Every James Cameron Film Ranked
When one thinks of the most iconic directors active in Hollywood, the name James Cameron is more often than not part of discussions. Cameron was a big-name filmmaker in the 80s and 90s and his films retain a place in the hearts of generations of cinemagoers.
Cameron, as a filmmaker, pushed the boundaries of what was fathomable for on-screen content. His story ideas were revolutionary and, despite them feeling complex, they were quite simple to follow.
Later, though, the simple stories were wrapped up in complex visuals and technologies, thus wowing the audiences in another way by making the most of technology. He showed glimpses of that right from the start with the Water tentacle and the T-1000, before redefining the game with the motion capture in Avatar in 2009.
At times, he pushed the boundaries by inventing technology of his own to help him present his vision on the big screen. His combination of the elements of the film right from conceptualization to post-production elevated every scene and made them unique, thus enhancing each and every film.
Cameron, the director, is someone who explores the depths of the ocean and the prospect of a battle between humans and technology in his films. While doing so, he ensures the story features powerful female characters. The name Sarah Connor comes to mind here. (Ellen Ripley isn’t included as a Ridley Scott’s Alien established the character that Cameron took ahead with Aliens).
What’s more, there is a subtle dash of a love story elevating the film. It shows audiences that the common themes of films are the strongest as without them no matter how many special effects or aliens were involved, it would fall flat. Imagine The Abyss without the chat during the final deep dive, or Aliens without the Weaver’s anguish at learning about her daughter. Also, why would Jake Sully’s actions in Avatar have had value had the love story angle not been there?
These themes are present in a sizable chunk of his films. Whilst these earned his mainstream appeal, the fact that he is one of 72 directors to win the Oscar for achievements in directing, showed that he too had to bow down to the period drama formula. However, he ensured that he left his stamp and fascination for the ocean in this film.
From earth to time-traveling cyborgs, to aliens in outer space and on planets far, far away, and to the depths of the Ocean, Cameron’s films have transported cinephiles to whole new worlds and enthralled them for almost four decades.
Here is a look at some of James Cameron’s films.
8. Piranha 2: The Spawning (1982)
Most of the younger generation will know Cameron as the man who helmed Avatar. Also, they will be aware of a new series of Piranha movies. Hence, this one may catch them unawares and they wouldn’t even associate Cameron with this film. Likewise, if you were to watch his films in chronological order, you wouldn’t believe that he was in the hot seat for some of the other titles on this list.
I remember this film for the rubber fish and that weird sound used as the fish flew through the air. It presented a collision between something that tried to be terrifying, but ended up as quite amusing. It fell flat as the score used to signal the impending arrival of the Piranhas was so good. This presented the monsters as cartoons that completely stripped away the fear that was supposed to exist. One could almost say that the score flattered to deceive.
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Trademark Cameron elements seen in this film are his love for the ocean and the creation of a strong female character in Tricia O’Neil. Also, an unpopular opinion would be that one can watch this film and not get completely put off. It shows that Cameron knew how to make the most of what he had at his disposal. This, in turn, may have helped him get the opportunities to prove his craft as a director.
7. True Lies (1994)
With no ocean, time-traveling cyborgs, or aliens, and in a film set purely on land on earth, James Cameron shows his chops in the action-comedy genre. Reuniting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, True Lies focuses on the secret agent duo of Harry Tasker and Albert Gibson.
This film has a James Bond feel initially, but veers sharply from becoming a formulaic spy film. Amazon Prime viewers may get Family Man vibes because the protagonist’s family is oblivious to what he actually does. An action spy-comedy is a treat, but Cameron does just enough to help the cast shine. He retains a formula that fans have come to expect from him and his lead actor.
Cameron lets fans get a glimpse of the edge of your seat action sequences such as the bathroom shootout scene, culminating in a cross-city chase sequence, featuring a bike and a horse. Commando fans will enjoy Schwarzenegger’s lines from this scene and another scene towards the film’s climax.
What I like about this film is that it isn’t dragged in any sense. In True Lies, there is an action set piece or some amusing sequence or just something to further the story throughout the run time. People who want a James Cameron film devoid of any aliens, ocean exploration, or outer space adventures should go for this as True Lies is proof that he isn’t a one-trick pony who needs aliens or cyborgs to hold his work together.
6. The Terminator (1984)
The film served as a launchpad for James Cameron and Linda Hamilton. Furthermore, it established Conan The Barbarian’s Arnold Schwarzenegger as a major player in Hollywood. James Cameron drew out a role tailor-made for Arnold Schwarzenegger and presented a powerful female character (a theme seen in many films in this list) in The Terminator.
In this film, Cameron shows technology at its best and its worst. It depends on what side you are on though. The Terminator focuses on the theme of technology overpowering their masters and their ability to thwart the masters’ fightback from ever becoming reality.
Despite its complex on-screen world and timelines, it has a very simple plot which is evident by the name itself. Additionally, it has enough tit-bits to drive home the human element that leaves one party vulnerable to the seemingly unstoppable technology.
Anyone who has seen The Terminator will be lying if they told you that they didn’t experience a sense of trepidation whenever Schwarzenegger showed up on the screen. Cameron elected to use the perfect camera angles to present Schwarzenegger as a larger-than-life creation that cannot be stopped. He even included subtle touches that had viewers cringe as they saw how emotionless the humanoid was.
The film appears similar to the stalker films of the era. A combination of the music and set pieces helps this sci-fi thriller turn into a pulsating action flick that leaves you at the edge of your seats. Hence, there is enough for fans of all genres. By combining these elements, Cameron proved that he knew his audience. This is an essential part for a director who can then tailor his content for the fans, all of whom would have desperately wanted Cameron to be back, a line he conveyed through his lead actor.
5. Avatar (2009)
Three years before the release of Avatar, Cameron described it as, “It’s an old-fashioned jungle adventure with an environmental conscience. It aspires to a mythic level of storytelling.” The film comes across as just that with technology ensuring that it remains firmly entrenched in the minds of the audience.
This groundbreaking film saw the craze of 3D emerge, and to be quite frank, it was a visual spectacle. Right from the kaleidoscopic nightscape of the Na’Vi forest all the way to the palette on the Ikran and Toruk Macto, these images are what are remembered. One can’t say the same about the good vs evil story though. It felt like a run-of-the-mill one that would have been forgotten had it been based on earth.
James Cameron, too, may have realized the same. This is why he opted to let this film sit for years as technology caught up with it. It is why he goes for the awe factor with locations such as the Hallelujah Mountains and The Tree of Souls. He proved his mettle as a director by recognizing what aspect needed to dominate to hook in the masses and help the film thrive as a whole. However, avid cinephiles can spot the Cameron theme of human vs nature and the usual love story.
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On repeated watches and after learning of the technology used to capture the characters (yes they aren’t animations) is when one can appreciate the effort and innovation. The actors acted all their scenes with motion capture used to lend their performances to the Avatar. This resulted in the living element being there in the glimpses that make the indigenous population seem real.
In sequences throughout the film, one can see the human element in the Avatar’s eyes and body language. Prominent scenes include the grit in the chases, delight in the Tsaheylu, and trepidation in the initiation to the clan. These small and insignificant touches change the film completely and separate it from regular animation. It is not animation; it is so much more and Cameron proved to be a pioneer once more with his offering set in Pandora.
Stream James Cameron’s Avatar on Disney Hotstar
4. Titanic (1997)
Though it was released almost a quarter of a century ago, Titanic still is an iconic film fresh in the minds of fans. Some love it and some hate it, but one cannot deny that it ensures that Titanic may never be remade.
What helped Titanic stand out was Cameron’s meticulous attention to detail, stemming from the fact that he visited the wreck and tapped into his great passion for the ocean. This real-life footage made its way to the film and served as the inspiration for the full-scale model and grand sets. Furthermore, when one reads about the real-life incident, it comes across as a tribute or homage to the souls who were on the actual ship. Real stories and characters are woven into the fictional narrative. Hence, Cameron, in a sense, envisioned his film as a fictional take supported by actual events and characters.
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What makes this film stand out from the other Titanic films, is the way Cameron captures the horror of the sinking and how everyone, no matter their social class, is one at the time of sheer devastation. It focuses on how powerless humans are before the might of nature. The sight of characters plummeting and the ship snapping combined with the water raging through the corridors and overwhelming the characters is unforgettable.
As a director, it is the individual’s job to put together a film with all the elements working in sync. This is why I don’t really buy into the ‘Jack and Rose plot was weak.’ as when combined with the music, the visuals, the acting, and the scale of the production, Titanic is unforgettable.
Yes, it could have been better, no doubt anything can get better over time or in retrospect, but the film marketed as a Romeo vs Juliet in the ocean lived up to it in every possible way.
3. Aliens (1986)
Aliens was the first of Cameron’s tryst with sequels. He had the unenviable task of trying to top Alien. It was set to be a tough task as a rehash of the Xenomorph from Alien may have seen the franchise compared to the Jaws sequels, or even worse, Piranha 2: The Spawning. Considering Cameron may have still had such comments fresh in his head, he may have paid extra care to Aliens.
Picking up the film from almost where it left off, Aliens advances the story of Ellen Ripley. She must return to the exomoon LV-426 as a consultant to protect a huge investment/ help a group of marines encounter the offspring of a terrifying foe/s. She agrees as she is seeking to banish the demons.
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The arrival of the Facehugger in Aliens is a throwback to the first attack from Alien. It serves as a reminder and the extra focus on Newt’s scream is a nice touch as it conveys the horror. What also works is that Cameron didn’t try to make the Aliens even more terrifying in appearance or change it in any way. While it may have been successful, he retained the original and proceeded with tints of horror, building up to a thrilling outer space war.
As audiences know the Alien is there and know how the Xenomorph looks, they may have been averse to the impending arrival of the monster. Once more, the director rises to the challenge, delivers a scene that lets Ripley shine and lets the Marines see that she is no passenger. Furthermore, it lets the Aliens be terrifying enough for franchise viewers.
Cameron presents them as unseen threats, giving us a glimpse of them midway through the movie, before unleashing chaos in the final hour of the film. This is intense, graphic, and works for a war film as the earlier part of the film got us invested in the characters. At one point in the climax (the airlock scene), I felt as though the score was a reflection of how audiences’ hearts may have been pumping as the events went down. The impact of that scene is brutal, as it comes just moments after we believe that everything is over.
Aliens is a film that sees its action and sci-fi elevated through layers such as Ripley’s backstory and investment into characters that you naturally begin to root for or dislike once the fight begins. It progresses from a fight for survival to show how love can draw phenomenal strength from a single character.
2. The Abyss (1989)
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Bridgman says, “There’s something here that’s not us.” This, when taken with the line shown to fans at the start of the film, shown to fans with the knowledge of the radar beeps usage in Aliens, may lead fans to expect an Aliens-esque experience underwater. It is far from this though.
Cameron’s fourth full-length feature is one of his best and claustrophobic best. This adventure comes across as a marriage of his two passions, i.e. Aliens and the ocean. Set in the middle of the Atlantic, The Abyss focuses on the efforts of a rig crew to explore a crashed nuclear submarine. However, things get crazy with a storm that cuts off contact with the support ship. A sunken crane complicates things and the people underwater must survive their own people, the threat of flooding and hypothermia, and avert a war.
Despite being a sci-fi film, The Abyss has elements such as love, hope, family, and considering the year of its release, it had a very timely message delivered in quite an amusing way. For eagle-eyed viewers, Cameron’s eye for detail comes to the fore, and to those who can join the dots, it is a sign of the theme of love conquering all that is prevalent in the film. It may put viewers off, but the infusion of human nature into this sci-fi film works well.
The Abyss has a lengthy runtime, but it doesn’t feel rushed, nor does it feel dragged. Cameron knows just when to spice things up a bit and a fight dominates a large part of the end of the second hour and the start of the third. Mixed with moments of sorrow, joy, and sacrifice, The Abyss takes the audience through a range of emotions as they feel like they too have become a part of the Deep Core crew.
The side plots serve a purpose, and seeing all the links fall into place after having been set into motion over the course of the film gives a sense of the loose ends being tied up. A subtle touch in this film marked the beginning of Cameron’s long-running theme of how humans are at the mercy of nature and are the same when faced with adversity.
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992)
While Terminator was a fabulous film, returning to it may have been tricky. Especially so after having already exceeded expectations with a sequel in 1986’s Aliens. However, James Cameron delivered an epic by paying homage, raising the game, showing character evolution, and even pandering to the fans of one actor with a subtle twist.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns, albeit, in a different role. He comes up against something even more formidable in a shape-shifting cyborg. This shapeshifter makes the villain from the original feel like a harmless cartoon character.
Judgement Day focuses on an attempt to eliminate John Connor after a failed attempt on his mother in the previous film. Like in Terminator, the other side also sends a protector back. However, following the events of the first film, Sarah Connor’s character has evolved. From damsel in distress to one who just got over the line, she is a stone-cold, ruthless killer.
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Terminator 2 mirrors its predecessor with the arrival of the Terminators, and the scene involving a truck on the freeway. We also see iconic one-liners take center stage which shows us that Cameron knew Schwarzenegger fans would lap that up with glee.
A pulsating final third of the film is an edge-of-your-seat extravaganza. However, the battle isn’t over-exaggerated or doesn’t feel dragged at any point. This speaks volumes about the scale, story, and originality of the fight considering that it drags for a good 40 minutes at least.
If this is Cameron’s track record with sequels, we cannot wait for Avatar 2 with its setting in an ocean deep in space.
What would you say is James Cameron’s best film?