Best James Cameron movies: all of the filmmaker's films ranked, from worst to best

A screenshot of Tuk swimming in Avatar: The Way of Water, one of the best James Cameron movies
Where do you think Avatar: The Way of Water will appear in our best James Cameron films list? (Image credit: © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

The best James Cameron movies represent some of the most iconic, successful and boundary-pushing films ever made. Not only do James Cameron movies occupy three of the top four spots in the all-time box office list, including Titanic and the first two Avatar movies, but films like The Terminator and Aliens are among the best science-fiction movies of all time thanks to their smart writing, unforgettable action sequences and deeply compelling stories. 

In our guide below we’ve included all of the best James Cameron movies, from his first flick Piranha II: The Spawning (1982) to his latest film, Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and ranked them from worst to best, so you know which are worth your time. We’ve also included where you can watch them all on the best streaming services, so if you’re looking for a tense, action-packed film this weekend, you’re in the right place. 

9. Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

A group of people gaze through a window, which has blood splattered on it, in Piranaha II: The Spawning

Piranha II: The Spawning isn't Cameron's best work, but is a silly horror film for those who like monster movies. (Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Where to stream: To rent on Apple TV and Prime Video (US, UK, Australia)
Release date: 1982
Age rating:
R (US), 18 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
84 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
5%

Everybody has to start somewhere. But don’t beat yourself up if you’ve never seen James Cameron’s feature debut Piranha II: The Spawning, 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 considering the film’s very hands-on producer fired him after two-and-a-half weeks on the job. The Spawning II 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)

Harry and Helen hug each other as they stare at something off-camera in True Lies

True Lies, but not a false position in this ranking guide. (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Where to stream: Hulu (US), Disney Plus (UK), Disney Plus, Foxtel Now (Australia)
Release date:
1994
Age rating:
R (US), 15 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
141 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
70%

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 today.

7. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Where to stream: Disney Plus (worldwide)
Release date:
2022
Age rating:
PG-13 (US), 12-A (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
192 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
76%

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.

6. Titanic (1997)

Where to stream: Prime Video, Paramount Plus, Fubo TV (US), Disney Plus (UK), Disney Plus, Foxtel Now (Australia)
Release date:
1997
Age rating:
PG-13 (US), 12 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
195 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
88%

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)

Where to stream: Hulu (US)
Release date:
1989
Age rating:
PG-13 (US), 15 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
140 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
89%

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)

Where to stream: Disney Plus (worldwide)
Release date:
2009
Age rating:
PG-13 (US), 12A (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
162 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
82%

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)

Where to stream: Fubo TV, MGM+, AMC+, Hoopla, Pluto TV, BBC America (US), MGM+ (UK), Prime Video (Australia)
Release date:
1984
Age rating:
R (US), 18 (UK), R (Australia)
Runtime:
107 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
100%

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)

Where to stream: Fubo Tv, Paramount+, AMC+, FX Now, BBC America (US), Sky (UK), Prime Video, Binge, Foxtel Now, Stan (Australia)
Release date:
1991
Age rating:
R (US), 15 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
137 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
91%

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 one of the best Terminator movies ever.

1. Aliens (1986)

Where to stream: Max, Starz (US), Disney Plus (UK), Disney Plus (Australia)
Release date:
1986
Age rating:
R (US), 85 (UK), M (Australia)
Runtime:
137 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes score:
98%

A contender for the titles of greatest action movie and greatest sequel of all time, the only reason Aliens isn’t also expected to feature highly in our best Alien movies guide 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 to 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. Nearly four decades later and nothing else in the genre has even come close.


For more 'best of' articles, check out our guides on the best Christopher Nolan movies, best Martin Scorsese movies, best Quentin Tarantino movies, and best David Fincher movies.

Richard Edwards

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 and fantasy 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.

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