Breaking onto the scene with 1984’s The Terminator, director James Cameron captivated audiences with his innovative filmmaking style. He launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, directed not one, but TWO of the greatest sequels ever, and then made the second- and third-highest grossing films of all-time.
Cameron’s movies have not only been commercially successful but critically as well. He has been awarded Best Director and Best Picture Oscars and his films have been nominated multiple times. Audiences have tended to agree, as all but one of his films are rated above a 6 (out of 10) on IMDb. So, take a look! Here are James Cameron’s ten best theatrical releases, cccording to IMDb.
10 Piranha II: The Spawning (1981): 3.7
Cameron began his career doing special effects and art direction on films for filmmakers such as Roger Corman and John Carpenter. It was in this capacity, as special effects director for Piranha II, the low-budget sequel to Joe Dante’s 1978 Jaws knockoff, that led to Cameron’s first directing gig.
The film’s original director dropped out over creative disputes with the producer, and Cameron was promoted to the director’s chair. Not Cameron’s best work (you can’t really blame him given the circumstances), but it got his foot in the door and would lead to his next feature, a little movie about a time-traveling cyborg.
9 Aliens of the Deep (2005): 6.4
Following the massive success of Titanic, Cameron began focusing on producing and directing documentaries. The third of these, Aliens of the Deep, was an IMAX 3D documentary exploring the exotic creatures that inhabit oceanic hydrothermal vents. Found in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, these sulfuric vents are home to organisms that may resemble what alien lifeforms may look like.
Although the movie only managed to pull in $9 million, it further developed the 3D technology that Cameron would later employ to great effect in 2009’s Avatar.
8 Ghosts of the Abyss (2003): 6.8
In 2003, James Cameron would return to the subject of his greatest success (up to that point), Titanic, with a one-hour documentary exploring the wrecked ship’s final resting place.
Narrated by Cameron mainstay Bill Paxton and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, the 3D film used a pair of submersibles to move throughout the Titanic wreckage, capturing unique, never-before-seen images of the sunken vessel. Easily the most commercially successful of Cameron’s documentaries, Ghost of the Abyss grossed $28.7 million off a budget of $13 million.
7 True Lies (1994): 7.2
Cameron’s third collaboration with Arnold Schwarzenegger came three years after Terminator 2, 1994’s True Lies. Co-starring Jamie Lee Curtis, the film about a secret agent (even to his wife) is perhaps remembered just as much for Bill Paxton’s scene-stealing sleazoid car salesman as it is for its incredible action sequences.
Not quite the success that T2 was or that Titanic and Avatar would be, it is nevertheless fondly remembered for deftly maneuvering back-and-forth between action and comedy. It even managed to make Tom Arnold seem likable and hilarious (sorry, Tom)!
6 The Abyss (1989): 7.6
Cameron’s on-screen fascination with deep-sea exploration began with 1989’s The Abyss. The film follows a pair of engineers tasked with aiding a Navy Seal in the recovery of a mysteriously sunken nuclear submarine. Starring Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Abyss also reunited Cameron with Michael Biehn, star of Cameron’s previous two films, The Terminator and Aliens.
Although it failed to reach the heights that Aliens did, the film was still a modest success, grossing $90 million (doubling its production budget) and being generally well-received by critics and audiences alike.
5 Avatar (2009): 7.8
In 2009, Cameron returned to narrative storytelling with his sci-fi environmental tale Avatar. The Pandora-set tale dazzled filmgoers with its groundbreaking 3D technology, ushering in the 3D craze of the next several years. Released in mid-December, just as Titanic was, Avatar went on to shatter all box-office records, many of them Cameron’s own.
It ended the 12-year reign of Titanic’s domestic and worldwide box-office returns, ultimately finishing with over $2.7 billion (only surpassed this year by Avengers: Endgame). Avatar was a critical hit as well, as it was nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), winning three.
4 Titanic (1997): 7.8
Cameron had originally intended to follow True Lies with a big-screen live-action Spider-Man. When those plans fell through, Cameron turned his attention to the maiden voyage of history’s most famous doomed vessel. The massively over-budget, over-schedule film (it nearly doubled its initial $109 million budget) moved from a July 4th, 1997 debut to a Christmas release, opening with a good, not great $28.6 million.
Of course, it would go on to gross over $2 billion worldwide and win eleven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Not too bad for a film many, including its own studios, thought would be a, pardon the pun, disaster.
3 The Terminator (1984): 8.0
After the experience with his first film, Cameron turned to writing and directing his next movie, The Terminator. The idea for the film about a cybernetic assassin from the future was born from a fever dream Cameron had while directing Piranha II in Rome. Produced for a mere $6 million, the action/horror hybrid starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a group of mostly unknowns went on to gross an astonishing $78 million.
This time-traveling small scale epic would spawn a highly lucrative franchise, with five sequels being made to date, including the recently released Terminator: Dark Fate, which saw original players Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, as well as Cameron (in a writer-producer capacity), returning to the fold.
2 Aliens (1986): 8.4
While in pre-production for The Terminator, Cameron was approached by Fox execs to write the sequel for Alien II, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 space-horror Alien. Cameron changed the title to Aliens and completed most of the screenplay before shooting began on The Terminator.
After that film’s surprise success, Cameron landed directing duties for Aliens as well. He then had to fight to recast Sigourney Weaver as a returning Ellen Ripley, a battle he obviously won. The film has been lauded for both successfully shifting the tone from horror to action/war and for Cameron’s humorous touches on the dialogue, most notably with Cameron favorite Bill Paxton. Many even consider it superior to Scott’s classic film. Game over, man!
1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): 8.5
Although a sequel to The Terminator seemed a given following the success of that film, it was delayed 7 years due to legal issues and technical limitations. It was the first film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got the project moving when he convinced the bosses at Carolco Pictures to purchase the rights.
Cameron would once again write and direct, and Arnold and Linda Hamilton would reprise their parts as the T-800 and Sarah Connor, respectively. With Schwarzenegger now in a protector role and the first film’s themes expanded onto a grander scale, the ultra-pricey flick would become a massive global hit, grossing over $500 million worldwide and winning four Academy Awards. Kind of a recurring theme in Mr. James Cameron’s career.