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James Cameron's Greatest Films, Ranked

The top choice among the box office juggernaut's films may surprise you.

It's a big, gorgeous mess, but James Cameron's influence on cinema culture. Though he began by creating R-rated, gritty action and sci-fi movies (The Terminator, Aliens), he has now transformed into what is now quite uncommon in Hollywood: a visionary. We could even say that he is a true auteur who consistently creates bizarre and expensive creative projects that are not only approved but also become huge box office successes.

That's not to imply that everyone appreciates Cameron's creative output, though. Since Titanic's 1997 release and subsequent Oscar-winning performance, it has been detested by hordes of people. Following 13 years, some people still feel misled by what was essentially a 3-D retelling of the Pocahontas story, despite the fact that Avatar astonished audiences everywhere with pure technophilic splendour.

Sniping Cameron is simple—sometimes too simple. Early responses to the long-awaited, three-hour Avatar: The Way of Water (released December 16) show that he'll once again astound critics and common people on his way to the bank (You can read our review right here.) . Forget the Marvel CGI; Cameron is catching whales in motion for your viewing pleasure! We choose to list each feature-length, theatrically released film that director James Cameron has been involved with in honour of his most recent Na'vi-vs.-human blockbuster (the under-one-hour documentaries and collaborations with other directors, such his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, are not included).

Whether you like him or not, Cameron has found ways to make an impact despite having a sometimes rocky but always forward-thinking career.


Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

The only James Cameron film that appears as though it cost $5 to make was his feature debut as a director at the age of 27 (alas, you can't blame him for the script on this one). But it does demonstrate his lifelong interest in marine travel: In the opening scene, two scuba divers staying at a coastal resort get into bed together while diving around a shipwreck, only to be rudely disturbed by the killer fish in question. The scene also features incredibly murky underwater camerawork.

Oh, and in this (not exactly lovely) junky sequel, from which Cameron has wisely distanced himself, the freshwater piranha have not only evolved to dwell in the ocean, but they can now fly... with wings... and slay unaware humans at the jugular. Later, Cameron would rule the sequel industry, but not yet. This is only for aficionados of campy horror and Cameron completists.


True Lies (1994)

The thrill of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis square off in a ridiculous espionage plot in True Lies was difficult to ignore if you were a fan of action movies and living in the 1990s.

While the extravagant set pieces, each one surpassing the last, are well planned, the terrorist big evil plot and emotional core seem to be left overs from a more generic Hollywood thriller. It's my sincere apologies, but Jamie Lee and Arnold are both greater actors than this.


Avatar (2008)

James Cameron is capable of having both the vision of a filmmaker and the sense of humour of a clown. His technically groundbreaking novella Avatar, which follows the blue-skinned alien Na'vi as they battle human conquistadors, straddles both of those categories in a painfully awkward way. While it's true that Cameron genuinely changed the way we watch movies by seamlessly fusing digital animation with unmistakably human movement (or as the director would describe the initial sensation produced by Avatar, "dreaming with your eyes wide open"), it's also true that: A) Its story beats and politics aren't that different from FernGully, and B) It works much better on the biggest screen possible. And yet C) what the hell did he do again?


The Abyss (1989)

Over three decades later, The Abyss’ visuals still provide a deeply satisfying jolt. Cameron understood that glancing at the deep-ocean expanse cameras can barely capture is more stunning than any traditional effect. But then-innovative computer graphics are more effective than they need to be within a tight, taut, intensely claustrophobic thriller that finds its crew encountering alien life. As always, Cameron has an eye toward swooning romance. Luckily, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio deliver the emotional payload.


Titanic (1997)

The Titanic and its tragic sinking served as the backdrop for Cameron's most epic, ambitious filmmaking to that point. He appears to want to contain all of human life on that boat—youth and death, upstairs and downstairs classes, romance and massacre—and the fact that he almost manages to do so speaks to his immense talent. Yes, Titanic is a soapy melodrama, which wasn't always a bad thing. It's also as beautiful as any ship, and it gave us Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a screen couple for the ages.


The Terminator (1984)

Cameron's creative abilities were officially announced with the release of The Terminator, which was based on his own original story. You've probably heard the plot: Arnold Schwarzenegger's seemingly impenetrable and wickedly cool robot travels from the future to 1984 to kill Linda Hamilton and her unborn son, who offers hope for humanity's continued survival. This is bullet-flying, high-concept sci-fi at its smartest and sleekest, and Cameron makes the most of both a limited budget and his star's seemingly limited range, influencing over a decade of genre filmmaking in its wake.


Aliens (1986)

The best sequels, like the best covers, know to deviate from their origins. Whether you prefer Ridley Scott's sublimely spare Alien or Cameron's maximalist sequel, there's no denying the craft on display here. Sigourney Weaver is the beating heart once more as the traumatised Ripley out for alien-annihilating vengeance, even if Cameron's space colony-exploding pyrotechnics nearly overshadow her. Just when you thought it couldn't get any scarier, another slithering surprise awaits you. This is the type of thriller that will have you sweating from the first frame to the last, then leave you yearning for more.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Following the events of The Terminator, Earth's menacing AI overlord sends an even more advanced cyborg back to the humble '90s grunge heyday to kill the plaid-and-Public Enemy-tee-wearing child John Connor (a wonderfully unguarded Edward Furlong) before he becomes the human resistance's leader. What a crappy setup, and it couldn't be more timely given our growing fear of AI.

But T2 is both visceral and cerebral. The chase between the liquid-metal T-1000, Linda Hamilton's soldier, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's suddenly frail-looking Terminator (now defending humanity) hangs in the balance. Cameron doesn't just improve on his first Terminator; he pushes the boundaries of what was possible to depict in film at the time, relying on the ingenuity of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic to create the T-1000's sinewy shapeshifting and other effects that still shock. However, the operatic action and emotional devastation on display are far more powerful than anything in the Star Wars saga. Why? Because Cameron makes the stakes feel as real as our own bloodletting in the real world.

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