Ranking the Terminator Franchise

Terminator Dark Fate (a title that may be very telling for the future of the franchise) has hit home entertainment. The film was met with modest reviews but a very worry-some finally box office tally.  James Cameron may have returned to help shepherd the film into theatres; but it seems that movie-goers have had enough of the premise once and for all.  But is the blame to rest with Dark Fate or what came before it?

Here is our checklist of all six films which we have placed in order or quality.  See if you agree with the ordering, and also with our comments on each.

6. Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Just plain awful.  Wow, you wouldn’t think that there would be anything worse about this film than its dumb title. But wait!  We have a whole shopping list of issues with this junk heap.

We were promised a time travel film that would intersect with material previous to it (I.E., the previous films in the franchise) and dive in and out of them like Back to the Future Part 2. Instead, there is a couple of minor interactions with the first film that alter its course completely and we end up in a brand-new narrative that frankly doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense.

The recasting of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese both hit the wall. There is a distinct lack of chemistry between them and both fail to bring any part of what we loved about those characters in the first place to life. In fact, they spend most of the film not liking each other. These are two people who fell in love with each together and put trust in each-other’s hands.  But now that’s all thrown to the wind for the sake of…  forced drama?

Arnold’s inclusion in this film, like Rise of the Machines, is another notch in the cringe belt as he’s now acting like a trained dog.  The one factor that does work is how they explain his older look in the film. Beyond that, it’s a wonder why he came back.

The action scenes are largely forgettable, or just plain too much.  The CGI gets out of control, thanks largely to the ridiculously over the top action on show. Not even the usually reliable Jason Clarke can salvage anything from his role as John Conner.  It’s simply put:  A shit-show.

5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine (2003)

Now the next few entries in this list are interchangeable and for various reasons.  T3 (if we can call it that) kept the action largely on the ground which keeps it as believable as the previous entry. Jonathan Mostow was an interesting choice for the film. He was coming off the back of the likes of Breakdown (a superb small thriller with Kurt Russell); but with the larger scale set pieces he perhaps comes up a little short compared to Cameron.  But he and the rest of his team should at least be given some applaud for the fact that the film does play like its part of the same timeline after T2. The alterations they needed to make along the way largely worked (recasting John Conner for one).

Where the film fails is largely with the Terminators themselves.  Arnold is on pantomime mode. There are some cringe-worthy call backs to T2 (The sunglasses scene) and some very cringe-worthy dialogue (“Talk to the hand!”). They also had trouble upping the ante with the new antagonist.  Kristanna Loken’s T-X is meant to be the next big thing, but (like all antagonists since T2) feels like a step back from the T-1000.  The performance is also questionable in terms of her reactions in the scenes she is in (Would she really pull a happy face when she discovers John Conner is on the playing field? Would a robot really scream in agony when they realise they are defeated?).  There are just too many mis-steps for this film to fit comfortably as a film that is worth the time.  And it’s a shame because it was on an uphill battle regardless and still manages to throw a couple of hits that do land. The biggest of these is the end of the film itself which dares to end on a downer note. This alone should have this film listed higher here, but it is the reliance of dumb humour that derails it and makes you respect the film a lot less.

4. Terminator: Dark fate (2019)

The latest in the series for some was an “almost” worthy successor to T2, but the problem with it is many-fold and have become too apparent not too long after the film’s release. It tries too hard to be T2

Its plot is all but identical to the second film (well really, they mostly all pinch from the first film). So right there it’s lazy writing. James Cameron helped write and he produce it too which doesn’t bode well for his reputation.  After years of complaining about the sequels, he finally gets the rights back and this is the best he can do?

Sarah Conner is back but, like any other “legacy” characters, she has been dumped on completely. The triumph of the second film is instantly revoked and taken from her (and from us!). It’s like modern filmmakers seem to think we as an audience want this or will be pleasantly surprised by it.  It was shocking at first, but now it has become the old hat trick that they all play on us. This is why the film ranks in the lower half because each new film has the opportunity to change things up and this film betrayed that opportunity.

Despite being stuck with this, Hamilton probably puts in the film’s best performance however.  Schwarzenegger too, when he does show up, does at least have a more interesting arc than the previous title.

Throw in a very forgettable largely female and diverse array of supporting characters and we get the Terminator for the Woke generation; and like many films that are overly “woke” their content all feels forced like being hit on the head by a very large hammer.  They simply forgot to write a compelling tale.

3. Terminator: Salvation (2009)

Really, this one should be lower on the list. But it succeeds on the merits that were lacking in all of the titles below it. Simply put: it took its content seriously and it decided to be brave. It went where no other film in the franchise dared to go: The Future.  We get to spend a whole narrative in the post-apocalyptic future seeing what actually happens in the aftermath of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.  Salvation stuck to the path taken so that continuity wasn’t broken yet.  And this film took money in at the box office, so why they decided to abandon everything for the next two films for the same old narrative is a mystery.

So, if that’s all good then why should it be in consideration for a lower position?

Now director McG isn’t the most subtle but, to be fair, Salvation has some of his best action put on screen to date. But he doesn’t know how to handle plot or tension. (Neither did the marketing department who spoiled half the film in the trailers either!). He also had dual leading performers on screen carrying different plotlines that later collide which could have been handled better. But McG is not alone in whom to point the ugly finger at.

Sam Worthington is a real charisma vacuum in this film (and certainly at this period of his career). So right there that’s half the film ruined by a lacklustre performance.  It’s strange to know that he got the leads in this, Avatar and the Clash of the Titans remake that all came out in succession after each other with him in the lead, and he’s the biggest problem with all of them.

Christian Bale isn’t bad in the lead, although his social notoriety ion set of the film seems to have overshadowed his performance sadly, but this is a performance worth revisiting.

There are also a few choices along the way that niggle. But compared to the tried and tested again nature of the other sequels (including Terminator 2!)  Salvation at least deserves some credit for trying.

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

It is no surprise that these last two films are on top of this list; but what is perhaps surprising to some is the order that they come in.  And what is perhaps more surprisingly that this reviewer believes that there is some gap of quality between them!

Yes I said it.  The Terminator is vastly greater a film than T2. And they both kind of suffer from the same category of flaw… They are both dated.  But let’s focus on T2 for now.

T2 was ground breaking at the time.  It was am massive hit; It did a lot of the FX world; It has become a cinema classic. Agreed. But, now that some 30 off years have passed is there still something to love here.   Well sure.

But the film it seems is stuck up the rear end of its own pomposity. Quite frankly it’s overrated and time is showing its cracks. The casual viewer will throw it on and just lap it up sure; but for people who like to re-evaluate film through time will see that T2 is as ridiculous as any other over the top action film from the 90s.  The open shot with its perverse number of skulls on the ground in the playground is all but laughable now.  You really wouldn’t have that many there.  It worked back then because you could grab attention quicker with something that looked so severely over the top without the audience slapping their foreheads. But we are way more cynical a crowd now and are slowly demanding to be treated like intelligent people and need a mountain of skulls shown for the film to make its point.

It also has elements about it that just seem convenient.  I don’t want to be here all-day nit-picking T2 but here are a couple of items worth pondering:

  • The Terminator is ordered not to kill anyone (Conveniently he has not done that before he is told so). But he then conveniently throughout the insane action gets nobody else killed. There is some Spider-man level of convenience going on here!
  • Sarah Connor we are led to believe is a hard-ass battle ready bad-ass.. and then proceeds to get stabbed and shot and missing the bad guy right up to the climax of the film.  (Sorry, Ellen Ripley wins).

Now there are arguments to be made against all this, but the point is that the film seems to live under a false sense of greatness in the public eye.  Cameron seems to make you believe otherwise, but time and re-watching a film can often show the shortcomings.  It’s like when they released Skyfall and the film ended on what seemed like an upbeat note for Bond moving onwards; but by the end of the film he has failed spectacularly against the villain.  Sure, the villain is dead, but so is his boss and it’s his fault.  Because the film manipulates well, you leave the film feeling good for him?  T2 plays similar tricks.  It tells you to think one thing despite showing you another.

I will give points for the flipping of the roles of the Terminator, making him a protector.  But it should have lasted just the one film.  I will also give kudos to Hamilton’s performance. Not the action hero stuff, but the mentality of that character. That’s fascinating. You can preach all day about how strong the character (or weak) is there. But don’t parade her as an action goddess.  I will also give props to new villain (wonderfully played by Robert Patrick) and the be fair, the set pieces are all well put together.  It’s long, it’s preachy in places and it’s dated.  Time hunts us all down, and it’s time T2 faced judgement itself. 

1. The Terminator (1984)

Now you can’t call T2 dated and not levy the same criticism at the original film.  It’s very 80s. The hair styles! Oh, dear lord the hair.  The shonky music score, and the stop motion and the rubber effects.  Yup!  It’s all true.  But you can also forgive the film for the very reason that these things were on the path to being perfected.  You get a love for seeing an unrealistic robotic head with rubber flesh hanging off of it; Not because it looks real (because it doesn’t) but because of the imagination that went into it.  You can suspend your disbelief to a certain degree with practical effects work (an argument that is becoming more and more apparent as we get bombarded with countless bad CGI films.  People love the old practical stuff), so long as it’s done sparingly and for the greater good.

The Terminator is an unapologetic sci-fi horror film that is bolder and braver than its budget might allow.  Cameron knew which corners to cut here whilst still delivering a fast-paced chase movie with the concept of the unstable fiend on your tail, littered with visions of a dystopian future.  There is something, much purer about The Terminator that holds it up higher than the films that followed.

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