Through his career over the past several decades, writer/director James Cameron’s movies have impressed the world several times over. Thanks to his skills as a storyteller, audiences have been taken to worlds of far flung fancy, grounded realism and everywhere in-between. Some of his movies are even considered among the best action movies ever made.
It’s a resume that makes it extremely hard to rank the man’s total filmography, while at the same time a completely fun undertaking to take on. That having been said, even the most iconic of careers can be ranked and filed based on the enjoyment and craftsmanship of the works presented. And while Cameron’s works may be immune to a lot of things, criticism isn’t one of them.
Looking at all nine movies directed by James Cameron, we’re going to see how they stack up against each other. Arranging everything in the pecking order of worst to best, including Avatar: The Way of Water, we'll see how the Cameron canon shakes out. Think if it as James Cameron: Judgment Day, starting off with the lowest ranked film on the lot.
9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)
While technically listed as James Cameron’s first directorial credit, there’s a lot that can be said about Piranha II: The Spawning’s production that would let him off the hook. Hired as a substitute for the original director, Cameron took over the production, only to have the film he shot tampered with by a producer who recut the film in his own image.
Disregarding the different cuts that Piranha II: The Spawning has, it has the honor of being the bottom of the barrel. Even with his talents for effects starting to show some promise in terms of actually directing a movie, the finished product is right at home in the bargain bin of B-horror movies. Your enjoyment may vary, but even at his roughest, James Cameron wouldn’t sink to these depths ever again.
8. Avatar (2009)
If you think placing Avatar this far down on the list is a slam against the film’s finished product, think again. While it’s undoubtedly accepted that the story to James Cameron’s 2009 opus is a bit simplistic, if not ripped from the pages of other films, the film isn’t a total waste because of it.
If anything, Avatar’s greater strength was shown in not only its photo realistic effects work, but also in the way that Cameron builds a world. The story of the RDA versus the Na’vi does feel like a sci-fi Dances With Wolves, and when you think back to Avatar, the first thing you remember isn’t going to be Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully delivering a rousing speech to the natives of Pandora.
What you will think of, though, is how gorgeous that world was, and all of the possibilities that await to be told under its suns. It’s something most franchise helmers today wish they could inspire in those that partake in their cinematic journeys. What's more, that work already seems to be paying off.
7. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
The string of delays that pushed Avatar: The Way of Water into releasing over a decade after the first movie made this follow-up all the more daunting. Taking his time to develop technology that will help push his vision for the rest of the saga ahead, James Cameron has gambled pretty largely on his would-be entertainment powerhouse. Judging by the fan reaction, it looks like that gamble is about to pay off.
Continuing the saga of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his growing family on Pandora, 20th Century Studios' Avatar movie is already better than the first one. The visuals are more stunning than ever, and there are whole sections of the plot that show those beautiful advances with true heart.
Perhaps a bit too ambitious, and a little too long, Avatar 2 still has eyes bigger than its stomach. Some of the same criticisms and praises sung for the first movie apply directly to this one, and for better or worse, The Way of Water definitely feels like it would have been right at home being released in the past decade. That being said, it’s quite the flex to be able to return to something so monolithic like Avatar and deliver the same sort of mass appeal that wowed the crowd back in 2009.
6. True Lies (1994)
Hear me out: while True Lies is still a hilarious action-comedy that uses Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis to the best of their abilities, it hasn’t aged all that well. The goofy humor is kind of basic, especially when seeing what James Cameron can do with characters in the best of circumstances. And the less said about the terrorists in a post 9/11 world, the better.
Despite its outdated concept, seeing Schwarzenegger and Curtis go head to head in True Lies, and eventually team up as a husband and wife spy team, is something we should have gotten more of. And with both Tom Arnold and Bill Paxton carrying some of the weight on the comedy front, the material does get a much needed boost. It may be goofy, but it’s a whole lot of fun. To think, Arnold Schwarzenegger originally, apparently didn't want Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie.
5. The Abyss (1989)
Science fiction is James Cameron’s bread and butter, and that fact has been proven time and again throughout his decades of filmmaking. The Abyss is one of the rarer films in the Cameron filmography that does something so different from the beaten path that the man had set for himself.
At the same time, it would define his future, as the film’s story of avoidable cataclysm and the war between man and extraterrestrial nature would fuel his career in future films like Avatar. The start of Cameron’s extremely method style of filmmaking, The Abyss was a painstaking epic that the director would use to put his skills, cast and crew through their paces.
A moderate success, there’s a wide difference between the film’s theatrical, studio-approved cut, and the Special Edition that was restored for DVD release. While even star Michael Biehn admits the film is a bit uneven, The Abyss an ambitious story told by a master of their craft, and it’s a James Cameron movie that deserves more credit than it’s given.
4. Titanic (1997)
At one point, Titanic was the centerpiece of the entire career of James Cameron. Thanks to this one movie, his box office service record was unbeatable, and he even took the time and goodwill from that movie to obsess a little bit over telling real-life tales of underwater discovery. Most importantly, Titanic showed the world how history could be resurrected in the popular consciousness.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose are a memorable pair of lovers who engage in a love affair that frames Titanic as a romantic dramedy that made the film both a beloved pop culture moment and an easy target for satire. More importantly, with Cameron pushing the boundaries of practical and digital effects to their breaking point, filmmaking seemed like something magic once again.
Putting his legendary leads on the map, while telling a sprawling story that pulled out all the visual stops, is a feat that only the king of 1997 could have ever pulled off. The only thing more prolific than the box office success of Titanic has to be the awards that followed, and the inspiration Kate Winslet took from James Cameron and his continued winning streak.
3. The Terminator (1984)
Out of the entire rundown of James Cameron movies, the director likes to consider The Terminator as his first film. While Piranha II: The Spawning technically still has that distinction, Cameron’s not entirely incorrect in his claim.
This was his first adventure in creating a world and a set of characters that he would forever be known for, and it still stands as a testament to James Cameron’s best work ever. The Terminator brought the world of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor to living breathing life in what could be considered a quintessential science fiction/horror film of the 1980s.
While the series would be remembered as more of a sci-fi/action franchise, the first film was so frightening and relentless that it made Arnold Schwarzenegger the ideal vision of an indestructible machine. And not satisfied with that work, James Cameron would later re-invent that tale as an emotional drama almost a decade later.
2. Aliens (1986)
Sequels are dangerous prospects. In the immediate context, following up something as well-regarded as Ridley Scott’s Alien with James Cameron’s Aliens, in the span of seven years, is nerve-racking. Creating a sequel that will last the test of time, on top of living up to a contemporary vision of excellence, is an even harder feat. And yet, Cameron’s sequel achieved both with flying colors.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley became the legendary badass that the world currently sees her as, with a second chapter that took what started as a haunted house adventure in space, and turned it into an all-out, action-packed war movie. It changed genres, reinvented its lead character and added a cadre of supporting characters that injected humor and thrills, while creating a formula for those sorts of figures in Cameron films to come.
Aliens took a well-respected film and made its world even bigger and better. In short, it was a template for the greatest film that James Cameron would ever make.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The Terminator was a movie so frightening that the T-800 stood as an imposing figure that terrorized audiences that stared into its glowing red eyes on the big and small screen. So what’s a creator to do when creating a sequel that tells another story with such a villain at its center? Anyone else would have just made the explosions bigger and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 scarier.
James Cameron wasn’t ready to do that though. While he did create a more terrifying character to play the heavy in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, those duties went to Robert Patrick’s T-1000. The twist that made this sequel so clever was the fact that Cameron would then use the familiar villain of the T-800 as the protector of Edward Furlong’s John Connor this time around.
If there’s any film that sums up the career of James Cameron at his best, it’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Reinventing his classic story of a fate that felt unavoidable into a story about how fate is only what we make it changed the course of a franchise so vastly, and in such a perfect manner, in just one film.
As Avatar: The Way of Water marks only the beginning of a franchise that could go up to seven entries, who knows how these rankings will change? All that’s known is that while some may see the future of James Cameron’s career as more of the same, others see these new films as a chance to reinvent himself in a new and exciting way. He’s done it before, and there’s a lot of potential for him to do it again.
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