Every James Cameron Movie Ranked From Worst to Best

Ora Sawyers

When it comes to directing crowd-pleasing, money-making blockbusters, James Cameron has truly honed things down to a science. Cameron is one of the highest-grossing filmmakers in history, despite directing a relatively small number of films over the decades. You can’t really argue with his track record, though.

Now that Avatar: The Way of Water has finally arrived in theaters, we’re taking a look back at all nine of Cameron’s movies (so far). Where do the Avatar movies fall on that list? Which is better – Aliens or Terminator 2? Let’s settle the debate once and for all.

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

We doubt many cinephiles would argue against placing Piranha II at the bottom of Cameron’s oeuvre. Even Cameron would surely support that choice, as he seems as eager as anyone to forget this low-budget horror sequel even exists.

Piranha II attempts to up the ante on the original by introducing flying variations of the man-eating fish. Suffice it to say, that did nothing to help the movie rise above the sea of Jaws wannabes of the late ‘70s. It certainly didn’t help that the rookie Cameron (who got the job after working under B-movie legend Roger Corman) feuded constantly with executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis and struggled to communicate with a crew of mostly Italian speakers. In fact, there’s some conjecture as to how much of the film was actually directed by Cameron and how much was the handiwork of Assonitis himself.

It’s not the most auspicious start to a directing career, but Piranha II does have a couple of things going for it, at least. The prosthetics work helped pave the way for some of the creature effects in 1986’s Aliens. Not to mention that Piranha II kicked off a long and fruitful partnership between Cameron and actor Lance Henriksen.

8. Avatar

In a world of nonstop Marvel movies and Star Wars spinoffs, Avatar remains the highest-grossing film in history. Clearly, Cameron knows how to put butts in seats without the need for a preexisting franchise.

It’s really not hard to see why Avatar struck such a deep chord with moviegoers in 2009. The film introduced the beautifully alien world of Pandora, a place where all creatures coexist in grand ecological harmony, and a world threatened by mankind’s insatiable hunger for resources. Watching Avatar is like taking a guided tour through the most visually stunning safari in the universe.

Unfortunately, Avatar suffers quite a bit from its cast of mostly bland, forgettable characters and a story best summed up as “Dances With Wolves meets Fern Gully.” But simplistic though it is, Avatar is a visually stunning film that remains about the only compelling case for owning a 3D television set.

7. The Abyss

Human beings are fascinated by the ocean. The ocean is as intriguing as it is terrifying. This dichotomy forms the basis for The Abyss, Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi movie that is home to a great premise whose execution is a bit hit or miss. In The Abyss, an American submarine sinks after colliding with an unidentified object. With the Soviets fast approaching and a hurricane about to rain on the Navy’s rescue efforts, a small team of SEALs are dispatched to help a group of scientists recover the missing sub.

The Abyss works best in the way that it creates three-dimensional characters out of underwater roughnecks, and we feel something for each one of them – especially Ed Harris’ Bud and Mary Elizabeth Masterantonio’s Lindsey. Viewers feel the psychological torment of being trapped in a small space with endless gallons of water surrounding on all sides. They also experience the wonder of discovery as the characters encounter an unexpected alien presence on the ocean floor. As with many Cameron movies, the musical score itself does a great job of sucking viewers in and adding to the mood.

And the movie marks the first time CGI was used to create a photo-real character for film. The Pseudopod tentacle led to the creation of Terminator 2’s liquid metal villain.

The Abyss might have been a long, sometimes plodding movie, even before the eventual director’s cut, but it remains a quality genre picture with more going on than your average movie about alien visitors and those they visit.

6. Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water is the first in what’s shaping up to be a long line of sequels to Cameron’s 2009 smash hit. This sequel opens up the world of Pandora in a very literal way, as Jake Sully and family meet a tribe of water-dwelling Na’vi and renew their fight against a greedy, bloodthirsty human military.

The Way of Water doesn’t necessarily fix any of the problems inherent to the original. This is still a very straightforward blockbuster marked by a cast of underdeveloped heroes and villains. It’s also about an hour longer than the plot really demands.

But even more than with the first movie, Avatar 2 thrives on the strength of its world and the stunning creatures and environments it conjures up. This is one of the most expensive movies ever made, and every cent of that massive budget is apparent on-screen. The Way of Water is a sumptuous visual feast that has enough heart to make up for its storytelling shortcomings.

5. Titanic

Titanic is concrete proof that it never pays to doubt James Cameron. What many feared would turn out to be a massively expensive folly instead became a box office juggernaut that tied Ben-Hur for the most Academy Awards won by a single film. Cameron wasn’t exaggerating during his infamous Oscars speech. He really was king of the world back in 1998.

Titanic deftly shows off Cameron’s knack for combining sweeping epics with intimate human drama. The film hooks audiences early on thanks to its loving recreation of the infamously doomed sea liner and the Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose. Then comes the gutwrenching third act, as we see the magnificent vessel come apart at the seams and the desperate scramble for survival unfolds.

It’s impossible to watch Titanic and not come out the other side feeling emotionally drained. Yet that hardly stopped moviegoers from returning to the theater again and again.

4. True Lies

James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the peanut butter and chocolate of Hollywood. They may have only made a handful of films together, but each of those has to be in the conversation for the best action movies of all time.

True Lies sees Cameron ditching the high-concept storytelling of Terminator and Aliens in favor of a more classical Hollywood action movie. It may not quite have the personal touch of some of Cameron’s other work, but it sure accomplishes what it sets out to do. Schwarzenegger is in his gun-toting, wisecracking prime, and True Lies also scores major points for its heavy focus on Jamie Lee Curtis’ character. True Lies also ranks as Cameron’s funniest film, even if the marital strife subplot doesn’t entirely stand the test of time.

Looking back, True Lies feels like the end of an era for Schwarzenegger’s action movie career and Hollywood action movies as a whole. They don’t make them like this anymore.

3. The Terminator

“I’ll be back.”

Viewers didn’t know in 1984 just how prophetic Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line would be. Before The Terminator became a franchise and a household name, it was one lean and gritty sci-fi/action film.

The premise of a killer robot being sent back in time to murder the savior of the human race could have been fodder for an enjoyable but simplistic shoot-em-up flick. Instead, Cameron mines the concept for all its emotional worth. Even as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese flee the unstoppable Terminator, they foster a believable romance that ultimately leads to a tragic yet uplifting outcome.

The Terminator remains impressive on a technical level even 25 years later. Though the climatic stop-motion Terminator vs. Sarah sequence is a little clunky by today’s standards, Cameron’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles remains a sight to behold. Reese’s dreams of the future add context and depth to his struggle. And Arnold’s Terminator is one of the great villains of modern cinema. Who didn’t stare gaping as he mowed down dozens of noble LAPD officers or cringe when he nonchalantly cut out his eyeball in a dirty hotel room?

Though Arnold’s terminator would eventually be recast as a hero, this machine inside the shell of a man is still the stuff of nightmares.

2. Aliens

Aliens is a bullet of a movie that packs the perfect amount of character development, horror and action into a story that could have been threadbare in a lesser director’s hands. This sequel chronicles the return of Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley to LV-426, the planet where she first encountered the Xenomorph in 1979’s Alien. That barren world is now home to a colony of workers and their families, which is basically ringing the dinner bell for the Xenomorphs and their monstrous Queen.

If the first movie is one of the all-time great claustrophobic horror movies, Aliens succeeds in pivoting to a more action-oriented brand of sci-fi. Though in keeping with the franchise’s roots, Aliens still deploys a “less is more” approach to showcasing the deadly battles between the ravenous Xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani’s elite squad of Colonial Marines.

Cameron’s decision to keep Ripley and her young charge Newt as the emotional core of the movie makes the increasing threats around them all the more conducive putting us on the edge of our seats. That, coupled with the Power Loader vs. Alien Queen showdown, underscored by James Horner’s epic score, is why Aliens is not just a great Cameron film, but one of the best movies ever made.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

There was a time in Hollywood when sequels didn’t try to recapture the magic of the original so much as ride that gravy train as long as it could stay on the tracks. Forget about trying to actually improve on the formula. But then there’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day – perhaps the greatest example of a blockbuster sequel outshining its predecessor.

It sure didn’t hurt that Cameron had more experience and a lot more money to throw around in T2. Building on the groundbreaking CGI work used in The Abyss, Cameron and his team were able to bring life to a shape-shifting villain made of pure, liquid metal. If you thought a hulking cyborg with an Austrian accent was terrifying, just wait till you get a load of Robert Patrick’s relentless T-1000.

More than any other Cameron film before or since, T2 succeeds in pairing incredible action scenes with stirring emotional drama. The first movie’s story exists as a closed loop, with the future affecting the past. T2 broke that loop and reminded us that the future is only what we make of it. It humanizes Schwarzenegger’s character, exploring whether a machine programmed to kill and become something more. We can’t even blame the numerous later sequels for failing to live up to T2’s example. How can you possibly top this?

How would you rate Cameron’s filmography? Is T2 the best of the best, or should Aliens have taken the top spot? Let us know what you think in the comments.

For more on Avatar: The Way of Water, brush up on the series’ story so far and find out how exactly you can watch the sequel.

Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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