The Terminator franchise has had an incredibly rocky history since creator James Cameron flew the nest, which has led to some disastrous missteps and more than one complete restart.
As a result, the timeline of its universe has grown incredibly convoluted and newcomers may be scratching their head about how best to navigate this action-packed saga.
In fact, there are four distinct routes you could wander down, each one putting its own spin on Terminator’s established continuity, while never quite escaping the looming shadow cast by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Here’s your complete guide to the Terminator franchise:
How to watch Terminator movies in chronological order
It’s widely accepted by most film fans that the Terminator franchise has only produced two truly exceptional films – and they just so happen to be the first two.
These blockbusters from writer-director James Cameron are wildly entertaining and function beautifully in tandem with each other, telling a clever time travel story with a natural conclusion.
Arguably, Judgement Day ends so brilliantly that no writer has ever cracked a justifiable way to continue the narrative beyond that point, hence why later entries have all suffered a considerable dip in quality.
But in spite of recent shortcomings, The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day are still required viewing for fans of action or science fiction, featuring some of the most iconic moments in blockbuster cinema.
1. The Terminator (1984)
In the near future, humans are locked in a devastating war with deadly machines controlled by an artificial intelligence known as Skynet. John Connor leads the resistance for whom a hard fought victory is close, until their opponents send a T-800 assassin android (or Terminator) back in time to kill his mother, thereby erasing him from existence. That’s how Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a down on her luck waitress, ends up at the centre of mankind’s very survival.
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Many years have passed since the events of the first movie, with John Connor (Edward Furlong) now a young boy separated from his incarcerated mother, declared insane for her belief in killer robots and an imminent apocalypse. Sarah urgently needs to escape and reunite with him, as the machines begin plotting their second strike: sending back an even more advanced Terminator to kill John before he can become a threat.
Two fantastic films. And then the series ended. Wait, what? There’s more?
Never one to let a cash cow rest, Hollywood couldn’t resist bringing back a franchise that had reached its obvious endpoint, churning out four sequels that dragged its reputation through something worse than dirt.
Of course, not all of these films are irredeemable and some even have their fans, but they can’t be considered anywhere near as successful or influential as what preceded them.
Timeline A: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator: Salvation (2009)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines takes place 10 years after Judgement Day, where an adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) now lives off-the-grid in Los Angeles. He’s doing a good job of it too, as the infernal machines are completely clueless about his location in the past, but that isn’t enough to stop their devious plans.
They send a Terminator (Kristanna Loken) back in time to pick off other future members of the resistance, including John’s eventual wife Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) – fortunately, a familiar T-800 returns to act as guardian angel.
The third Terminator movie actually saw a reasonably positive response from critics, despite being the first entry in the franchise to have no involvement from James Cameron.
But a major stumble soon followed in the form of Terminator: Salvation, set in the midst of a post-apocalyptic future, serving as both a prequel to the first film and a sequel to Rise of the Machines.
With an all-new cast that struggled with a severe Schwarzenegger deficiency, the film failed to find an audience at the box office and plans for a new trilogy were scrapped.
Cue: our first timeline change!
Timeline B: Terminator Genisys (2015)
Six years after Terminator: Salvation crashed and burned, Paramount were ready to take another punt on the franchise, this time for a reboot of sorts.
Of course, the purpose of a reboot is to enhance the accessibility of an established film series, but Terminator Genisys is ultimately quite hard to follow if you have no knowledge of past films.
Set in 1984, the film sees Kyle Reese, trusted friend and ally to John Connor, sent back in time to protect a young Sarah Connor (as in the first Terminator film), only to discover she’s already well aware of Judgement Day and has a reprogrammed T-800 by her side.
It’s unclear how the timeline was altered so radically, as the subject was set to be explored deeper in two future films, but alas, they never materialised after Genisys underperformed critically and commercially.
Timeline C: Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
And we’re back! But is it third time(line) lucky? Well, sadly not.
Prior to release, the stars seemed to be aligning for Terminator: Dark Fate, which saw James Cameron return to help out with the story and Linda Hamilton reprise her iconic role of Sarah Connor.
The film disregards the events of the previous three entries and instead serves as a direct sequel to T2: Judgement Day, while also intending to launch a brand new trilogy (there’s a pattern emerging here).
Dark Fate sees Sarah Connor come to the aid of Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a woman targeted for termination by a brand new machine: the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).
Directed by Tim Miller (Deadpool), the film was deemed an improvement on Salvation and Genisys, but it appears those two blunders had stamped out enthusiasm among movie-goers.
Terminator: Dark Fate was a sizeable box office bomb, hitting the brakes on any and all plans for the series to continue.
Timeline D: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09)
Amid all these attempts to jump-start Terminator on the big screen, writer Josh Friedman managed a competent job of it on television.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles is set after the events of T2: Judgement Day, with Game of Thrones star Lena Headey taking on the title role opposite Thomas Dekker as her on-screen son.
Despite their best efforts to eradicate Skynet, they continue to be relentlessly pursued through time by an army of Terminators, with reprogrammed android Cameron (Summer Glau) representing their best hope of survival.
The series was moderately well-received and built up an avid cult fanbase, but was cancelled after its second season – leaving an unresolved cliffhanger for viewers to agonise over.
How to watch Terminator movies in release order
Those who aren’t worried about dipping in and out of contradictory continuities may wish to simply watch every Terminator film in the order they were released.
If that sounds like your kind of punishment, look no further than the simple list below:
1. The Terminator (1984)
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
4. Terminator: Salvation (2009)
5. Terminator Genisys (2015)
6. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
If you’re looking for something to watch, check out our TV Guide.