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SYFY WIRE James Cameron

Ranking all of James Cameron’s movies before ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ joins the roster

As people head to theaters to see Big Jim's latest blockbuster, we're looking back at the movies that came before. 

By Brian Silliman
James Cameron Movies Header

Entourage star James Cameron does not churn out movies every couple of years. He spends a long time in between directing projects, and when he finally drops one? Everyone goes to see it. Everyone has a take, everyone weighs in, and the movie makes a trillion bucks.

He has been working on multiple sequels to Avatar for a decade, starting shortly after the first movie took 3D screens by storm in 2009. Finally, in 2022, it is time for Avatar: The Way of Water, and if what we’re reading is to be believed, Cameron and his team have done it again. They have created another Movie with a capital M, and everyone is going to end up back in the cinema.

His movies always push the boundaries of both practical and digital effects, and they always dazzle with unexpected visual flourishes. The action always satisfies, but these aren’t necessarily the reasons why Cameron’s movies are so successful. The real reason is simple: they’re all very entertaining. They provide emotion and theme within a large amount of joyous escapism. Vin Diesel saying “movies” is what they feel like. They are that big. Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

Before Avatar: The Way of Water enters the official listing of movies directed by James Cameron, it’s time to rank the rest of his canon. Some entries on this list change places all the time, because we really enjoy watching all of them... with one exception. The ranking is arbitrary and subjective, but you’ve read this far, so maybe you’re into it?

Let’s go to the mooovies.

8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

We can thank this movie for launching Cameron’s directing career. It is a sequel to Piranha, which was directed by Joe Dante, who opted not to return. Cameron was brought in, and the result is whatever this thing is.

As the title suggests, piranhas are on the loose again. Some of them fly, and that’s right, they spawn. It is fun to watch in a Troll 2 kind of way, but the movie didn’t win Cameron any awards. He refused to acknowledge it for many years, and there are plenty of rumors and conspiracy theories about both the filming and the post-production process. Cameron may not have had much control over this story about wicked flying fish.

Still, it was his first sit in the director’s chair. It made him worthy enough to take on bigger projects, so it is worth mentioning for that. It also features Lance Henriksen, who would go on to star in another Cameron feature. It’s at the bottom of this list to the surprise of no one.

7. True Lies (1994)

True Lies (1994) by James Cameron

There’s nothing wrong here, we really enjoy this movie. Choices have to be made. This spy comedy that has us often repeating the phrase “Here’s my invitation” is always a fun time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Harry Tasker, a spy with a double life. We mostly remember him screaming “Dana” over and over in the movie’s climax. Dana is his daughter, played by a young Eliza Dushku.

For all of Arnold’s a**-kicking, this movie belongs to Jamie Lee Curtis. It should be renamed True Jaime Lee Curtis. She conquers the entire affair in the role of Harry’s wife Helen, who slowly discovers the truth about her husband. She’s responsible for the most memorable scene in the movie. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly which scene we’re talking about.

With fantastic action and quips firing off constantly, this is a consistent right rollicking.

6. Titanic (1997)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997)

We rank this juggernaut in this position with no shade intended to the guy on TikTok who (at the time of this writing) owns over 800 copies of it on VHS. Everyone went to see this in 1997, and everyone was blown away by the visuals. They were incredible then, they are incredible now. Cameron raised the bar, and the box office (and the Academy Awards) thanked him for it.

Stunning effects are paired with some heartbreaking sequences. The moments with the supporting cast often hit the hardest, with the lead violinist coming to mind. Tears fell (and memes were born) when he and his colleagues play as the ship sinks. For every character who tries to survive, Cameron includes plenty of shots of passengers who accept their fate. The old fancy couple clutching each other in a bed as the water pours in is emotional and horrifying.

There are also the shots of passengers in the water after the ship sinks, when they have all frozen to death. One of them has a baby. You never forget images like that.

The manufactured love story/jewel mystery that surrounds all of this may feel unnecessary, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson got teen girls to return to the movie again and again. Kate Winslet rightfully became a star. Billy Zane shouted some wonderful groaners, and the dearly departed David Warner threatened Jack with a pistol after the boat already started to sink? Okay, we’ve accepted all of that at this point. We have accepted the Bill Paxton (also dearly departed) bookends, too. You put this movie on, we’re watching the entire thing. That’s how it works. We can still smell the fresh paint.

5. Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

This was a new benchmark (yet again) for visual effects, as well as what big screen 3D was capable of. The story may have been simple and more than a little derivative, but being transported to the world of Pandora made all of that irrelevant.

An immersive experience like no other (save for the sequel, which looks to triple up on that), we left theaters in 2009 feeling like we had truly visited another world. We believed every moment with the digital characters, with Zoë Saldaña standing way out in the role of Neytiri. We couldn’t wait to return, and we’re glad that Cameron made us wait for it.

It has become cool in the years that followed the release of this movie to dunk on it, and to pretend like you didn’t care about any sequels. That’s fine, but Cameron still owns you. The early word on The Way of Water makes it a safe bet that everyone is about to return to Pandora, no matter what you thought of the 2009 movie.

4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Action for days, a Terminator in the protector position, and an upgraded Terminator who can turn his arms into swords? Yep, this is an emotional thrill ride that never gets old.

The Terminator’s lessons in lingo are a little corny, but they’re no problemo. Without them, we wouldn’t get the heartbreaking catharsis at the end. There's never enough praise for Robert Patrick as the T-1000, who Simply. Cannot. Be. Stopped. He is frightening in the role which set another bar for visual effects in 1991. It was terrifying to see Patrick, in a uniform, constantly running after the heroes. He never lets up. 

Joe Morton shines (as always) as Miles Dyson, but aside from Patrick, the movie belongs to Linda Hamilton. Sarah Conner is no longer a damsel in distress, she’s an a**-kicking warrior on the edge of sanity.

Did you call muah a dips**t? Cybah-dyyne. No fate but what we make. Knives, stabbing weapons. We can (and do) quote this movie for days.

3. The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss (1989)

Before Cameron prepared to take everyone under the seas of Pandora, he took everyone under the seas of Earth. The result was a claustrophobic and horrifying experience that gave audiences a first-contact story that felt plausible.

The effects won both raves and awards in 1989, and some of them paved the way for Cameron’s future movies. The genesis of the T-1000 effects can be seen right here. The effects aren’t why we keep returning to this underrated (and often forgotten) Cameron gem, though. As we’ve already said, the discovery of the NTI’s (Non-Terrestrial Intelligences) doesn’t feel far-fetched. The cast helps greatly with this, because both Ed Harris and Michael Biehn are present.

We can’t wait to return to Pandora, but we’d be fine if we never returned to the deep-sea horror of this movie. It is a visceral experience, and that is not an easy feat. Cameron is known for action and spectacle, but he also excels at conjuring horror and fear. He'll scare the pants right off of your dog whenever he feels like it. 

2. The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984) YT

Perfection. As much as we love the sequel, the original Terminator film is one of our favorite sci-fi movies of all time. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner is a very different character here, but she is assisted by Michael Biehn in the role of Kyle Reese. Biehn once again proves to be one of the best actors in the Cameron roster, as his ongoing storyline of PTSD is a perfect complement to the violent action that is popping off around him.

Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t speak much. He doesn’t quip, and he’s not cuddly. He’s a killing machine, and he lives up to the title of the movie. He terminates, and never once do you question Schwarzenegger in the part. The 1984 effects still hold up. We don’t care what you say, they hold up. They’re not as flashy as the effects in Cameron’s later movies, but they’ll scare you. The entire movie will scare you as much as it thrills you.

Thank the heavens for Piranha II, because it allowed Cameron to make this all-time classic. He co-wrote it with Gale Anne Hurd, and you can’t beat the premise. It is almost cliche these days, but that’s because it was so successful in 1984. “A cyborg assassin from a war-torn future travels back in time to kill the woman who will give birth to a resistance hero” was a big pitch in the ‘80s, and it could easily have become ridiculous. It never goes that way. It soared then, and it soars now. Science fiction movies wouldn’t be the same without it.

1. Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Weaver Aliens Header GETTY

There was no following the horror-in-space of the original Alien, so Cameron didn’t bother to try. He blew up the formula and made a giant science-fiction spectacle instead. The result is our favorite movie that has him listed as director.

Time to trot this out again: the effects were astonishing in 1986 and they hold up. Practical is practical, and whether it’s Ripley fighting in a mech suit or a giant space tank busting through walls, everything is thrilling. The movie has stakes because Cameron lets you to know and love the characters before putting them into the s***. You care about the valiant (and misguided) space marines, so it hurts when they start getting picked off. Many Cameron stalwarts are present in the cast.

The dearly departed Bill Paxton shines (game over, man!), as does Michael Biehn. Lance Henriksen is a welcome addition. An unlikely action appearance from Paul Reiser in the role of Carter Burke gives cinema one of the all-time great corporate stooges. He proudly sits in the "William Atherton Museum of Movie A-Holes" between Ellis from Die Hard and the Anthony Heald exhibit. 

None of this would matter without one person, however, someone who would go on to work with Cameron again. Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley, and she cements herself as the backbone of this franchise. That doesn’t matter as much as Weaver cementing Ripley as the backbone of this movie.

She gets the stuffing beaten out of her, and just when she thinks it’s over… here comes the Queen. Her refusal to back down in the face of superior forces in the second half of the movie is rivaled only be her cold pragmatism in the first half. She’s the only person who is taking this threat seriously. She’s the only one who knows how bad this entire affair can get. Most of the main cast would have lived if they’d listened to her and nuked the planet from orbit.

If they had though, then Ripley wouldn’t have met little Newt (Rebecca Jorden) and become an unlikely protector. Like the Terminator in T2, Ripley lets her guard down when it comes to this child, and Weaver walks a very tricky tightrope. It works beautifully, and the result is masterful.

It’s not the most advanced effects that Cameron has ever done, it was 1986. Even so, if we’re going to put a Cameron movie on, this is the one that we go with. It is a perfect blend of story, character, action, and theme. For all of the violence, it is more comforting than a blanket made of kittens. It is iconic, just like every other movie on this list, save Piranha II. That’s what Cameron does best. He makes history.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters. Check back later this month to see where it ranks. 

Watch True Lies on Peacock now.