The Best Terminator Movie Viewing Order

Terminator Movies Best Viewing Order

With five films released, another arriving later in 2019, and lots of time travel in the mix, there's a number of potential viewing orders for the Terminator movies. The franchise has passed through the hands of a number of directors, including James Cameron, Alan Taylor, McG, and Tim Miller. All of them have put their own spin on this world, taking different approaches and incorporating alternate timelines to tell the story of the humans battling against Skynet for survival.

The franchise begins with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a waitress living and working in Los Angeles. One night, she is approached by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a man claiming to be from the future on a mission to protect her from a machine known as a Terminator (Schwarzenegger). This unstoppable killing machine was sent back from the year 2029 to kill her, since she is destined to give birth to the child who will grow up to defeat the Terminators and other Skynet machines. Over the course of the franchise, viewers learn just how sinister Skynet - an AI program who eventually becomes sentient and incites a nuclear apocalypse - truly is. The films also show how John Connor's life is shaped by the events of the past, present, and future, ultimately leading him to accept his destiny as the leader of the Resistance thanks to his years spent on the run from and fighting with Skynet's most formidable weapon, the Terminator.

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Before Terminator: Dark Fate debuts on November 1, it's worth rewatching all of the Terminator films to make sure you're caught up. Here are a handful of possible Terminator viewing orders to help refresh your memory on the characters, key dates, and big events in the story.

The Terminator: Release Date Viewing Order

Opting to watch the Terminator franchise in the same way the films were released is a solid route to take. The Terminator lays down most of the groundwork needed in order to understand what is going on throughout the rest of the franchise, so you don't need to worry about feeling lost right off the bat. With a solid foundation in place, you'll see the story slowly evolve and progress in some interesting (for better and for worse) ways.

The one big hiccup in this viewing order is that the series' original director, James Cameron, exited the franchise after Judgment Day and returned 17 years later for Dark Fate. This means other directors have stepped in and added their own respective directorial spins on their franchise installments, which pays off for some (see: Salvation) and not so much for others (see: Genisys).

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The Terminator: Chronological Viewing Order

Terminator 3 Rise Machines Timeline Explained

If you're looking to watch the Terminator films based on the chronology of the events shown throughout all of the films, the best viewing order is:

  • The Terminator: The majority of the story takes place in 1984, with a handful of cuts to 2029.
  • Terminator Genisys: This story is also split between 1984 and 2029 but an alternate timeline is at work, ultimately changing the outcomes for Sarah, Kyle Reese, John Connor, and the Terminator.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The story takes place in 1995 with a future John Connor sending a Terminator from 2029 back to 1995 to protect his younger self from the T-1000 Skynet sends back to kill him.
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: The story takes place in late July 2004 as John Connor tries to evade the T-X, sent to kill him and Kate Brewster, John's future wife.
  • Terminator: Salvation: Begins with a brief scene in 2003 showing inmate Marcus Wright agreeing to leave his body to science after his execution. The story moves to 2004, where it reveals Skynet becomes sentient and activates the nuclear apocalypse John Connor feared would happen (the implication being the apocalypse happened not long after the end of Rise of the Machines). The majority of the story is set in 2018 as John Connor leads the Resistance against Skynet's machines.
  • Terminator: Dark Fate: The story will be set in an alternate 2018 where the Skynet nuclear apocalypse hasn't happened yet. Tests to create human-Terminatory hybrids will figure into the story, just as it did in Salvation when Marcus was revealed to be an early version of the hybrid experiment.

The Terminator timeline is an interesting one in that it's fairly straightforward — until you arrive at the most recent installments, Genisys and Dark Fate. Time travel has been involved in the Terminator timeline since the first film when Kyle Reese traveled back to save Sarah Connor. Genisys, which we recommend watching after The Terminator, puts a slight spin on the original film's timeline which is why you should view it right after the initial film. It may require some mental gymnastics to keep straight the alternate timeline it offers up. Genisys, thankfully, doesn't introduce many new characters which would further confuse the plot.

The same goes for Dark Fate. Within the timeline of the film's fictional events, Salvation and Dark Fate take place in 2018 but they are two very different versions of 2018. Salvation follows in the original timeline begun in Terminator and carried on through Rise of the MachinesDark Fate throws a wrench into things slightly since it is meant to continue the story after Judgment Day, ignoring Rise of the MachinesSalvation, and Genisys.

Related: Every Robot Confirmed For Terminator 6 (So Far)

The Terminator: James Cameron Viewing Order

The shortest of the viewing order suggestions is one which follows only those Terminator films which have involved James Cameron. The viewing order works not only because it focuses just on Cameron's footprint in the franchise, but it also acts as its own trilogy within the larger franchise. The Cameron viewing order is:

  • The Terminator
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Terminator: Dark Fate

Cameron directed the first two Terminator films and worked as a producer on Dark Fate. The Terminator franchise wouldn't exist without Cameron, so it's only right to focus on a viewing order where his vision as a director and producer will shine through. Now, this viewing order will require one to find some time to go to the theater to watch Dark Fate. But, if this is the viewing order that's chosen, then it's already implied a fan of the series has chosen it and wants to stick to the purest version of it as possible, which means focusing on Cameron's work.

Related: What Edward Furlong Has Done Since Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Alternate Terminator Viewing Order

Our recommended Terminator viewing order may include a few surprises but trust us on this one. If you're going to commit to watching the entire Terminator film franchise, you'll want to make sure it's worth your while.

  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • The Terminator
  • Terminator: Dark Fate
  • Terminator: Salvation
  • Terminator: Rise of the Machines
  • Terminator: Genisys

Judgment Day is arguably the strongest film in the franchise and it provides the necessary backstory a viewer needs to dive right into the world of the Terminator. From there, move to The Terminator, which will act as a prequel at this point while also providing deeper context on the journeys of pivotal franchise Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. Dark Fate won't be essential to the viewing order if you go ahead and watch the franchise before the film is out in November but it's strongly recommended to see that film since it's a big part of not only the franchise but Sarah Connor and the original Terminator's respective franchise arcs.

After Dark FateSalvation is the way to go. It continues the story laid out in Rise of the Machines but actually shows us a new time period in the Terminator franchise where John Connor is evolving into the Resistance leader and savior he is known to be in earlier films. Finally, just get it over with and watch arguably the two weakest films, Rise of the Machines and Genisys. If you've gotten this far and you're a completist, you may as well check them out.

Related: Terminator: Dark Fate: 10 Things We Learned From The Trailer

The Best Terminator Viewing Order

All things considered, the best viewing order boils down to what you, the viewer, are looking to accomplish. If you want to see the original timeline play out and get all of the core information you need about Sarah and John Connor, Kyle Reese, the Terminator, and Skynet's plans to take over the world, just watch James Cameron's entries:

  • The Terminator
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Viewing the films in order of their release date is an unbeatable option, though, so opt for that if you want to keep it simple.

  • The Terminator
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Terminator: Rise of the Machines
  • Terminator: Salvation
  • Terminator: Genisys 
  • Terminator: Dark Fate 

At the end of the day, you can't go wrong. This is a sci-fi action film franchise starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it really doesn't get any better than that.

Next: Every Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger Has Played

Key Release Dates
  • Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019
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