What's the best James Cameron movie? For more than four decades, James Decade has dedicated himself to providing the biggest, most jaw-dropping theatrical experiences available. He's done so by creating some of the best movies ever, featuring actors and collaborators that are similar top-tier.
Action movies, science fiction movies, romance movies; he refuses to be pigeon-holed in his quest to make transformative films that fuel our imaginations. Considering he has directed the highest-grossing movie of all time twice, it's safe to say he knows how to find an audience.
But that said, what's the best James Cameron movie? That's a big question that'll fuel many a cinematic discussion, but we're here to give you the definitive answer. We've ranked all of his movies from worst to best, so you know where to start if you've never seen one of his films before, or you're just wondering what should be rewatched first. Warning: may contain hot takes.
James Cameron’s movies ranked are:
- Piranha 2
- True Lies
- The Terminator
- The Abyss
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981)
Like many great filmmakers, Cameron got his start working on schlocky horror movies. His first time in a director’s chair was a happy accident, as he inherited the already rolling Piranha 2 when Miller Drake was fired by producers.
He turned in a functional creature feature that’s only really worthwhile because it’s where the dude that made Avatar and Terminator started. Cameron himself doesn’t often talk about it, and copies aren’t the easiest to find. Exactly the kind of fish slasher you think it is.
True Lies (1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis together is always a recipe for success. They’re magnetic at the centre of Cameron’s subdued ’90s movie about balancing daring escapades and a humdrum homelife. Schwarzenegger, going through a phase of comedy movies, revels in hamming up Harry’s struggle to keep his second job as a spy under wraps.
There’s nothing egregious about True Lies, but when viewed in the totality of Cameron’s work, it comes across as a palate cleanser. Something smaller and funnier and looser after a string of effects-heavy films, before he stepped into the juggernaut that would be Titanic. Fun for what it is, and well-made, but unremarkable.
There’s no denying the spectacle of Avatar. The wildlife and landscapes of Pandora are brought to life so incredibly and exquisitely, one can almost forgive the two-dimensional characters and worldbuilding. Almost.
Avatar is a testament to Cameron’s dedication to existing on the bleeding edge of the theatrical experience. Seen in cinemas, you’re brought into a universe full of vibrant colour and wonder straight from the mind’s eye of one of Hollywood’s most ambitious filmmakers. Watched at home, it’s a mid-tempo rollercoaster through some half-baked sci-fi tropes narrated by Jake Sully, whose name you’ll forget five minutes after credits.
The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator franchise now is very different from the lean, action-packed time travel movie that gave Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Linda Hamilton their big breaks. You know the premise by now: Sarah Connor’s a regular woman targeted by a robot from the future sent to murder her in order to prevent her son, who’s destined to save mankind from the machine uprising, from being born. High concept brilliance endemic of ’80s movies.
Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the eponymous, stoic, unflinching movie villain, each of his few lines now etched in pop culture. Michael Biehn makes an ideal counterpart as Kyle, another time-traveller sent back to help Sarah survive. They trade explosive blows in sequences that continually outdo themselves. Through it all, Hamilton is the key, bringing warmth and humanity to Sarah and the surrounding chaos.
Following a perfect entity like Alien would seem like a fool’s errand for most, but most aren’t James Cameron. After years of chasing the project, Cameron got the greenlight to continue Ripley’s story after The Terminator, proceeding to make a louder, bloodier, and bigger version of Ridley Scott’s dystopian slasher.
Ripley’s dragged down to LV-426 by a rescue mission because, despite what happened to her crew, Weyland-Yutani decided to try and set up colonies around where the xenomorphs live. Cameron’s script may have plenty of comic moments to contrast all the mayhem, but the fear is real when the tension is dialed up. Still a classic despite not topping the predecessor.
The Abyss (1989)
One can view Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio touching the aquatic extra-terrestrial in pure wonder as a summation of Cameron’s career. Manufacturing ways for us to feel like we can extend a hand and touch something not of this world that’s completely vivid and lifelike.
A crew of oil drillers and Navy SEALs also featuring Ed Harris and Michael Biehn are left awe-struck by what they find when looking into a sunken submarine. The submerged drama movie is the beginning of a long fascination with water and our ocean depths, likening the realm to an unexplored galaxy. As the filmmaker’s work has gotten larger, a little bit of magic was left here, where it’s dark and quiet.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
The same again, but Schwarzenegger’s the hero this time – Terminator 2 could’ve been a shameless retread. Instead it’s one of Cameron’s masterpieces, where a shotgun-toting Schwarzenegger works to protect Sarah and her adolescent son from the liquid metal T-1000, chillingly played by Robert Patrick.
The chase is loud and reckless, as you’d expect when the fate of our entire future is on the line. Technophobia and latent nuclear anxieties are melded into Sarah’s trauma for an atmosphere that feels inescapably dire. And yet, the Connors persist, because that’s what we have to do. Every set-piece rules.
A staggering technical feat and a heartbreaking romance combined for a thrilling blockbuster that’s the epitome of Cameron’s MO. Titanic recreates tragic history through the filmmaker’s remarkable eye for detail, giving us a blistering look at a modern architectural marvel as it’s defeated by the elements.
The ship itself is breathtaking, but what makes the film work like it does is the relationship between Jack and Rose, lovers whose meetcute is interrupted by the untimely sinking. They push through an endlessly rising tide, holding onto any miniscule hope that they’ll get out alive. Simple desire, captured by Leonardo DiCaprio’s boyishness and Kate Winslet’s unrestrained charisma. They make the incredible scale matter.
We’ve also got a list of all the new movies coming out in 2023 for you to enjoy.