There are five movies in the Terminator franchise, but the debate over which one is the best only boils down to two of them: The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. These are the first two entries in the franchise and the only two that had any input from franchise godfather James Cameron.
Cameron is finally set to return to the franchise this summer with Terminator: Dark Fate, the sixth installment in the series. So, before Cameron returns to the realm of killer robots with Linda Hamilton, here are 5 Things The Terminator Did Better Than T2 (And 5 T2 Did Better).
10 The Terminator: Suspense
Both the first and second Terminator movies have a merciless cyborg for an antagonist, but the fear is more palpable in the first one. We’re genuinely terrified of the T-800 as it ruthlessly hunts down Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese.
In the second one, it feels like Sarah and John will be safe, because they have another Terminator on their side, so the suspense is never really there. By contrast, The Terminator is a Hitchcockian masterclass in cinematic tension. The Terminator might not technically be classed as a horror movie, but it is one of the scariest movies ever made.
9 T2: Action
The Terminator and Terminator 2 are both action-packed movies, but the latter upped the ante on the spectacle and blew the first movie’s action sequences out of the water. This is mostly due to the first one having a shoestring budget and the second one having a record-setting $102 million price-tag.
But an increased budget alone can’t make action scenes more exciting and visceral. James Cameron knew what he was doing with that extra cash. Set pieces like the helicopter shootout, the chase through the storm drains, and the T-800 opening fire with a minigun are among the greatest action scenes ever put on film.
8 The Terminator: Atmosphere
The Terminator is a very atmospheric movie; atmospheric in a way that T2 never is. Its official genre classification is “tech noir” – a darkly themed story about the dangers of advanced technology. And like fellow tech noirs Blade Runner and Dark City, it has a deeply immersive atmosphere.
This is especially prevalent in scenes like the nightclub shooting, which has a slick neon glow behind laser sights, disco mist, and a leather-clad cyborg. James Cameron set the mood perfectly in the first Terminator movie and then failed to recapture that mood – partly due to a shift in tone – in the second one.
7 T2: Emotional moments
Apart from developing Sarah and Kyle’s romantic relationship and effectively selling Sarah’s terror, The Terminator wasn’t a very emotional movie. Terminator 2, on the other hand, has plenty of bittersweet dramatic moments that make watching it more of an emotional rollercoaster.
The relationship shared by John and the T-800 in T2 has been met with some criticism from fans for being a schmaltzy boy-and-his-dog story. But let’s face it, when you were a kid, watching those movies, you really felt their bond and got emotional at the thumbs-up scene. Anyone who denies it as an adult is just being cynical.
6 The Terminator: Story structure
The plot of The Terminator is much tighter and better structured than that of Terminator 2. Nothing feels like it was tacked on and every single scene needs to be there in order to advance the plot. It’s a shorter, snappier, breezier viewing experience.
Terminator 2 is a long-winded epic with unwieldy scenes. All the stuff with Cyberdyne and Miles Dyson feels tacked on, and the first act doesn’t take off for a long time. We spend way too long with Sarah in the mental institution and getting to know John Connor’s everyday life. The first movie has a way better structure.
5 T2: Sarah’s character development
The first Terminator movie did a great job of turning Sarah Connor from a terrified average joe caught off-guard by a murderous cyborg to a badass warrior who stopped the unstoppable machine. However, Terminator 2 developed her into a more complex character as her drive to wipe out Skynet once and for all tested her morals.
She wanted to murder Miles Dyson to prevent Judgment Day, despite the fact that he has a wife and kids and they were in the house at the time, seeing Dyson’s death as necessary for the greater good. That’s a more interesting character than we met in the first one.
4 The Terminator: Subtle performances
The acting in both The Terminator and T2 is impeccable, particularly in Linda Hamilton’s nuanced portrayal of Sarah Connor. However, the performances in the first one are a lot more subtle, building a real connection between Sarah and Kyle Reese where T2 uses one-liners to brush over plot development.
This is probably because the nature of action movies doesn’t often leave any room for subtlety in the actors’ performances (Keanu Reeves’ turn as the emotionally tormented John Wick being the obvious exception), and T2 is more of an action-oriented movie than The Terminator. Still, it’s a point in The Terminator’s favor.
3 T2: Quotable lines
Although the first Terminator movie has a bunch of memorable lines of dialogue – “Come with me if you want to live,” “I’ll be back,” “You’re terminated, f****r!” etc. – the second one has even more, like “Hasta la vista, baby.”
For starters, a lot of the most memorable lines from the first movie get repeated in the sequel, with more impact this time, because of the established familiarity. And the sequel has more lines that evoke emotions in fans. “I know now why you cry,” is a poignant revelation from the T-800 right before he sacrifices himself to save John and Sarah.
2 The Terminator: Believability
Despite all the time travel and killer cyborgs, The Terminator does a fantastic job of making its plot seem believable, and it pulls the viewer in a lot more. T2 is a flashy, action-packed Hollywood blockbuster that has plenty of spectacle, but it doesn’t feel like it could really happen in the way that the first one does.
The first one has an element of realism, going out of its way to make the T-800 feel like a real technology that’s subject to faults. It’s crazy to call a movie about a killer robot from the future realistic, but at the very least, it feels realistic – more so than the sequel.
1 T2: Fun
Fun isn’t everything in filmmaking, but Terminator 2 is easily more fun to watch than The Terminator. As a less terrifying viewing experience, it’s also a more comfortable one, and it’s easier to settle into the story and enjoy the dazzling visuals and shotgun-wielding Arnie in a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket.
When it comes to deciding which Terminator movie to rewatch on movie night when you’ve got your popcorn on the go, T2 is the more obvious choice. It’s simply more entertaining, because it’s a big, bombastic Hollywood spectacle rammed with beautiful action sequences and gigantic set pieces.