Note: This list will be amended to add Terminator: Dark Fate following the film’s opening weekend.
In the early ’80s, James Cameron (the director of Piranha II: The Spawning) was handed a modest sum of money to make a sci-fi actioner about a killer robot from the future. Before shooting commenced, its star, former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrote it off as “some s*it movie.” That movie, of course, was 1984’s The Terminator, and it performed better than expected, though it was still bumped from its spot at the top of the box office in only its third week, by no less than the George Burns threequel Oh God! You Devil.
Thirty-five years later, it’s the franchise that won’t die, much like Ah-nuld’s everlasting T-800. And that’s not for lack of trying: The little genre movie that could birthed a bigger and badder sequel that many believe is better, and was even for a time the most expensive motion picture ever made. Since then there have been four more big screen returns to the well, none as profitable or as game-changing. That’s to say nothing of a TV show, a lavish theme park attraction, and all that other consumer product (arcade games, action figures, trading cards, etc.) that comes with any brand worth its salt.
Are some of these latter day sequels better than the rest? Which is the series’ apex: the rickety first or the cutting edge second? And why on earth won’t it just die? As Terminator 6, a.k.a. Dark Fate, arrives, let’s consider this unusually robust franchise through some good old fashioned ranking.
1. The Terminator (1984)
Giving the top spot to the one that started it all may be a controversial choice, but it’s really like flipping a coin. Or maybe it depends on your mood: Are you up for a down-and-dirty genre picture or a super-sized blockbuster? Perhaps more crucially, do you like your Arnold mean or (relatively) nice? When he made The Terminator, the future Governator was still a monosyllabic he-man, and — 1970’s Hercules Goes Bananas aside — not exactly for kids. Twins and Kindergarten Cop were still half a decade away, and he wouldn’t reveal his yen for post-kill quips until Commando, one year later.
This may be hard to imagine now, but at the time, Arnold was still able to pass as a blood-curdling Frankenstein’s monster from the future. To moviegoers, he was either the ripped co-winner of Pumping Iron or the Teutonic übermensch of Conan the Barbarian and its goofier, less fascistic sequel. He was unknowable, and he was powerful, dangerous even when good. Cameron was partially inspired by seeing John Carpenter’s original Halloween, and he turned the actor/muscleman’s T-800 into an even scarier version of the era’s slasher baddies — more fearsome than Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers because he was also a Reagan-era hard body with perfect abs.