Every James Cameron movie ranked, from Avatar: The Way Of Water to Piranha II: The Spawning

Every James Cameron movie ranked, from Avatar: The Way Of Water to Piranha II: The Spawning

He may be the king of the worldwide box office but only one of his movies—Titanic? Aliens? The Terminator?—can be crowned as his best

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Clockwise from bottom left: Avatar (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios); Titanic (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios); Terminator 2 (Screenshot: TriStar Pictures); Aliens (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios)
Clockwise from bottom left: Avatar (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios); Titanic (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios); Terminator 2 (Screenshot: TriStar Pictures); Aliens (Screenshot: 20th Century Studios)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

When you think of directing in terms of pure box office heft, you think of James Cameron. Despite Avatar: The Way Of Water being only the American auteur’s ninth film, his films have amassed more than $6 billion and he’s twice made the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time. Even Aliens and Terminator 2 both worked Herculean tasks in proving that what were formerly one-off masterpieces could be transformed into generation-spanning pop culture powerhouses.

Cameron’s never been a cynical businessman, though. Rather, he’s always been obsessed with pushing the limits of technology, from reinventing underwater shooting during The Abyss to building multiple Titanics while making Titanic. And his films have always been moralistic fairytales: cautionary, inspiring, or somewhere in between. Ranking Cameron’s films was no easy feat, but it sure was a treat from start to finish.

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9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) - Official Trailer

Cameron’s first feature film as a director is cut firmly from exploitation cinema cloth, a sequel that was itself inspired by the killer nature success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. While Piranha II: The Spawning never manages to rise above its cash-chasing sequel roots, it does still bear certain directorial flourishes that would later become Cameron hallmarks. The underwater sequences are beautifully shot, the tension in the buildup to each creature attack is well-executed, and the blend of horror and dark humor would help define Cameron’s aesthetic throughout the 1980s and beyond. [Matthew Jackson]

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8. The Abyss (1989)

8. The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX

Cameron has always pursued perfection but, in The Abyss, that obsession pushed him to the borders of Bond villainy. With 40 percent of principal photography taking place underwater, the director insisted on building a 7.5-million-gallon tank in an abandoned power plant. Ed Harris punched him when he kept shooting while the actor was drowning, and co-star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio once felt so abused that she stormed off set. The resulting film was a technical marvel, but not an emotional one. While this story of Navy SEALs and an oil rig crew collaborating to recover a sunken submarine raised the bar for both practical and digital effects, its ensemble is a shell of the Colonial Marines in Aliens. [Matt Mills]

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7. True Lies (1994)

7. True Lies (1994)

True Lies (1994) Theatrical Trailer A [4K] [FTD-0694]

With Aliens and Terminator 2 having firmly established him as an action hitmaker, James Cameron took his well-earned blockbuster clout in a slightly new direction with True Lies, aiming for action-comedy, romance, and spy thriller all in one, and he mostly pulled it off. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis are both plainly having a lot of fun as a couple trying to recapture the old fire of their marriage by bringing some new secrets to light, but the real star is Cameron’s reliance on action set piece after action set piece. Just when you think he can’t go any bigger, he tops himself one more time, making True Lies a blast to watch even if it’s not among Cameron’s very best. [Matthew Jackson]

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6. Avatar (2009)

6. Avatar (2009)

Avatar | Official Trailer (HD) | 20th Century FOX

Because the visuals of Avatar are so jaw-dropping, it’s been all too easy for viewers to underrate the rest of the movie by comparison. Despite its length, it’s a masterpiece of pacing. The film begins with the close-up of an eye opening, and slowly the scope becomes ever larger, as Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) emerges from a cryo-pod, first onto a spaceship, then into a lab, then into a new, larger blue body, and finally into a bio-luminescent rain forest, where he’ll learn to fly dragons and commune with six-legged horses. Along with Jake, we ease into the situation, appreciating the more intimate connection made with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) along the way. Derisive claims that this is just Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas unfairly dismiss all three films, which have significantly different plot points.

Such comparisons also ignore the religious allegories at play, with Jake divinely chosen by Eywa, the planetary Gaia-consciousness, embodying the strengths of both the “sky people” and the Na’vi and able to walk in both worlds. As for the dialogue, “I see you” may not have been delivered as memorably as “I’ll be back” or “Game over, man,” but they’re working on the same level. Still, it’s the groundbreaking mo-cap technology people will remember most, revolutionizing the way eye movement translates, and bringing an end to the dead-eyed “uncanny valley” of what came before. [Luke Y. Thompson]

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5. Titanic (1997)

5. Titanic (1997)

Titanic | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX

Naturally, James Cameron’s take on an old-fashioned Hollywood romantic adventure in the Gone With the Wind mold involves heavy amounts of science, disaster, and a whole lot of water. With a $200 million budget, it was also the most expensive movie of all time at the time, a ceiling frequently broken by Cameron over the course of his career. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as romance-minded Jack is most often credited for the repeat theatrical viewings that led the movie to also break box office records, but even demographics not inclined to love Leo keyed into the action-packed escape from a sinking ship, the present-day wraparound bits involving Bill Paxton, and the wonderfully hammy villains played by Billy Zane and David Warner.

In the class struggle encountered by Kate Winslet’s protagonist Rose as she falls for the lower-class Jack, Cameron adds a capitalist critique to counter the retrograde politics of some of the studio classics he drew inspiration from. (Yes, the irony of a big-spender and earner like Cameron demonizing the arrogant wealthy is noted.) Whether it’s the romance, the action, the humor, the science, the classism critique, or some alchemical combination, Titanic remembered what so many other movies have forgotten—to have something for everyone. [Luke Y. Thompson]

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4. Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022)

4. Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022)

Avatar: The Way of Water | Official Trailer

After making audiences wait more than a decade for what he promised was a bigger and better return to his imagined world of Pandora, Cameron absolutely delivered on all that anticipation with Avatar: The Way Of Water. Running more than three hours, it’s definitely bigger, and the advanced filmmaking technology behind its glorious vistas certainly makes for spectacular viewing. What really makes it better, though, is Cameron’s renewed focus on a sense of family and home for Jake Sully, Neytiri, and their children. It might be more simplistic genre tropes filtered through a very expensive lens, but there’s nothing wrong with simplicity when it looks and feels this good, and is this much better than the already-beloved original film. [Matthew Jackson]

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3. The Terminator (1984)

3. The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984) Official Trailer - Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie

James Cameron’s name these days is associated with the biggest, most expensive films of all time, but he’d never have gotten there if he hadn’t first done some incredible world-building on a $6.4 million budget. It’s all on the screen in The Terminator: the future littered with skulls and flying hunter-killers, the origin story of Skynet and Cyberdyne systems, and the titular cyborg that became Arnold Schwarzenegger’s defining role—a rare performance as a villain that wound up playing to his strengths. With a mechanical skeleton using stop-motion, and Brad Fiedel’s iconic score simulating the heartbeat of a machine, Cameron’s nightmare-inspired chase movie transcended its most basic premise, striking a nerve and becoming an unlikely love story.

And the director’s eye for casting was apparent early on, not just perfectly playing Arnold against type, but also giving Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton career-defining parts. Playing on Cold War fears to deliver one of the darkest “happy” endings to conclude an ’80s action movie, it’s a defining film of the decade, and one that foreshadows almost all of Cameron’s subsequent themes and obsessions. Progressive politics, doomed lovers from different worlds, motherhood, toxic machismo ... all it’s missing is the underwater enthusiasm that would come later. [Luke Y. Thompson]

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2. Terminator 2 (1991)

2. Terminator 2 (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Terminator 2 has had so many scenes and lines embedded into pop culture for so long that people overlook just how genius a subversion of the original it is. It’s a shame that everybody goes into it knowing, “This is the one where Arnie’s the good guy,” because the first act does a flawless job of convincing an uninitiated audience otherwise. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is such a skilled chameleon that it’s expected for him to assume the Kyle Reese role from The Terminator and protect John Connor. That is until a shocking slow-motion sequence reveals the opposite. From there, this is the ultimate effects-powered chase movie, balancing heartfelt character development with pioneering CGI and enormous stunt work. After matching the acclaim enjoyed by Aliens and eclipsing its box office take three-fold, Terminator 2 affirmed Cameron as the master of sequel-making—and summarized his every strength in the space of two hours. [Matt Mills]

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1. Aliens (1986)

1. Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

More than three and a half decades after its release, Aliens continues to be the yardstick on how to make a sequel to a masterpiece. Where Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic emphasized claustrophobia and slasher tropes in space, Cameron broadened the scope into an all-out interspecies war. In the process, he fulfilled the life process of cinema’s most chilling extraterrestrial, introducing the egg-laying queen to somehow make the creature even more repulsive than it already was. Aliens is also the last entry in the now-eight-film franchise where the characters are worth caring about. The film actually dedicates time to establishing its ensemble, which ranges from the tough-as-nails Vasquez to Hudson and his endless one-liners, whereas later sequels jumped the gun just to give the Xenomorphs their chow. Had the Alien series ended here, it’d be regarded as the most flawless franchise in cinema. [Matt Mills]

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