Some directors have received more love from the critics (Martin Scorsese) while others have made a lot more movies (Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott). But when it comes to bona fide box office success, James Cameron is the undisputed king of the world.
James Cameron films occupy three of the top four spots in the all-time box office list, but what makes his career as a writer/director even more impressive is that few would argue his chart-toppers – Titanic and the two Avatar movies – were anything close to his best. Indeed, since he announced his arrival with The Terminator in 1984, Cameron has consistently pushed the boundaries of what's possible on the big screen – the likes of Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day undoubtedly rank among the best action movies ever made.
He's far from prolific, of course – 2022's Avatar: The Way of Water was his first release in 13 years – but Cameron tends to use those long hiatuses to make documentaries like Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, or producing long-standing passion projects such as Alita: Battle Angel. Whatever he's working on, the results tend to be spectacular.
After its impressive run in theaters, Avatar: The Way of Water is coming to Disney Plus and Max (the new name of HBO Max) from June 7. Read on to find out how it compares to the other eight films in the director's blockbusting filmography, as we rank James Cameron's movies from worst to best.
9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)
Everybody has to start somewhere. But on’t beat yourself up if you’ve never seen James Cameron’s feature debut, because even the director himself has spent much of his career distancing himself from this soggy disaster.
How much of this sequel – to Roger Corman-produced Jaws spoof Piranha – is a genuine Cameron movie is debatable, seeing as the film’s very hands-on producer fired him after two-and-a-half weeks on the job. The Spawning remains notable, however, as the first time Cameron worked with regular collaborator Lance Henriksen, who’d later go on to save the day as kindly android Bishop in Aliens. Even so, this debut outing is more valuable as a piece of trivia than as a viewing experience.
8. True Lies (1994)
Many of Hollywood’s most successful directors have tried to live their best James Bond life on screen. So, just as Steven Spielberg had Indiana Jones, Michael Bay had The Rock, and Christopher Nolan had Inception, Cameron made his own 007 aspirations come true with True Lies. Sadly, the results are not entirely successful in this tonally uneven spy comedy.
The action set-pieces are every bit as spectacular as you’d expect from Cameron, as he maxes out his considerable budget on firearms, vehicles (including a Harrier jump jet), and other forms of high-octane carnage. Nonetheless, Arnold Schwarzenegger never quite convinces as an agent so secret his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) has no idea about his career in espionage. Meanwhile, the film’s tone-deaf treatment of both its female and Middle Eastern characters feels crass and outdated when watching in 2023.
7. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
If there's one certainty in Hollywood it's that nobody should ever bet against James Cameron. Ahead of the Avatar sequel's arrival in theaters, many questioned whether audiences still had an appetite for a return to the world of Pandora and its luscious 3D environments, but they needn't have worried – over $2 billion in ticket sales later, The Way of Water is sitting pretty in third place on the all-time box-office chart.
While Cameron's still got the Midas touch when it comes to enticing people into theaters, The Way of Water is a less accomplished movie than its predecessor. On a technical level it's still light years ahead of the competition, as the director takes the action underwater, and delivers spectacular set-pieces that feel like callbacks to Aliens and Titanic. But the storytelling beats are less assured, as the narrative baton shifts to Jake and Neytiri's kids, and swimming lessons with a new Na'vi clan, the Metkayina, become a priority.
Avatar: The Way of Water will be available to stream on Disney Plus and Max (previously known as HBO Max) from June 7. The third, as-yet untitled, Avatar movie is due in theaters in December 2024.
6. Titanic (1997)
With its original launch date delayed and its budget swelling to record-breaking proportions, Titanic was the talk of Hollywood ahead of its 1997 release – for all the wrong reasons. That Cameron went on to prove the naysayers wrong is a matter of history – 11 Oscar wins and more than a decade at the top of the all-time box-office charts are proof of that.
But the film's also a testament to his ability to marshal big scenes without ever losing sight of his story. It’s after the ship’s infamous collision with the iceberg that Cameron comes into his own, as he reminds the world groundbreaking visuals aren’t solely the preserve of popcorn actioners. Unfortunately, the human characters never really find their sea legs, with Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) – a nautical Romeo and Juliet if ever we've seen a pair – coming over a little too Mills & Boon. Equally, Billy Zane’s caddish Cal is way too arch to convince as an actual human being.
5. The Abyss (1989)
Sandwiched between the genre-defining Aliens and Terminator 2, The Abyss often feels like the forgotten movie in Cameron’s early filmography. That’s a little unfair, seeing as this deep-sea adventure boasts a typically ambitious story involving late-Cold War paranoia, impressive hardware, and some beautifully realized underwater NTIs (Non-Terrestrial Intelligence).
Eight years before he made Titanic, Cameron was defying conventional Hollywood wisdom that shooting on water was a bad idea – the model work and set design still stands up today – while the film’s living water tentacle laid the CG groundwork for the T-1000 in Terminator 2. As with T2 and Aliens, The Abyss is best viewed in its extended version, which adds extra depth to the theatrical cut.
4. Avatar (2009)
When you’ve proclaimed yourself the king of the world (as Cameron did at the 1998 Oscars), there’s no need to rush back behind the camera. Avatar landed more than 12 years after Titanic, but Cameron’s trip to the lush forests of Pandora proved he’d spent the intervening decade pushing cinema beyond its limits.
Combining state-of-the-art performance capture with yet-to-be-bettered 3D visuals, Cameron made millions of cinemagoers believe he’d opened a window to a living, breathing alien world.
In the process he broke the box-office record he’d previously set with Titanic. In recent years it’s become fashionable to bash Avatar for its simplistic Romeo and Juliet-meets-environmental activism plot, but it remains a masterful piece of visual storytelling. Also, Stephen Lang’s no-nonsense Colonel Quaritch is one of sci-fi’s great villains.
3. The Terminator (1984)
Cameron’s de facto debut established him as one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, as well as launching the highly lucrative Terminator franchise and setting Arnold Schwarzenegger on the path to superstardom.
The bodybuilder-turned-actor has arguably never been better than he is as a ruthless cyborg killing machine, sent from the future by a sentient computer determined to assassinate humanity’s savior, John Connor, before he’s even been born.
It's Cameron’s direction that proves to be the real star, though, as he fashions a taut, ruthlessly efficient rollercoaster of thrills as Connor’s unwitting mom, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), does everything she can to evade her would-be assassin. The effects have, inevitably, dated slightly, but The Terminator remains a stone-cold classic.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
It’s almost impossible to choose between the first two Terminator movies. This is a sequel so seamlessly intertwined with its predecessor that you can no longer imagine one existing without the other.
However, by 1991, Schwarzenegger – now the biggest movie star on the planet – wasn’t in the habit of playing villains, so Cameron reinvented his Terminator as the protector of the young John Connor (Edward Furlong). This created a vacancy for a new antagonist, and Cameron subsequently turned Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 into the ultimate calling card for Industrial Light and Magic’s nascent CG effects.
T2 was never just about the tech, though, because Cameron upped the ante on the action and the emotional stakes, with Sarah Connor (now an action hero in her own right) out to pull the plug on malevolent AI Skynet. None of the four Terminator movies (and TV show) that followed have come close to emulating the two Cameron classics that started it all. Simply put, it's the best Terminator movie ever.
1. Aliens (1986)
A contender for the titles of greatest action movie and greatest sequel of all time, the only reason Aliens isn’t also a shoo-in for best Alien movie is that Ridley Scott’s original movie had already written the rulebook on sci-fi horror.
Remarkably, those high stakes didn’t affect Cameron at all, as he crafted a story that stays faithful the original’s mythology while expanding it in inventive new directions. As Ellen Ripley (an Oscar-nominated, never-better Sigourney Weaver) returns to LV-426 on a mission to save terraforming colonists from their problematic, acid-blooded neighbors, Cameron delivers a masterclass in claustrophobic, exquisitely choreographed action.
The director’s true masterstroke, however, is telling you everything you need to know about his highly quotable platoon of Colonial Marines in mere minutes of screen time, ensuring you care about every single one when their “bug hunt” takes the inevitable turn for the worse. Thirty-six years on, nothing else in the genre has even come close. If you're interested in seeing why, you can watch Aliens on Disney Plus.
Sign up to receive daily breaking news, reviews, opinion, analysis, deals and more from the world of tech.
Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.