It’s completely bonkers that one man has multiple of the best films ever made, not to mention the highest earners. And yet, James Cameron continues to rake in the cash with his massive budgets and epic scale. People flocked to his films after he broke big. It took me years to realize that he didn’t actually lose his mojo, merely evolved it. I thought he’d gone soft after a few years, moving into romantic drama and films that I didn’t care for in my youth, but he’s become someone that I respect a lot, even if I don’t always like him.
And he started like many do – with schlock. He’s still got some campy cheese in him and I respect that, but he knows how to weaponize it at this point. Seeing his ability to truly create something special out of some basic elements has been wonderful for fans of blockbuster filmmaking, and working through my issues with him has been a kind of journey of my own.
Let’s get to the rankings!
- Avatar : I hate it, don’t judge me. While beautiful and interesting in visual design, the story is the laziest and most obnoxiously lazy thing I’ve seen in a while and the fact that it made so much money makes my skin crawl. I’m not a fan of half-assing the storytelling elements of a film to showcase pretty tech. This film is, in my opinion, Cameron doing his own version of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. It’s gorgeous and has some interesting moments but is also lazy and I could have done without it. Rarely do I feel such a high level of anguish over the success of a film from an interesting director but…damn, I really hate this. I hope the 18 sequels (or however many at this point) try to actually tell an original story on top of being nice to look at.
- Piranha II – The Spawning : I’ve got some strange, mixed things to say about a few Cameron flicks, but this one I just have nothing going on. I don’t like it, it’s bad and it’s not completely Cameron’s fault. He was hired to take over the film by a producer that really wanted to do it himself. Cameron did a little work, was let go, and the producer finished it on his own while Cameron crashed on a friend’s couch and didn’t really know what to do. When you see the film it’s pretty blatant that it isn’t his particular vision. I put myself through it once, I won’t do it again. The first film, a weird thing by Joe Dante, is actually kind of fun and ridiculous. The remake is also a blast, but this lackluster sequel is just a pain to sit through.
- The Abyss : Here’s where I start liking stuff. The Abyss is a wildly inconsistent film, but I think it’s really interesting. Few people are so willing to put their personal lives on display like that, and James Cameron just lets his feelings all hang out there for everyone to see. Divorce is a tricky topic for everyone, and it must be substantially more difficult when you’ve divorced a director that makes massive films and can tell everyone about it. I saw this as a kid, though, and knew nothing about all that. Instead, I got to see a movie about everything from the Cold War to liquid aliens and even some crazy-loose rules on drowning. What really draws me to it is the strange design of the alien effects, which Cameron would utilize later in another film. He began pushing boundaries of scale and I think it turned the whole thing into a monumental moment in my life.
- True Lies : Let’s all stop and remember that Arnold was funny for a moment, yeah? True Lies managed to combine his comedic timing with the likes of Tom Green, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and even a role for Charleton Heston. Everything here really works and while it’s far from my favorite Cameron film I think the different aspects of performance, action scenes, and romantic jokes. While I don’t revisit this one often, I stumble back on it here and there to be reminded of just how much fun Cameron can have when he isn’t merely interested in advancing tech. If you don’t remember how much fun this is, look back and consider the missle-firing scene and give it another shot.
- T2 – Judgement Day : I’m deep in the weeds here. Look, I love this movie. It’s one of the best action movies ever made, combining near-perfect comedic beats with dark and important action scenes and even heartfelt moments. I’ve seen people cry over the thumbs-up of a robot as he plunges into liquid steel and his ward’s heart breaks. I mean…goddamn. Cameron is often a director that is more interesting than incredible, but being able to fully appreciate his perfect films requires diving in completely. Is it all cheesy? Yup. Does he have a weird fetish about mothers? Absolutely, no question. And those two things really manage to create a wildly beautiful film about the friendship between a boy and his robot as they struggle against the beliefs of his mother, the world’s aggression and greed, and even the culture of the Terminator itself as they send someone to undermine him. I love it, and it’s a stunning film.
- The Terminator : Look, the more popular option is an incredible action film but this is a horror movie and that’s just where my loyalty lies. Cameron considers this his first true film, made on a shoestring budget while people lived in their cars and injured themselves because they couldn’t buy the correct props and sets. I love each bit of the eerie tone, the wonky practical makeup, and even the manic performances. Linda Hamilton seems sick of everything, and Michael Biehn is just insane in this film. I’ve seen his performance redone, emulated, and paid homage to, and this is still much more of a wonderful thing. I dig it, and I think if you revisit it than you might too.
- Aliens : C’mon, you knew this would be at least in the top 3. This is one of my favorite franchises in existence, probably tied with the Planet of the Apes films for #2. Perfect as an action movie, it manages to be lovingly tied to the first film while throwing all of Cameron’s personal fetishes in a blender and hitting “pulse” over and over. He’s got the gore effects he likes from his Terminator films, he’s got his mother fetish, and he’s definitely got his desire for massive budgets and scale. Each aspect of the plot and character work lead into advancing the franchise further and further into what he views as interesting and it’s all built on a natural evolutionary cycle (like the xenomorph itself). It’s the best action film ever made, and I’m still waiting for that to be truly challenged.
- Titanic : I would never have thought this would be one of my absolute favorite films. Seriously, I hated it when it was released. Sure, I saw it, and my parents didn’t know I got to see nudity that young. I loved the boat crash but thought the romance was too corny and the drama too obnoxious. I hated 1.5 hours of the movie, a significant amount, and it was always a slog to get through. I figured it out, though, when I went to a special screening at a local art theatre. I sat there with a couple women from work that wanted to go with me and when the lights went down, the music swelling, one of them leaned forward with tears in her eyes and whispered, “Oh my god, it’s starting!” That did it, and I understood the power that the romantic epic has over its audience. Cameron’s use of space and geography, placed on the back of the romance, allows his characters to travel through the world and let you understand the ship as well as you understand them. DiCaprio would go on to do much better work, but Winslet is an absolute miracle in this film. She was one of my earliest celebrity crushes, but as an adult, I can appreciate her for the depth of talent she’s got welling in her. I’ve gone on to love her work still but this is just special to me.
And that’s my ranking! What about you, what do you think of James Cameron? Anyone want to crucify me because I hate Avatar? It’s okay if you do, I just want to know what you think!