The “Terminator” franchise, like some kind of robotic killing machine, will just not die. What began as a wonderful one-off in 1984 has blossomed into a franchise that fans and filmmakers keep returning to, with varying degrees of success, one that incorporates spin-offs, sequels, television series and theme park attractions. This year sees another new installment, “Terminator: Dark Fate,” which will be produced by James Cameron and sees the return of Arnold SchwarzeneggerandLinda Hamilton, together for the first time since 1991. Obviously, we are very excited. And we thought we’d look back on the entire franchise. Come with us if you want to live.
6. ‘Terminator Salvation’ (2009)
Most notable for the screaming match star Christian Bale got into with director McG (“THINK for one f*cking second”), “Terminator Salvation” was an attempt, around the same time as “Batman Begins,” to reboot the franchise in a dark, aggressively gritty way. (Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother and a key collaborator on his Dark Knight Trilogy, overhauled the script during production.) Lacking any of the key technicians or performers from the original films (besides Industrial Light & Magic, who admittedly pulled off some impressive stuff, including a weird pseudo-cameo from 1984 Arnold), it was an attempt to make a “Terminator” film for modern audiences and the results were ... unpleasant. This, they argued, was the movie we’d all been waiting for, one set during the brutal battle beween the humans and the machines. But in the other movies it was never this dusty. Bale (as John Connor) and Sam Worthington (as a robot that turns good) are charisma-vacuums, leaving Anton Yelchin as a young Kyle Reese to do most of the heavy lifting. Thankfully the subsequent sequels have ignored this movie completely, just like almost everyone else.
5. ‘Terminator Genysis’ (2015)
Again, this concept seemed cool: thanks to the time travel mechanics of the series, they were able to revisit key moments from both the original “Terminator” and “T2,” only this time replaced with (mostly) new actors. But whew boy was it awful. Beyond wrapping your mind around the time travel logistics (something that “Avengers: Endgame” both smartly avoided and did with much more gusto), the whole thing feels limp and unconvincing, and old man Arnold as the Terminator (refashioned as Sarah Connor’s guardian angel) was just odd, especially when he had to interact with the younger version of himself. Matt Smith was kind of fun as the embodiment of Skynet and it’s that fun, always hinted at but never fully engaged with, that keeps it from being the absolute lowest on this list. But beyond that … just say no to "Terminator Genysis."
4. ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ (2003)
After much hand-wringing by Cameron over a third installment and the rights being sold off due to a bankruptcy, eventually “Terminator 3” was put into development, and while Schwarzenegger tried to get Cameron involved in some capacity, the filmmaker refused. Instead, the series was, for the first time, handed over to a different director, in this case “U-571” filmmaker Jonathan Mostow (the script was by “The Game” writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris). At the time the most expensive movie ever greenlit, the third installment is set on the brink of Judgment Day, with John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl), teaming up with yet another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) and his future wife Kate (Claire Danes) to stop a nearly indestructible female Terminator (Kristanna Loken). (Fun fact: in the original script, she could turn invisible! Take that liquid metal!) For the most part, “Terminator 3” delivers, whether it’s in the surprisingly robust action sequences (that chase with the crane is awesome) or its somber, “Twilight Zone”-y ending, with our main characters accepting the inevitability that, try as you might, you can’t change where things are headed.
3. ‘T2-3D: Battle Across Time’ (1996)
Sure, this is only a 12-minute theme park attraction, but it’s still the third-best entry in the franchise and one overseen and (mostly) directed by James Cameron. (Effects masters John Bruno and Stan Winston handled the rest.) The attraction opened in Universal Studios Orlando in 1996, just five years after “Terminator 2” had blown us all away. And it really was a cutting-edge attraction, just as revolutionary as the movie that it was based on, combining a 3D film with in-theater stunts, animatronics, and effects, for something that was unlike anything anyone had seen before (or, quite frankly, since). On a per-minute basis, it was also the most expensive movie ever produced (the film alone cost $24 million). Gently continuing the story of the film in ways that the subsequent sequels could never figure out, it saw the main cast return (including Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick), including the introduction of a giant, glistening, spider-like Terminator that menacingly threatens an audience full of tourists. It was such a blast and sadly closed at both Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood. But hey, it’s still going strong at Universal Studios Japan. Who’s ready to go to Osaka?
2. ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
Re-watching “The Terminator,” what’s so startling about it is how raw it is. It’s more or less a low budget horror movie (which makes sense given Cameron’s background working for Roger Corman), dressed up with some time travel plotting and embroidered with philosophical questions about the nature of fate and destiny. That’s not to take away from what an accomplishment it is, though. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the role that would make him a star, boldly embraced the role of a villainous robot, sent back in time to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton) who will one day give birth to the leader of the human resistance. Michael Biehn plays a future-human who returns to the past to help Hamilton and is an underrated element of the franchise. (His scenes were cut from “T2” but remain on the home video special features.) At 107 minutes this thing moves like few Cameron movies since (they are always propulsive but frequently fly by the 2-hour mark), kept aloft by its high concept and low budget.
1. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” serves as the apex of not just the “Terminator” franchise but potentially action filmmaking as a whole. James Cameron’s sequel to his breakthrough “Terminator” was both a mea culpa (after his costly flop “The Abyss”) and an opportunity to use an established franchise to push things forward on both a narrative (this time around, Arnold is the good guy!) and technological level (with Industrial Light & Magic’s genuinely mind-blowing “morph” effects and pretty much anything associated with the T-1000). On the James Cameron scale of grandiosity, it seems somewhat quaint by today’s standards, but at the time it was nothing short of breathtaking and still handily blows you away by the intricate simplicity of its plotting and the bulletproof craftsmanship of everyone involved (even at a time when mainstream action movies were pretty slick, this is the slickest). This is, of course, not to diminish the power of the performances, mostly the transformative roles of both Linda Hamilton (then Cameron’s wife), who turned from a hunted waitress into an aspirational, systematically marginalized freedom fighter, and Schwarzenegger, who brought genuine warmth and dimension to former role as a (literal) killing machine. A marvel on almost every level, it still kick as much ass today as much as it did back in 1991.