How do you watch the Terminator movies in order? Let’s be honest; that’s a complicated question to answer. Few sci-fi movies have as complex a timeline as the Terminator series, which involve both time travel and parallel histories.
Basically, the whole thing is very confusing, and the franchise has been through more reboots than a dodgy computer, so we thought it was worth explaining how to watch the Terminator movies in order. We’ll take you through all of the science fiction movies, from the incredible first two action movies to the series’ (middling, at best) end.
So if you’re human, hop in the time machine and head back to 1984 when James Cameron‘s first Terminator movie hit cinemas. Or, if you’re a deadly cybernetic assassin sent back in time to murder the future leader of the humans in the machine wars, then this isn’t the list you’re looking for. You’re looking for Sarah Connor. You can find her at 420 South Lafayette Park Place. Good luck with that, you poor mechanical sod.
How do I watch the Terminator movies in order?
- The Terminator
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
- Terminator: Salvation
- Terminator Genisys
- Terminator: Dark Fate
The Terminator (1984)
We start at the beginning, when things are nice and simple. John Connor is leading a war against a powerful AI known as Skynet and its machine followers.
In the dying days of this far-flung future conflict, Skynet plays its last card before it’s defeated and sends the T-100 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – an unstoppable cybernetic assassin known as Terminator – back in time to the ’80s to kill Connor’s mum Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to him.
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To stop the Terminator, John sends his best mate Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back in time to destroy the mechanical murderer before it kills his mum. Oh, and also, Kyle is really John’s dad, and he had to send him back in time to ensure that he’d be born in the first place to defeat the machines.
Still with us? Good, because by the end of the film, Kyle isn’t! Dying at the hands of the Terminator, he leaves Sarah to save herself and raise John.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Following the events of the first movie, John (Edward Furlong) is now a teenage rebel while Sarah – who justifiably became a mite paranoid after the events of the first film – is in a mental hospital. Why? Well, no one believes poor Sarah’s warnings about the coming machine war (not even John), or at least they don’t until the Terminators return.
Terminators? With an ‘S’? Yes, that’s right, this time there are two Terminators, but only one of which is played by Schwarzenegger this time.
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Luckily the Schwarzenegger Terminator isn’t out to kill Sarah. Instead, it’s been sent back by John in the future to protect Sarah and teenage John from the deadly T-1000 (Robert Patrick) – a liquid metal version of the Terminator that can shapeshift.
Realising that Skynet will just keep sending assassins back in time, John, Sarah, and the T-800 hatch a plan to destroy the AI before it can ever be built. Blowing up Cyberdyne Systems – the company that designed Skynet using the remains of the original Terminator — taking out the T-1000 along the way. With Cyberdyne gone, John and Sarah face an unknown future without Skynet.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Except, surprise! Skynet wasn’t really destroyed! Or it was, but not before sending back another robotic assassin (time travel is really confusing) called the T-X (Kristanna Loken). Released among early 2000s movies, John (Nick Stahl) has been living on the road since the death of Sarah, and Skynet can’t find him.
Not wanting to waste the opportunity to kill some humans, the TX begins slaughtering those who will become John’s closest allies in the war against the machines.
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John Connor, in the future, meanwhile, is clearly a big believer in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and sends back another T-800 to save his younger self. The T-800 reveals to John that blowing up Cyberdyne only delayed Skynet’s attack, and the war will still happen.
In the end, the T-800 manages to get John to a fallout shelter before Judgement Day can begin, but the rest of humanity is nearly wiped out, leading to the war Sarah was so desperately trying to stop.
Terminator: Salvation (2009)
Okay, to be honest, Salvation is a really difficult movie to place on a coherent timeline. The film serves as both a prequel to the original Terminator – showing us how John Connor (played by Batman’s Christian Bale) rose to lead humanity’s war against the machines – and a sequel to the events of Terminator 3.
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So if you want to be pedantic, you could watch it before Terminator, but let’s be honest, you don’t want to do that, not just because Terminator: Salvation is easily the weakest film in the original timeline but also because the other films give you an awful lot of context about the ongoing machine war.
Alternate Terminator Timelines
This is where things get complicated, because we’re not just travelling through time itself, but jumping across entire timelines as the series repeatedly rebooted itself in a desperate attempt to find some degree of relevancy. As such, the following films are completely unconnected from each other and can be watched in any order or not at all…
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Possibly the worst of the Terminator movies, this film completely rewrites the timeline. It begins as the first film does, with Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) hopping back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from Skynet’s assassins. Arriving in 1984, though, Kyle is shocked to learn that Sarah already has a protector, the T-800, played once again by Schwarzenegger.
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Sarah then takes Reese on a journey through time to prevent Judgement Day and stop Skynet (now going by the name of Genisys) from taking over the world. Also, John Connor (Jason Clarke) is now a Terminator tasked with ensuring Skynet (we mean, Genisys) is built. Confused? Us too. Don’t worry, it’s erased in the next film.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
The most recent reboot Dark Fate opens right after the events of Terminator 2, with John and Sarah relaxing after saving the world. Unbeknownst to them, though, Skynet has sent yet another T-800 back in time, and it finally succeeds in terminating John after five movies erasing the events of Terminator 3 and Salvation.
With John dead, the humans stand no chance against the machines and are doomed to lose their war, right? Well, no. It turns out that nature abhors a vacuum, and another rises to lead the humans in the war against the machines, who are now led by another AI called Legion (subtlety is dead). This time it’s Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who will defeat Legion, so the abominable artificial intelligence once again sends a Terminator back in time to turn some people into corpses.
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Not wanting Skynet to win the war, the human rebellion sends back Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically enhanced soldier, to protect Dani, but they needn’t have bothered to be honest. Why? Well, Sarah Connor still lives in this timeline, and she’s more than a match for any machine.
Oh, also, the T-800 that killed John is back but good now because it’s illegal to make one of these movies without including Arnie, and that’s as coherent as we can make this timeline (without even touching on The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
How to watch the Terminator movies in release order
If all the reboots, rewinds, and revivals have given you a headache and you just can’t be arsed with a paradox-induced migraine, you could just watch the Terminator movies in order of release. It’s very simple. You start in 1984 and finish in 2019; no need for a time machine.
How do I watch the Terminator movies in order of release?
- The Terminator (1984)
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
- Terminator: Salvation (2009)
- Terminator Genisys (2015)
- Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
For more thrills, here are our guides on how to watch all the Indiana Jones movies, and Conjuring movies in order. We’ve also got a guide to all of the new movies coming in 2023. (Don’t forget to check out our list of the best movies of all time, too.)