Total Recall hit theaters 30 years ago this year, and it reminded audiences that Arnold Schwarzenegger is, perhaps, the ultimate action hero. It also reminded audiences that the actor and science fiction get along like, well, Arnold and explosions.
Throughout his exceptional career, Schwarzenegger has gone back to the sci-fi well many times; sometimes successfully (think T2) and other times... not so much (sorry not sorry, most Terminator sequels).
As one of his most successful films celebrates its 30th anniversary (and we here at SYFY WIRE continue to celebrate it), here’s a definitive ranking of every one of Schwarzenegger’s big-screen science fiction adventures.
Terminator: Salvation (2009)
A cameo from a naked CG Arnold, circa 1984, is the best thing about director McG’s disappointing sequel, the fourth in the Terminator franchise.
Christian Bale plays future resistance leader John Connor as someone who either yells or really yells, as his two-note performance feels lost in a movie full of plot holes and low emotional stakes. The visual effects are as impressive as they are hollow.
Terminator: Genisys (2015)
Terminator: Genisys isn't the worst movie ever made, but it is definitely its cousin.
A remix of Terminators 1 and 2 that completely (and wisely) dismisses the events of the other sequels, Genisys painfully wants to be a big-budget, R-rated homage to James Cameron’s classic films. Instead, it is a watered-down, CG mess that leaves you feeling ashamed for even liking the franchise to begin with.
Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney have zero chemistry as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, so the movie’s shortcomings are even more apparent as our heroes try to stop yet another T-1000-type Terminator and Skynet. (All Terminator sequels post-T2 think that what will make them work is if they have a different version of that classic sequel’s iconic villain, apparently.) Arnold is fun to watch, however, albeit in a supporting role.
The Sixth Day (2000)
Despite its inspired premise — a future where cloning is commonplace but banned when it comes to humans — The Sixth Day falters with a rote and formulaic execution of that premise.
Casting Arnold as a helicopter pilot who discovers he has been cloned doesn’t do the movie any favors, as he struggles to pull off the “everyman action hero” routine that he accomplished so well in Total Recall. (Robert Duvall steals the show, however, as a scientist doing morally questionable things for emotional reasons.) The production’s clear penny pinching on the visual effects budget doesn’t help the proceedings, either.
The Running Man (1987)
The Running Man, loosely based on the 1982 novel written by Stephen King (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), is the epitome of a guilty pleasure. The material deserves a less cheesy take, but there are worse things than watching Arnold literally fight for his life in a dystopian United States where “runners” are hunted by over-the-top killers on a reality show.
Now, some 33 years after its release, Running Man feels chillingly more prescient now than it did then — an unfortunate testament to its legacy.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
The most diverse and inclusive Terminator movie yet, Dark Fate is a compelling blockbuster and is quietly one of the better sci-fi films of the decade. It does for Linda Hamilton’s grizzled Sarah Connor what 2018’s Halloween did for Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, albeit without the robust box office to back that up.
Director Tim Miller of Deadpool fame delivered the third-best Terminator movie in the series and, sadly, the most underseen. By the time Dark Fate came out, Genisys had already poisoned that well for audiences in terms of enticing them to give the franchise’s second reboot in four years another shot. It didn’t help that the marketing campaign struggled to find a way to inspire moviegoers to rise above their atrophy, either.
But don’t sleep on this inventive action drama, which gives Arnold’s T-800 an Old Man Logan-type storyline that puts this killing machine on a path to redemption that has been nearly 40 years in the making.
As endlessly quotable as it is rewatchable, director John McTiernan made what could have been a cheap “Alien but in the jungle” sort of action/sci-fi into one of the '80s' best genre films.
The role of special forces commando Dutch let Schwarzenegger emerge as a worthy challenger to Sylvester Stallone’s reign as the king of jacked 1980s action heroes. Even though Dutch is the last man standing, after the Predator hunts and slays every last member of his unit, the tension of whether or not he will survive the final fight with this “one ugly mutherf***er” is palpable. I mean, sure, we know Mr. “Get To The Choppa!” is going to triumph, but how he does it makes Predator one of the most satisfying entries in the genre.
Total Recall (1990)
In this classic '90s actioner, Schwarzenegger plays Quaid, a construction worker-turned-spy forced to go on the run from some very bad guys with guns when he finds out he’s not who he believes himself to be. If you haven't seen Total Recall yet, get your a** to Mars — or get your a** to in front of a TV and watch it on VOD.
The Terminator (1984)
Writer-director James Cameron forever changed both the genre and Schwarzenegger’s career with this gritty, tension-filled actioner that mixes science fiction, action, and certain horror movie elements into one of the best things to ever come out of Hollywood.
In what would become his signature role, Schwarzenegger fills every one of his scenes with dread as his murder-fueled killing machine from the future stalks a young Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) through Los Angeles as the scrappy Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) struggles to stop that which is designed to be impossible to kill. Cameron’s well-structured script is pure polish, with zero fat and a surplus of riveting tension that helps make it the timeless classic it is today.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
So many science fiction films made after this one owe their existence to T2.
Cameron’s follow-up to his successful 1984 film is one of the best theatrical movie experiences in the history of ever, thanks to its pioneering CG visual effects that paved the way for future blockbusters to use (or abuse). That tool allowed Cameron to create one of the most iconic movie villains ever, the T-1000, so that he could battle with his other most iconic villain-turned-hero, the T-800.
Despite the role affording Schwarzenegger a limited amount of dialogue, the actor manages to speak volumes with his less-is-more take on Skynet’s MVP, finding the very humanity he’s used to taking from his targets. The storyline is at times a beat-for-beat remake of the 1984 Terminator, just with bigger and more complex action scenes. But it also doubles up on the emotional payload of the story, making T2 one of the standard-bearers for how to make an excellent sequel that’s better than the original.