execution of that idea is less than ideal. Not to mention that the entire film feels like one big chase with little to no action that impacts the future threat. There’s some elements that work, but overall, Terminator: Dark Fate is the biggest missed opportunity in the series.
5. Terminator Salvation (2009)
Another in the long line of Terminator movies that tried to do something different, Terminator Salvation actually took us into the future war waged by The Resistance. It also showed us a John Connor (Christian Bale) who was on his way to becoming the great military leader he was always claimed to be, and the beginnings of his relationship with Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). It also gave us Sam Worthington’s Marcus, a Terminator designed for perfect infiltration who ultimately realized he was more human than machine.
Yet for as many new and exciting ideas that were put into effect in Terminator Salvation, the end result was rather boring. This is the movie that had the guts to put Marcus’ bionic heart into John Connor in order to keep him alive. If the powers that be stuck with the original ending they had in mind, it could have been a real game changer. Instead, we got a blandly-colored war movie that played things way too safe, with very little in terms of innovation or excitement.
4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
While the Terminator saga has had a rough go with every film since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, you can almost always pick out something positive when it comes to what each film tried to do. And one of the most positive things about that portion of the sequel canon is the fact that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines landed what once was the biggest punch in the Terminator movies: it let Judgement Day happen.
If you compare this Terminator sequel to T2, there’s no question who wins, and you can even fault this movie for going against the “No Fate” message James Cameron originally wrote into the series. But between Nick Stahl’s John Connor doing a pretty good job following up Edward Furlong’s tenure in the role, and offering some interesting new characters in Claire Danes’ Katherine Brewster and Kristiana Loken’s T-X, this sequel still remains in the realm of popcorn fun.
3. Terminator: Genisys (2015)
Everyone’s got their “best sequel since Terminator 2: Judgement Day” when it comes to the Terminator sequel canon. And this might be a controversial choice, but hear us out: Terminator: Genisys does exactly what Terminator: Dark Fate did, but better, and within the traditional framework of the series’ timeline. You read that right.
Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese were now the heroes, with John Connor (Jason Clarke) actually being taken off the board by becoming a Terminator. Reusing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 as a protector of Sarah, and making both her and her potential love interest the actual saviors of humanity, the timeline got that good shakeup it deserved. Not to mention, Skynet turning into the operating system Genisys was a pretty clever turn, and John’s new role as a villain had more stakes than just killing him off in the first five minutes.
2. The Terminator (1984)
Argue all you want about the sequels, there are only two solid gold Terminator films in the franchise, and both of them belong to the once and future franchise gatekeeper, James Cameron. The Terminator gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first turn as the initially villainous T-800, with Linda Hamilton originating the role of Sarah Connor in her initially timid and civilian form. One long night from hell later, Sarah was a warrior for the future, preparing for the oncoming storm.
The Terminator is pure hardcore sci-fi, with a case to be made for Cameron’s first film to be classified in the horror genre in some cases. Dread and adrenaline rule this movie, with notes of hope and readiness for the future making their way into this cat-and-mouse chase of a movie. But if we’re going to be totally honest, this was a perfectly good dry run for the best film in the Terminator saga.
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a pure feat of alchemy, and the best film in the series without question. Taking the atmosphere and dread from the first film, and infusing it with an even more hopeful message of changing our future for the better, we see a lot of the fallout from The Terminator in every frame of this film.
And yet, at the heart of Terminator 2’s story, past the constant pursuit of Robert Patrick’s chilling T-1000, and besides Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor working through her PTSD from the first film, is the story of a boy and a machine. It wasn’t hatred of machines that saved the world, it was Edward Furlong’s John Connor becoming friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 protector.
That fuses everything Terminator 2: Judgement Day has to offer into one, solid package. It's a fight for the future where instead of just killing everything that moves, we take a beat to learn who the real enemy is and fight on a unified front. It’s the Terminator mythos at its best, and it’s as action packed as it is emotionally charged.
A definitive ranking of the Terminator movies will probably never go past the first two films being at the top, and even then the placement of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is something that could be argued with as much fervor as which sequel is best. That doesn’t change the fact that fans love the Terminator movies for some of the same reasons.
Not only is this franchise a source of intense action, it’s also a lesson in humanity’s best and worst impulses. And just because our rankings have put the film so far down in the total Terminator totem pole doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out Terminator: Dark Fate if you’re the slightest bit interested, as it seems to reflect those same values in its own hypothetical way.
If you’re curious, that film is still currently in theaters, ready for you to discover it.