Every Terminator film (and one TV show) ranked from worst to best

Terminator 2 poster
(Image credit: Sony)

After being taken ill during the filming of his since disowned 1982 directorial debut, Piranha II: The Spawning, upcoming filmmaker James Cameron experienced a bizarre, feverish nightmare that involved a frightening, metallic skeleton lurching from an explosion towards him. The vision affected Cameron so deeply that he'd hold onto it until he was able to bring it to life two years later.

The Terminator, a masterful, horror-tinged sci-fi thriller based around an unstoppable killer cyborg, was released on October 26, 1984, making over ten times its budget and establishing the role that'd define Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. Almost four decades, six films, a TV show and countless comic book, toy and video game tie-ins later, and the Terminator franchise remains as unkillable as its original antagonist. 

As rumours of yet another new entry into the series continue to grow, we rank all six cinematic entries - and a TV show - from worst to best. 

Metal Hammer line break

7. Terminator Genisys (2015)

While director Alan Taylor's attempts to open up and explore the potential parallel timelines of the Terminator universe are commendable in spirit, the result is a messy, convoluted nadir for the series. What could have been an interesting soft reboot for the Terminator mythos instead ends up retreading material Judgement Day carried off to perfection 14 years prior, and the fact that Arnie is by far the best thing about the film speaks volumes of how ineffectively T2's core characters have been recast. Most in over her head is the usually great Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, who just doesn't have the presence or physicality to step into the imposing shoes of Linda Hamilton. The film's biggest twist, meanwhile - that this version of John Connor is  (gasp!) a Terminator - was given away in the film's trailer, killing any suspense around the big reveal. Crap.

6. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

The long-awaited return of Linda Hamilton to the series - alongside rumours that the original teenage John Connor, Ed Furlong, was involved in some capacity - gave longtime fans a final spark of hope that this franchise could get back on track. What a shame, then, that all that promise was wasted courtesy of an insulting opening act, in which a freaky-looking, CGI'd John Connor gets immediately killed off by another Terminator, and one of the single stupidest plot devices in sci-fi history, involving a fucking T-800 masquerading as a human stepdad, with his adopted family somehow never catching onto the fact that they had a 600-pound robot stomping around their house. Linda Hamilton, meanwhile, just doesn't seem invested in the whole thing, and not even some fairly solid action set-pieces can save the series' most recent film from being another dud.

5. Terminator: Salvation (2009)

Short of repeating the 'good guy/bad guy get sent back in time to kill/protect a Connor' formula yet again, it seemed like a Terminator movie set in or around the present day just didn't have anything more to offer three films in. Enter Charlie's Angels director McG, who, for some reason, was anointed the man to finally go all in on the nightmarish, post-apocalyptic future we'd seen glimpsed across the series thus far. Sadly, while Terminator Salvation is packed with decent action, it just doesn't have the emotional grounding that was so foundational to the series to start with. Throw in a cold performance from a miscast Christian Bale as John Connor and a daylight-dominated landscape that feels at odds with the horrific, nighttime future visions seen in Terminators 1-3 and you have yet another franchise entry with plenty of potential, mostly wasted.

4. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)

Testament to the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger's presence alone is just not enough to make a great Terminator movie, Rise Of The Machines was handicapped from the off thanks to none of James Cameron, Linda Hamilton or Edward Furlong returning from T2. Without them, what we're left with is Arnie shooting, smashing and one-liner-ing his way through what is essentially a less memorable retread of the film's classic predecessor. To its credit, Rise Of The Machines is far from a total write-off: the action is relentless, the T-X is cool as fuck (if nowhere near as menacing as the T-1000) and it's by far the legitimately funniest Terminator movie. The scene where the T-800 pulls out those sunglasses is a classic, and a lovingly warm nod to what has come before.

3. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

A TV series whose momentum was building enough to court genuine dismay upon its cancellation after two seasons in 2009, The Sarah Connor Chronicles manages to keep the spirit and emotional core of the first two films at its heart while being bold enough to explore some of the more out-there possibilities that the Terminator universe offers. It's certainly not perfect - its 2000s TV-scale budget is glaringly obvious, for a start - but it's a lot of fun and brimming with good ideas and fresh characters. Meanwhile, a pre-Game Of Thrones Lena Headey brings enough of a steely presence to her Sarah Connor to ensure Linda Hamilton's absence isn't too much of a distraction. The cliffhanger series finale, featuring John Connor dumped into a timeline where his own allies have never even heard of him, offers a tantalising peek at just how far into sci-fi madness the show could have gone. Sadly, we'll never get to see it all play out.

2. The Terminator (1984)

Thrilling, violent and fingernail-gnawingly tense from the off, James Cameron's The Terminator is sci-fi-horror perfection. It seems unimaginable that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't originally considered for the title role, but his casting proved to be a masterstroke; his intimidating presence and ice-cold delivery gives the unstoppable monster unreal menace, the perfect antagonist pit against Linda Hamilton's vulnerable, determined Sarah Connor and Michael Biehn's battle-worn but sensitive Kyle Reece. Stan Winston's work in bringing The T-800 to life, meanwhile, saw him reverred as one of Hollywood's most ingenious SFX artists, the design of the cyborg's endoskeleton amongst the most iconic in film history. Sci-fi has rarely been as full-throttle - or terrifying - since. 

1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Much like he did with Ridley Scott's Alien five years earlier, James Cameron decided to give his own, game-changing sci-fi masterpiece an all-guns-blazing upgrade, in the process producing what arguably remains the pinnacle of action cinema, over three decades on. Judgement Day would still be a fantastic film if its legacy rested purely on its incredible set-pieces or groundbreaking special effects, but the introduction of Sarah Connor's teenage son, John, played with just the right amount of hormonal rebellion and loving sensitivity by young Edward Furlong, allowed for emotional stakes that somehow felt even bigger than the future the mother/son duo were fighting for.

Then, of course, there's Linda Hamilton. One of the all-time great character evolutions, brought tenaciously to life partly thanks to the actress' gruelling training schedule, Sarah's upgrade from a kind-hearted but somewhat meek heroine into a furious, ass-kicking, athletic badass gives the film an extra layer of propulsion. Robert Patrick's sleek, wiry T-1000 proves the perfect foil to Arnie's muscular, methodical heft, while the film's themes of love, family and humanity ground everything in principles that go far beyond blowing everything to smithereens. For those reasons and more, Judgement Day remains untouchable.

Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.