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All of James Cameron’s films, ranked

From Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, these are the best James Cameron movies ever made

James cameron filming Terminator
Landmark Media / Alamy

Few directors understand the popular imagination the way that James Cameron does. He’s had commercial instincts since early in his career, and he has now directed three of the five most financially successful films ever made. Given that legacy, it can be easy to mock what Cameron does because it’s so overtly populist. He is not always a subtle director, but it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective one. Unlike some of Martin Scorsese or David Fincher films, James Cameron movies turn into big blockbusters every time, and he always makes them well.

Now, as we look back on his career to date, it’s easy to see the throughlines between each of his projects. One thing you might notice: This guy really loves water. Here’s every movie Cameron has ever made, ranked.

9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

9. Piranha II: The Spawning
15 %
3.7/10
r 84m
Genre Horror
Stars Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen
Directed by James Cameron
In what would almost certainly make the bottom of any list I’d write, Piranha II: The Spawning is Cameron’s first and worst film made. The sequel that nobody needed to the 1978 cult classic Piranha, this movie just doesn’t work. When a mutant species of piranha is discovered by some local watergoers, the feast begins, and the hilarity ensues. Unlike the previous film, these over-hyped predators are big, smart, and yes, they can fly. Unfortunately, the superpowers attributed to the feisty fish are the only thing that differentiates this film from the first. Chock full of bad lighting, cinematography, writing, acting, editing, and even sound design, this film should only be on your list if you like bad movies. Even still, you might find it hard to enjoy this film or watch it all the way through. Cameron was actually fired from the production and later tried to get his name removed from the credits, reportedly having broken into the studio to edit the movie himself. Unfortunately for him, his name is still plastered all over the credits and it will always be known as his debut.

8. The Abyss (1989)

8. The Abyss
62 %
7.5/10
140m
Genre Adventure, Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
Directed by James Cameron
A deeply moving and emotional film, The Abyss is a classic sci-fi drama that was also characteristically ambitious. A team of engineers and military men are tasked with a deep-sea investigation into a sunken nuclear submarine, the cause of which is top secret and mysterious. As you might imagine, given how much of this movie involves water, the movie went way over budget, ballooning from $33 million to something closer to $43 million. Between that and plenty of cast and crew complaints, this film was very nearly a disaster, which makes it even more impressive to witness today. Other than having a multi-faceted narrative and visceral, claustrophobic sequences, the craft from top to bottom is immaculate, as is so often the case in Cameron’s filmography.

7. True Lies (1994)

7. True Lies
63 %
7.3/10
140m
Genre Action, Thriller
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold
Directed by James Cameron
True Lies is a witty, romantic action-comedy that is a guilty pleasure of mine. The film follows a badass, anti-terrorist secret agent who must intercept nuclear weapons being smuggled onto American soil, which is a big distraction when he’s also trying to revive his marriage. The central performances from Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are zany and fun. Schwarzenegger is his normal self and gets more than his fair share of great action movie one-liners. Curtis does an awesome job as his shy and overlooked wife who is seeking adventure, not knowing how imminent and immediate it truly is. Then there’s Bill Paxton. Taking up a whole 10 minutes of screen time, Paxton easily steals the show as the funniest comedy role in Cameron’s entire filmography. As the sleazy car salesman looking to meddle in the couple’s marriage, his confrontation with Schwarzenegger is hysterical, but in a way only Paxton could pull off.

6. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

6. Avatar: The Way of Water
192m
Genre Science Fiction, Adventure, Action
Stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver
Directed by James Cameron
A long-delayed sequel that many were convinced no one wanted, James Cameron once again proved his haters wrong when Avatar: The Way of Water hit theaters. This movie, which picks up the story of Jake Sully more than a decade after the first Avatar, features the same spectacle that made that first film such a massive hit. The world of Pandora is beautiful, and the underwater sequences in this movie are likely the most stunning thing Cameron has ever put to film. On a technical level, The Way of Water is a masterpiece, and that technical wizardry is accompanied by a moving story about the way parents have to let their children go and live in the world, whether they’re ready for it or not. 

5. Titanic (1997)

5. Titanic
75 %
7.9/10
pg-13 194m
Genre Drama, Romance
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
Directed by James Cameron
Though this epic and timeless romance tragedy is not placed as high as some would like, it gets very difficult to pick Cameron favorites from this moment on. Telling the story of a restless young aristocrat named Rose (Kate Winslet) and a kind-hearted, lower-class artist named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) who fall in love aboard the R.M.S. Titanic, Titanic is remembered for the phenomenon that it justifiably was. Based on the tragic and true story of the ship’s catastrophic maiden voyage, Cameron masterfully weaves a beautifully sincere story of romance within a disaster that took nearly 1,500 lives. Despite the audience being fully aware of what’s coming, Cameron creates deep-seated suspense and poses the ever-looming question of who will make it out alive. The movie was hugely successful for Cameron, earning him a Best Visual Effects Oscar, as well as 10 other Oscar wins, including Best Picture. Though it is fairly low on my list today, Titanic is and will forever be an incredible film, even if it was one of the many overlooked Leo performances at all award ceremonies.
Titanic 3D Re-Release Official Trailer #1 - Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet Movie (2012) HD

4. Avatar (2009)

4. Avatar
83 %
7.8/10
pg-13 162m
Genre Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Directed by James Cameron
A revolutionary visual spectacle, Avatar’s theater release was unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Not only was the process of writing and producing the film extremely extensive, but it was also incredibly expensive. Originally planned for a 1999 release, the technology was not quite ready for Cameron’s dream a reality. Since no studio would fund the movie at the $400 million budget he required at the time, in spite of Cameron’s reputation as a hit maker, he was forced to wait almost ten years, and the project still boasted a gigantic $237 million budget. Nobody cared what he was up to until they saw the end product, which was highly successful, with a total of $2.8 billion at the box office. I myself went and saw the film in IMAX and standard 3D seven times. A singular technical feat, Avatar also boasts a strong story that may play with classic tropes, but finds unique ways to make them his own.
Avatar | Official Trailer (HD) | 20th Century FOX

3. The Terminator (1984)

3. The Terminator
84 %
8.1/10
r 108m
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn
Directed by James Cameron
As a surprise to audiences everywhere, Cameron’s next production after Piranha II is easily one of his best and launched one of the best sci-fi movie franchises ever created. In his first film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, we follow a human soldier (Michael Biehn) sent back to 1984 from 2029 who attempts to protect a young Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) who will give birth to the key to human salvation. When a near-invincible cyborg is sent back simultaneously to kill her, things start to get messy. Chillingly emotionless and terrifyingly ruthless, Schwarzenegger’s killer cyborg portrayal is absolutely unforgettable. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role would have made the movie as successful as it is, especially if you try to picture Sylvester Stallone or Mel Gibson, both of whom were offered the role before Schwarzenegger. Knowing Cameron and his talent — or luck — for casting just the right actors, it’s clear that Schwarzenegger was the right choice here. This is evident in The Terminator, where he takes some relatively unknown actors and creates a universe that is widely referenced to this day, whether or not you’ve actually seen the film you’re referencing.

2. Aliens (1986)

2. Aliens
84 %
8.4/10
r 137m
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn
Directed by James Cameron
Following Ridley Scott’s profoundly chilling sci-fi horror movie Alien comes Aliens, the much more in-your-face action-packed sequel that fully capitalized on the concepts in the original film. When Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wakes up from hypersleep more than 50 years after her traumatizing survival in the first movie, she finds that humans have discovered their existence and wants to research them with her help. Ripley, having seen the horrible things just one of those creatures can do, suggests bombing the hell out of the species to be rid of them. If you’ve seen the first movie, you know just how right she is. Back again to deliver some awesome performances are some James Cameron familiars: Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton. They play two soldiers tasked with eliminating any threat posed by the xenomorphs. Biehn is awesome as ever, reviving his Galahad-like glory from The Terminator, and even bringing his trusty shotgun along for the ride. Though this is a fairly scary sci-fi action thriller, Paxton is still hilarious in his performance as the gung-ho and extra-vocal private who quickly turns tail after facing the terrifying aliens. “Game over, man. Game over!”
Aliens (1986) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
75 %
8.6/10
137m
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Directed by James Cameron
The machines are at it again. One of the great sequels in film history, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is an encore that takes this sci-fi story above and beyond. When the terminator failed to destroy the Connor family line, he was reprogrammed and sent back to protect a young John Connor from a new and terrifying threat: the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), which is more efficient in every way possible. As a young John Connor begins to build a bond with his mother’s former pursuer, the movie strikes a remarkable balance between its action impulses and its sweet sentiments. An unforgettable score and a new slew of quotable one-liners are just a few elements that solidified this film in sci-fi history as one of the greats. Cameron once again proves his ability to meld multiple challenging themes together in one film, bringing the audience existential terror over a possible impending Skynet attack whilst charming our socks off — also thanks to Arnold. This is easily Cameron’s best work, and not surprisingly, also the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ever.

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Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Contributor
Joe Allen is a freelance culture writer based in upstate New York. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The…
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