Many critics (including the one awkwardly writing these words in the third person) think Terminator: Dark Fate is the third-best film in the long-running franchise, after 1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment DayNo critics (at least not that the one awkwardly writing these words in third person has seen) have argued that Terminator: Dark Fate is better than either The Terminator or Terminator 2. Fans of the franchise unanimously agree those are the two best films — but they’re evenly divided about which of the two is superior. With the release of Dark Fate relaunching this debate for the umpteenth time, let’s see if we can resolve it once and for all.

It is now Judgment Day for the Terminator series.

The Case For The Terminator

The Terminator

The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, prefers the original 1984 film. When I asked him why, this is what he said:

I think the people really enjoy seeing the Terminator being the Terminator, and to be this cold machine that crushes everything. It doesn’t mean it cannot have a spin of humanity and all those kind of things, but that the audience should never know when these things get activated and havoc is created and everyone is f—ed around him. The danger should always be there. I like that on the first one.

He has a point. The sheer, inhuman brutality of the original Terminator is terrifying. The movie has a brutish intensity that its sleeker, more polished sequel lacks. If it feels like a nightmare — with this hulking, unstoppable machine chasing a woman for no apparent reason — that’s because it was borne out of one. James Cameron fell ill while working on Piranha II in Italy, and then woke from a fever dream with the mental image of a robotic skeleton wielding a knife. As he worked on the concept, he developed the idea of this robot passing for a person as an “infiltration unit,” with an endoskeleton beneath lifelike human features.

Although he initially envisioned a Terminator that could more easily blend into society — his original concept was to have Lance Henriksen play the character — he switched gears after he met Schwarzenegger, who was originally being eyed for the part of human hero Kyle Reese. Schwarzenegger wasn’t the ideal choice for a Terminator who could hide in plain sight, but the former bodybuilder was entirely believable as a walking tank covered in fake skin.

All of Schwarzenegger’s perceived weaknesses as an actor worked for the Terminator. His occasional stiffness in front of the camera came across as expressions of the T-800’s robotic demeanor, and if Arnold was hard to swallow as anything less than a strongman, barbarian, or demigod onscreen, no one doubted he could play an unstoppable killer. Even his Austrian accent worked, as if Skynet hadn’t quite perfected mimicking a human voice.

The Terminator (1984)

Schwarzenegger’s defense of Terminator 1 was rooted in his character, but the film also has the benefit of two great underdog heroes: Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese. While Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed robot makes an inspired choice of protagonist in T2, he’s still a robot — and an extremely deadly one at that. And while Hamilton’s Connor is transformed into a ferocious warrior in her own right in T2, the Sarah in the first Terminator is heartbreakingly vulnerable. As is Kyle, who was sent back in time from the future to protect Sarah, but shows up here naked and beat up and pretty quickly gets the crapped kicked out of him. There doesn’t seem to be any way they can beat the Terminator, and that makes the film supremely suspenseful.

The Terminator arguably has the more satisfying ending, too. Sarah and Kyle defeat the Terminator, but Kyle dies, leaving Sarah alone and pregnant, having to fend for herself as she heads off into an unknown future. Our heroes won, but they did nothing to stop or prevent the Judgment Day nuclear war that is destined to occur on August 29, 1997.

T2, by comparison, ends on a much more definitive note of triumph, with Sarah and her teenage son John (Edward Furlong) not only dispatching the latest model of Terminator, but destroying all traces of the technology that could spark the Judgment Day War. Cameron even changed his original ending for T2 — with an elderly Sarah watching her grandchild play happily many years in the future — to leave a little of the uncertainty that made the original Terminator’s ending so compelling. But there was no topping the original on that front.

The Case For Terminator 2: Judgment Day

5. The T-1000, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Schwarzenegger’s Terminator: Dark Fate director Tim Miller told me he prefers Terminator 2 to Terminator 1. He considers himself more of a sci-fi fan than a horror fan and finds Terminator 1 leans more to the latter, while T2 favors the former. He also added...

I just think it’s better. It’s not a function of budget necessarily, but I love what Linda turned into, and I love the sort of fierce defense of a mother for her son — that really gets me.

Hamilton’s T2 performance is terrific, both emotionally and physically. She seems completely transformed from the Sarah Connor we met in Terminator 1 — as a person would be after enduring what she went through and learning what she knows about the future. And her cold, calculating harshness — even bordering on cruelty at times — makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the new Schwarzenegger Terminator, which has been reprogrammed to follow young John Connor’s orders.

I already wrote earlier this week about the Terminator’s transformation in that film, and how its  growth as it spends more time around John makes Terminator 2 emotionally satisfying. When T2 was re-released to theaters a few years ago in 3D, I wrote another essay about the film’s ingenious color scheme — essentially Cameron uses purple, the color of the Terminator’s laser blasts in the future, to suggest the moments when the Judgment Day War is getting closer to coming to fruition.

Sarah Connor, ‘Terminator’
TriStar Pictures

It bears repeating that Terminator 2 remains not just a great Terminator sequel, but one of the greatest action films of all time. The Terminator is a lean movie, not too far removed from pulp exploitation. And that approach works for the movie Cameron wrote in the early 1980s.

Terminator 2 is a blockbuster’s blockbuster with one spectacular set piece after another. Most movies would be lucky to have one sequence as good as the moment where the T-800 and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 meet for the first time, which flows like liquid metal directly into an incredible motorcycle-on-truck chase. After that, T2 also has the siege on the mental hospital where Sarah Connor is incarcerated, then the attack on Cyberdyne. That’s followed by another chase with a helicopter and a truck, and the final battle in the steel mill. These are all Hall of Fame action scenes — and they’re all in one movie.

All of these scenes involve the T-1000, another great addition to the franchise missing from The Terminator. Realizing he couldn’t out-Arnold Arnold, Cameron cast Patrick, who’s fast and relentless, with a menacing glare. And Cameron combined cutting-edge digital technology with practical effects to exploit the new Terminator’s morphing body in all kinds of ingenious ways. As much as I enjoyed Dark Fate and its evil Terminator, played by Gabriel Luna, the franchise still hasn’t found a way to truly top the T-1000.

The Final Verdict

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

It’s easy to see why fans, and even some of the creators of the franchise, are so divided on the question of Terminator vs Terminator 2. Not only are they both excellent, they’re also different enough in tone and scope that they’re hard to judge against one another. When I was a kid Terminator 2 was the be-all end-all. Later, I came to appreciate The Terminator. To this day, I still go back and forth on the issue.

After talking to Schwarzenegger and Miller, though, I have finally decided. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the better film. I will tell you why.

There is one bad moment in The Terminator. It comes immediately after the first confrontation between Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Kyle Reese. After the showdown in the Tech Noir club, Kyle and Sarah escape down an alley, and the Terminator gives chase. Kyle sets off an explosion as he drives away, but the Terminator keeps right on coming. He runs through the fireball and leaps on the hood of the car. And when he does, he looks like this...

Schwarzenegger marches into that fire with his natural, floppy hair. He comes out the other side with no eyebrows and a mysterious spiky hairdo. You could almost buy his eyebrows getting singed off — although covering Schwarzenegger’s real brows with heavy prosthetic makeup makes it trickier — but how in the world did a brief jog through some flames give the T-800 an edgy haircut? While it looks great on the character — particularly after he slices out his own eyeball and hides the evidence of his robo-sensors by wearing a pair of sunglasses — it makes absolutely no sense.

Generally the effects in The Terminator hold up well, particularly given their age and the budgetary limitations Cameron and his team were under. But this is just silly. And there’s nothing commensurate to it in T2. So, with all other things being equal — and it really feels like they are — this gives Terminator 2 the very, very slight nod. And now that debate is settle for all of eternity ... right?

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