Sometimes it can be hard to separate the artist from the art. Even if they do amazing work, if their public persona is less than favorable, I tend to go “ugh” and pass them by. I have this for sure with writer-director-producer-billion-dollar-movie-maker James Cameron. For the past several years, I’ve been relegating him to “Oh, THAT guy,” status because of how he’s often come across in the media. And yet I can’t deny he’s an extremely talented visual filmmaker who clearly has an affinity for science fiction, given that out of the eight feature films he’s directed, six of them are sci-fi in nature. I just wish he hadn’t yelled he was the “King of the World.”
Below is my personal ranking of James Cameron’s seven films made post-Piranha II: The Spawning, because he’s sort of disowned that one anyway. I would like to at least mention that before he was a director, he did some truly amazing work in the art department for Roger Corman’s studio and contributed to movies like Escape from New York and, one of my favorites, Battle Beyond the Stars.
7) Avatar (2009)
This is an example of a movie I respect but don’t necessarily like. If I’m honest, I don’t like it at all, but I definitely respect the craft and time it took to make, and the experience of watching it in IMAX 3D when it came out in Christmas 2009 was pretty immersive. I just wish Cameron had lent his amazing technological breakthrough to a better film. While the visuals are astounding, the story is about as paint-by-numbers and lowest-common-denominator as you can possibly have: human military complex and greedy money-grubbers are bad and native alien warriors and sympathetic human scientists are good. The fact that the movie is the highest-grossing of all time still baffles me. But, hey, pretty!
6) The Abyss (1989)
This is a movie I greatly enjoyed when I was a kid and I think the only reason it’s as low as it is is because I haven’t seen it in a while and hence don’t have as big an attachment to it. Cameron’s love of the ocean and the mysteries of the deep come to the forefront in his first nautical film, and it’s all about wonder and discovery. The only “villain” of the piece is a slowly-going-insane Michael Biehn; the underwater aliens aren’t anything but new and strange to us. This feels a bit like it could have been a Star Trek storyline, and I’m damn skippy this was one of the reasons the show SeaQuest DSV was a thing. Cameron went on to produce and direct many documentaries about the ocean, and I think people with any kind of respect for those murky depths can appreciate them.
5) True Lies (1995)
If there’s one outlier of sorts in Cameron’s film canon it’s his 1995, big-budget, blow-em-up action movie starring frequent collaborator Arnold Schwarzenegger. Never let it be said that either the director or star don’t understand comedy, because this is a silly, silly movie that also happens to be a rip-roaring good time. Ahhhhnold plays a spy who is leading a double life for the sake of his wife, who thinks his job is extra boring, and who MIGHT be having an affair with a used car salesman. Oh, and there’s some terrorists involved as well. Anybody who thinks this movie might not be a farce, just have a look at Charlton Heston as Arnold’s boss, the grizzled, eye-patched veteran. He’s like something out of Hot Shots.
4) Titanic (1997)
This is a movie I didn’t see, and purposely avoided, for about 18 years. When I was in 8th grade, girls would not shut up about this movie and about Leo and that dumb Celine Dion song was everywhere and I even had to sing it in my choir class that year and it was…GUH! I hated Titanic before ever having seen it. Earlier this year, a friend of mine, after years of yelling at me, finally got me to watch it, and you know what? I liked it! It’s not a perfect script by any means, and there’s a lot of dumb involving Jack and Rose, especially in the constant saying of their names, but after nearly two decades of it being in the zeitgeist, I was prepared for all of that. Titanic also happens to have some of the most amazing effects in any movie, still today, it works as both a disaster movie and a simplified yet highly-detailed historical account. There, I’ve said nice things about it; everybody leave me alone.
3) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
This is undoubtedly a great movie, even if it does ramp up the schmaltz factor to near-apocalyptic levels. Cameron has always been on the cutting edge of filmmaking technology and effects and I remember watching multiple episodes of the old Discover Channel program Movie Magic about how the T-1000 was able to be liquid metal and move around. It used the same core technology as the water worm in The Abyss, but had to become real objects, and look like Robert Patrick. It really pulled it off, and the movie is the better for it. There are some fantastic set pieces here, including the chase along the L.A. River, the siege of Cyberdyne laboratory, and of course the big showdown at the molten lava factory. Like I said, it’s pretty sappy in a lot of parts, and the less said about young Edward Furlong’s performance the better, but it’s a damn fun time and Schwarzenegger sure knows how to spin a shotgun.
2) Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s original Alien is still my favorite in the franchise, but it could not be a more different beast than Cameron’s follow-up seven years later. With this movie, Cameron did what he’d prove to do best: creating a big group of memorable, if expendable, characters all attempting to fight a seemingly-unstoppable foe. He also happened to transform Ellen Ripley, who was a strong if paper-pushing character in the first film, into an action heroine the likes of which we still haven’t seen again. And yet, she’s not some kind of badass machine; she’s got fears and flaws just like everyone, but she’s strong-willed and capable and just wants to save Newt from a big, ugly alien queen. I like Newt and Hicks and Bishop so much that I basically just pretend the franchise ended here. The effects are astounding, and Cameron proves that he knows how to combine scares with explosions in a way not really seen up to that point. And once fit hits the shan, the movie never lets up.
1) The Terminator (1984)
Cameron’s first movie (again, not counting Piranha 2) is still my favorite. There’s truly something to be said for a simple story carried out to perfection. A bad thing is trying to kill a woman; a good guy is trying to save the woman; they run from bad thing; end of list. This is one of the most iconic sci-fi movies from a decade that produced more than its fair share, and the fact that we’re still lining up for, or at least interested in, further adventures in this universe is testament to that iconic status. This is the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and his line “I’ll be back” a catch phrase he’s STILL using all the time. But beyond its importance to action cinema, it’s just a damn good flick, and the middle of the movie with the extended car chase through L.A. at night and the siege of the police station are about the most perfect second act you could hope to come up with.
So there we have it – my ranking of James Cameron’s films. Everybody has opinions and your mileage will of course vary. Let me know your ranking in the comments below!