In 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator summoned a dark vision of the future where computers became self-aware and betrayed their creators, birthing cybernetic killers to wipe out the remnants of humanity. The Terminator franchise has subsequently become one of the biggest in the sci-fi and action genres, the visual effects innovations that brought the various models of titular machines to life, the sheer scale of the carnage wrought on screen and the memorable characters inhabited by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton keeping audiences coming back for more time and time again.
In fact, the only thing threatening enough to stop this collective of chrome endoskeletons and hard-as-nails warrior women has been rights issues. Over 35 years, the Terminator IP has been sold, bought and sold again enough times that Cameron must surely be wishing he invented his own time machine to bypass all the legal shenanigans. Despite this ongoing struggle for creative control, the franchise has made a combined total of $3 billion in box office takings and multimedia, making it one of the most profitable franchises in film history.
In this edition of Ranked, we here at The Film Magazine are ranking all six Terminator movies from worst to best, judging each based on the quality of the science fiction ideas driving each story, the execution of each film’s action sequences and the memorability of each release’s imagery.
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6. Terminator Genisys (2015)
Amazingly, after distancing himself from the franchise for decades, James Cameron actually endorsed Terminator Genisys in the pre-release press (even with that stupid title).
The fifth Terminator film sees Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travel back in time to save Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), only to find she has already been saved and raised by a reprogrammed and aged terminator, “Pops” (Schwarzenegger).
Genisys is dull and repetitive and predictable, and this was not helped by the marketing completely spoiling the only real twist in the whole thing. As has become common with franchise “soft reboots”, we get to do a bit of franchise tourism, with Arnie fighting his younger (and naked) doppelgänger in the dark, a liquid metal terminator chasing our heroes for a couple of scenes, stopping Judgement Day in 1997, yadda-yadda… it’s a minor miracle that this frankly painful instalment didn’t kill the franchise for good.
When the best scene in your film is Arnie gurning in a police lineup, you know you’re in trouble.
5. Terminator Salvation (2009)
Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to set a whole film in the grim future apocalypse that had previously only been glimpsed. Scene after scene of grey wasteland combat gets very monotonous pretty quickly.
As John Connor (Christian Bale) continues the fight against the machines after the world as we know it has ended, the mysterious Marcus (Sam Worthington) appears all-too-conveniently and accepts a mission to save what is left of humanity.
Late in the day rewrites and reshoots that shifted the story focus from the potentially interesting amnesiac sleeper terminator Marcus to Bale’s moody John Connor didn’t help an already uninspired sequel. It’s all shades of ash and mud, and McG’s choppy music video editing style doesn’t help with coherency. There’s a reason this one is now best remembered for Bale’s infamous on-set outburst – nothing in the film itself stays with you; no character, no action beat and no single image.
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