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Ranking The Terminator Films And Shows From Worst To Best

In 1984, James Cameron's The Terminator opened in first place at the box office. The sci-fi thriller, about a robot sent back through time to kill a woman who's destined to birth the future's human resistance leader, came about because of a fever dream Cameron had while working on Piranha II: The Spawning. It was put together for just over $6 million, and it's since brought in over $78 million worldwide.

The Terminator has also spawned an entire entertainment franchise, one that includes films, TV series, and (now-defunct) amusement park attractions. But, as with any franchise out there, not all installments are created equal. And certainly, when it comes to the Terminator franchise, we know this all too well. From alternate timelines to Terminator models with inflatable boobs, the Terminator franchise has had nearly every up and down a franchise can. Here's how the films and shows stack up, from worst to best.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the worst of the franchise

The Terminator franchise had already put out two immensely successful releases by 2003, when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines happened. Unfortunately, Rise of the Machines marked the first film without any involvement from series creator James Cameron. It shows. 

Rise of the Machines is all style and zero substance, one of those films that throws everything that worked from its predecessors at the wall and winds up making a giant mess with it. The chases are bigger (a truck, remotely controlled police cars, motorcycles, a construction crane), but they're definitely not better. There are somehow more explosions than in either The Terminator or Judgment Day, but they don't seem to be there for any reason other than someone decided it was a Terminator movie, and Terminator movies need explosions.  

Worst of all, Rise of the Machines is basically the same movie as Judgment Day, only with a female Terminator chasing after John Connor while Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 attempts to protect him.

Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series doesn't leave much of an impact

Just prior to the release of 2009's Terminator Salvation, Machinima released its similarly titled tie-in web series. Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series takes place in 2016, two years prior to the events of Salvation the movie, and it centers on Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood, who reprises her role from the film) as she sets out on a mission to hunt down and destroy "the Ghost," a machine built to interfere with Resistance communications.

If you can get past the less-than-stellar effects, The Machinima Series manages to be a pretty entertaining hour and a half (give or take, and split up among six episodes). It doesn't add anything or take away from the franchise itself — the story doesn't actually affect the greater Skynet threat in the long run — but it gets points for creativity. And the fact that out of all the Terminator films, Salvation managed to be the one to get its own off-shoot web series as a marketing ploy is pretty ballsy, so points for that.

Terminator Salvation failed to restart a series

Following up Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation tells the bleak, post-Judgment Day story of the Resistance and its fighters. There were hopes that the film would reinvigorate the franchise, and for a time, it seemed as though it would. Jonathan Nolan, the award-winning writer behind The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and HBO's Westworld, had started work on the script but pulled out due to another commitment. Along with the writers' strike, Salvation just couldn't seem to catch a break.

Even the film's star wound up hating it. In 2018, Christian Bale appeared on MTV's Happy Sad Confused podcast and touched on his regrets with the film (via Critical Hit). "I said no three times," the actor explained. "I went 'Nah, there's no story there.' ... And it's a great thorn in my side, because I wish we could have reinvigorated [the franchise]. And unfortunately, during production, you could tell that wasn't happening. It's a great shame."

At least Salvation isn't another retelling of the first three films. In this one, John Connor is a fully-fledged resistance leader, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is a young, pre-time traveling Sarah Connor-romancer, and the main cyborg doesn't even know he's a machine. But ... that's about all it has.

Terminator Genisys couldn't live up to the original

Terminator Genisys, the 2015 franchise reboot and fifth installment in the franchise, was supposed to be the film that really would bring fans back to the fold. Even James Cameron, who never had much to say about either Rise of the Machines or Salvation, told Yahoo! Movies (via Cinema Blend) that he felt as though Genisys worked as the true third installment in the Terminator franchise. With a story centered on fractured timelines and unexpected villains, Genisys really was the best film to come out since Judgment Day. But saying that it's better than the two films before it isn't really saying much at all.

The most successful thing about Genisys is the way in which it treats its source material. Using a combination of fancy CGI work and reenactments with body doubles who look just enough like the '84 actors to get by, Genisys pays a great deal of fan service to those who loved The Terminator. Where it fails is in trying (and it tries so hard) to weave in new material. Nearly everything that takes place in the new 2017 timeline is confusing, but seeing a 1984 Sarah Connor kick ass kind of makes up for it.

Terminator: Dark Fate resets the timeline and reunites the stars

Billed as a direct sequel to 1984's The Terminator and 1991's Terminator: Judgment Day, Dark Fate went the 2018 Halloween route and effectively retconned everything that's happened in the nearly three decades since we last left Edward Furlong's teen John Connor mourning the molten loss of his reformed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Directed by Deadpool's Tim Miller, Dark Fate at times feels as though it's attempting to recreate that same sort of snarky badassery, with varied success. Schwarzenegger does it best, as an aging machine who's picked up human sensibilities (and a job) as the years have gone by. Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor is less successful, although her struggle with being a human resistance fighter is an interesting one.

There's a lot that makes Dark Fate enjoyable — seeing the franchise's original characters return is enough to bring in old Terminator fans, and indeed, the film relies heavily on nostalgia. While it overall feels like a mashup of the first two films, there are a few new elements that set it apart as its own. But it also operates under the action film philosophy that bigger is better, and when it comes to car chases and explosions, that's not always the case. The most interesting part of the Terminator franchise has always been its humanity, and if Dark Fate had played more toward that end, it could have easily rounded out an incredible trilogy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is incredibly fun

For two seasons between 2008 and 2009, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles gave fans hope that the franchise could, in fact, get back on track. Taking place after the events of Judgment Day, The Sarah Connor Chronicles sees Sarah (Lena Headey) and a teenage John Connor (Thomas Dekker) running from yet another Terminator model, with the help of a cyborg classmate of John's named Cameron (Summer Glau).

The first thing The Sarah Connor Chronicles gets right is its time jump from 1997 to 2007, which effectively erases the events of Rise of the Machines. Sarah and John are able to exist in a timeline more in line with Judgment Day, one in which Sarah is still alive and a key figure in the Resistance. Headey manages to pick up where Linda Hamilton left off in a way that feels more like an homage to the original character than someone trying to replace her. 

It isn't perfect by any means, but it's inventive and entertaining, and it finds a comfortable place within the franchise, as opposed to trying to reinvent the Terminator wheel completely.

The Terminator is an all-time classic

Just before The Terminator hit theaters in 1984, Orion studio execs were so disappointed in the way James Cameron's film turned out that they were afraid to screen it for critics. The lack of love from the studio at the time stuck with Cameron for over three decades, but looking at the film now, it's impossible to imagine how anyone could consider it a failure. And thankfully, audiences at the time felt the same way we do.

The Terminator didn't just launch Cameron's career as a director and Arnold Schwarzenegger's as an actor. It pretty much set the bar for sci-fi horror. It was like nothing that had ever happened in movies, and it proved that audiences were 100 percent willing to shell out their hard-earned money to watch a diner waitress and her time-traveling boyfriend get chased through the streets of Los Angeles by a giant cyborg in leather.

Cameron told the audience at the fifth annual Hero Complex Film Festival (via Cinephilia & Beyond) that the fearlessness it took to make The Terminator came from his frustration in trying to break into the industry. "I was the anonymous, kind of angry, wannabe filmmaker," he said. "There's some courage that comes from that, you say whatever comes into your head. ... I was kind of like a free voice in the wilderness in that stage." And that angry, indie spirit shines through in the film, giving us a movie that's bloody, intense, and a true classic of cinema.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is definitely the best Terminator movie

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of those rare sequels that not only builds upon the world created by the film before it, but one that tells a new story with new characters that's somehow better than the original movie. Over ten years after the events of The Terminator, Sarah Connor has been institutionalized because of her crazy belief in time-traveling killer robots. Her son, John (Edward Furlong), lives with foster parents. The original T-800 has been reprogrammed as a protector for John, and the new evil is the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), an updated Terminator with the added feature of shape-shifting liquid metal. 

Judgment Day isn't just a continuation of the series — it's something totally new. Characters have all done complete 180s. Sarah is a fighting machine, a far cry from the scared waitress in The Terminator. The T-800 is no longer a threat, and this version of the character sets up a multi-movie arc for the original big bad, one that sees an aging star continue to reprise the role, in spite of the fact that robots shouldn't age, but we're all absolutely okay with it because Judgment Day's T-800 was just so likable. Plus, it gave us the fantastic catchphrase, "Hasta la vista, baby."