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Debate Club: The best Terminator movies (not directed by James Cameron)

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Oct 23, 2019

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

James Cameron has obviously gone on to bigger things since he directed the first two Terminator movies — and by "bigger," we mean "two of the highest grossest movies of all time" — but he'll always be associated with this franchise. This is something the franchise obviously understands: his name is all over Terminator: Dark Fate, even though he didn't direct it.

But there is value in the non-Cameron entries in the franchise. Today we rank the four Terminator movies that he didn't direct himself.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Unlike all other Terminator sequels, Salvation is less about time travel and more about envisioning the post-apocalyptic war of man versus machine. That's a potentially fun change of pace, but giving the franchise to director McG resulted in the least-interesting movie in the series.

In the midst of his triumphant run as Batman, Christian Bale proves to be a drab John Connor, and a talented cast that includes the late Anton Yelchin are largely left to their own devices in a film that feels like it's spinning its wheels trying to find a fresh angle on this material.

Unfortunately, Salvation is now best known for something that's not even in the movie. One day on set, Bale freaked out on cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, and the leaked audio led to music producer Lucian Piane turning the clip into a dance remix.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

You can make an argument that this one (directed by Thor: The Dark World's Alan Taylor) never recovered from that truly terrible title, but it's really not all that bad. Schwarzenegger allows one of his most well-known characters to be called 'Pops,' for one thing, and Matt Smith is decent as the new incarnation of the Terminator, the T-5000.

It's hurt by a dull Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese, and it's not that much of a surprise that they're erasing it from the timeline… but it has its moments.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

After the critical (and, to some degree, commercial) disappointment of Salvation and Genisys, it's a bit of a relief that Dark Fate is... perfectly fine.

Director Tim Miller is a long way from Deadpool, but he manages to produce a reasonably exciting and emotional sequel, one that makes Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor the main character and focuses on a new timeline that offers some interesting twists on the preexisting mythology (James Cameron served as a producer and helped write the initial story.)

And yet, Dark Fate is a reminder that this series will always be defined by Schwarzenegger's aging T-800, a metal Pinocchio who learns how to feel.

Never revelatory, largely good-enough, Dark Fate demonstrates how starved franchise fans are for a film that's simply better than average.  

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Jonathan Mostow has always been an underappreciated craftsman — both U-571 (2000) and especially Breakdown (1997) are terrific entertainments — and his T3 is perhaps the most underappreciated Terminator movie.

The first non-Cameron-directed film, it doesn't try to reinvent the wheel (or reinvent film technology), but it tells a crackerjack story and features a charming, almost wistful Schwarzenegger performance that was his final one before becoming Governor of California.

And extra credit points for a truly dark ending… one that, sadly, is wiped out of the mythology with this new film.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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