The Terminator is unstoppable. It’s been 35 years, almost to the day, since the release of a little, unheralded, sci-fi action flick. Before 1984 was through, The Terminator was a worldwide phenomenon that catapulted one of its stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, out of the “muscle movie” ghetto and to international cinematic superstardom. And as the cyborg hitman promised, he’s been back, again and again and again. Because the franchise just topped $2 billion in box office receipts, it keeps getting resurrected, like a man/machine that can always be updated. With the recent release of Terminator: Dark Force, The Barbell ranks the Terminators from worst to first.
7. Terminator: Salvation (2009)
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%, IMDB: 6.5, worldwide box office: $371 million
The reboot, set in the then-near-future (2018) with Christian Bale as John Connor and Sam Worthington as the terminator, is stuffed full of so much action it pushes out the characters and plot. This is the only T movie without Arnold, who was then California’s governor. Instead, bodybuilder Roland Kickinger played the T-800 with Arnold’s face superimposed via CGI. Arnold’s verdict on Salvation: “[It’s] awful. It tried hard, not that they didn’t try, the acting and everything. It missed the boat.”
6. Terminator Genisys (2015)
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%, IMDB: 6.4, worldwide box office: $441 million
He’s back. Twelve years after his last go-around, Arnold, as an aged T-800, again protects Sarah and John Connor, this time in 1984 and 2017. But Genisys never lifts off the ground, delivering neither the visual thrills nor the sci-fi story turns of its forefathers.
5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%, IMDB: 6.3, worldwide box office: $433 million
After the international phenomenon of 1991’s T2, financial conflicts delayed T3 for more than a decade. James Cameron, the director of T1 and T2, jumped ship, but Arnold returned for a then-record $30 million payday. Perhaps inevitably, after the drawn-out drama of stops and starts, the $187 million production disappointed. T3’s not bad—the action sequences are stupendous and Kristanna Loken as the T-X is a captivating villain—but it lacks the depth of the first two. And Linda Hamilton is missed.
4. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%, IMDB: 6.5
She’s back. Dark Fate marks the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in a story that either satisfyingly concludes the T1 and T2 storylines or reinvigorates what had become a haggard franchise. (It’s likely the former, because Dark Fate is underperforming at the box office.) As in Genisys, Arnold appears as both an outdated T-800 and, via CGI, his younger self. It’s not a great Terminator, but it’s a good one; and that’s probably the best we could hope for after six movies and a TV series.
3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09)
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%, IMDB: 7.7
The TV series, which aired on Fox for 31 episodes, successfully explored the character of Sarah Connor (played convincingly by Lena Headey) after the events of T2. Both thrilling and emotionally involving, TSCC was action-packed, despite its budgetary limitations. Well-reviewed with a rabid, if small, fanbase, it was terminated too soon.
2. The Terminator (1984)
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%, IMDB: 8, worldwide box office: $78 million
We shouldn’t have to sell anyone on the awesomeness of The Terminator, the story of a cyborg from the future (Arnold) who comes back to terminate Sarah Connor (Hamilton) before she can produce mankind’s savior, preventing a machine age gone dystopian. Brazenly violent, this is the one where Arnold is unflinchingly evil, and seemingly unstoppable. Most of the ambitious effects and action sequences still hold up despite T1‘s advanced age and B-movie budget ($6.4 million). A classic.
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%, IMDB: 8.5, worldwide box office: $517 million
This is the rare sequel that tops, if only barely, an excellent original. Director Cameron had a then-record budget of $100 million at his disposal, and he put it all onscreen with chase and gun battle sequences and trailblazing computer effects that still dazzle. Throughout, the T-800, Sarah, and her son fend off the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick)—one of cinema’s best villains. This could’ve been an over-the-top mess, ala Salvation and Genisys, but instead it’s one of the greatest action movies of all-time.
(Opening image: Terminator Genisys / Paramount Pictures)