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Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition

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Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition

All James Cameron Movies Ranked

James Cameron, Mr. Ambition, is always in the news. It helps when an anticipated film requires an extended period of time to create, as has been the case with the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. The film, scheduled for release on December 16th, is a sequel to the number one global box office bonanza of all time

Every time Cameron does something, it feels noteworthy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blockbuster like the first Avatar or a marine-themed documentary. Whether because of the story, the ideas, or the filmmaking technology behind it, the Canadian-born filmmaker is the personification of going big or going home. He hasn’t moved back to Kapuskasing, Ontario yet, so he’s doing alright. Ambition is not something the Canuck shies away from. 

Considering the impressive time span during which he’s made a career for himself in the industry, the reality is that he hasn’t directed that many films. His debut was in 1981 and The Way of Water is a 2022 release. That’s 41 years, yet he has only filmed a total of 10 projects. That’s not a bad average. God knows how many directors make a single movie that no one has ever heard of before (forcibly) retiring. But then there is Ridley Scott, who knocks out almost a film per year, sometimes two. 

Tilt Magazine has elected to rank the Cameron films because that’s what we do around here. It’s a tall order despite the modest output. So many of his pictures are historically significant. So how does one go about such a task? We shan’t pretend to have all the answers, or even the best ones. What feels right is a hybrid ranking. The easier method is to do so in terms of personal preference. That will be factor, but not the sole one. The following list strives for a bit more. Some ambition! Hopefully Cameron will be proud (Who are we kidding? He’ll never read this). How much each film represents the best of Cameron as a creator and artist will help determine where the chips fall. 

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen get your fingers ready to type hate mail.

The Ranking

10 – Piranha II: The Spawning (aka Piranha II: Flying Killers) (1981)

Piranha II: The Spawning
Image: Columbia Pictures

Let’s get the most obvious spot out of the way. For one, out of all…let’s say out of all the movies with James Cameron as the credited director, who is going to argue that Piranha II is not the least impressive? Low-budget, Italian-produced horror movies can be and often are a lot of fun. But this isn’t a ranking of B-quality Nature vs. Man flicks. This is a ranking of the king of world’s output. 

Second, it isn’t very clear how much Cameron worked on the project. As the story goes, producer Ovidio Assonitis fired the young hopeful after only a couple of weeks of filming and handled the rest himself. Maybe Assonitis was especially keen on directing from the start. After all, Cameron was the second filmmaker to work on The Spawning after Miller Drake was fired! But hey, the cast and crew members interviewed for the Scream Factory blu-ray had nice things to say about the soon-to-be legend.

A young-ish Lance Henriksen is a lot of fun. So is heroine Tricia O’Neil as a scuba diving instructor who finds herself in muddy waters. No, bloody waters! That’s more like it. The eponymous flying killers are fine given the limited means. They possess a remarkable aim for attacking the human neck. Very efficient killers. 

Despite its short run time the picture drags. Far too many superfluous, peripheral characters populate the beach resort that eventually turns into a blood bath. However, disciples of the school of Cameron will surely delight in the opening underwater sequence as well as the diving-themed climax. He may not have worked for long on Piranha II, but there is a smidgeon of his interests in there. More on that later.

9-Aliens of the Deep (2005)

Aliens of the Deep
Image: Disney

More on that right now actually. Cameron loves the underwater world. 

This ranking is not an intentional sign of disrespect towards documentaries, nature-themed docs, or filmmakers when they work outside their usual sandbox, in this case, Hollywood blockbusters. If anything, Aliens of the Deep is a blockbuster documentary. The vessels Cameron and the marine biologists pilot to explore underwater life are extraordinary. It is a testament to ingenuity and people’s longing to discover new worlds. The technology required to go on expeditions in locations where humankind is not supposed to survive is remarkable. 

We haven’t even said anything about what they find down there. The deep sea Atlantic and Pacific are home to, well, aliens of the deep. It’s a very à propos title. Swarms of tiny fish cling to the scalding heat erupting from natural lava escape valves. Let that imagery sink in for a moment. If you watch Aliens of the Deep, you get to see it.

Why 9 out of 10? Despite waxing poetic about the film’s merits, it is a bit boring. It meanders too much for its own good. Pacing isn’t only important for fictional films. It’s just as critical for documentaries, even news reports, and this movie lacks some. The next criticism will sound weird. The way Cameron and the marine experts talk sounds like bad Hollywood dialogue. When prepping the dives and witnessing underwater splendour, they often come off comically bad. Obviously, these aren’t actors delivering memorized scripts, but they sound so cliché, and obnoxiously unfunny when cracking wise. 

8-Titanic (1997)

Titanic - Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition
Image: Paramount

At number 8 comes the film Cameron directed that was the highest box office earner until his own Avatar. It earned him a Best Director Academy Award. The movie itself won Best Picture, not to mention a slew of other accolades on what was a historic night at the Oscars. Oh, it’s terribly amusing to mock the Academy’s ways. The reality of the situation is that getting nominated and winning is important. Cinephiles may not really care in the grander scheme of things, but the average person can be swayed to watch a film because it won an Oscar. 11 wins is stunning. There is a reason why winning pictures have the Oscar branding splashed on their posters.

Make no mistake about it. Titanic is, much like the doomed vessel herself, one heck of an accomplishment. Also like the cruise ship, it’s massive. Re-watching it for the first time in years for this ranking, a lot of it was impressive to soak in (bad pun). The sets are glorious, so are the costumes. The instrumental version of Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On is effective. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, barely in their 20s at the time, have great chemistry. The extended sinking sequence communicates the horror of the situation almost too well. It’s terrifying. 

Maybe it’s too massive. As we go through this ranking, Titanic is the first sign of some cracks in the Cameron armour. In an alternate universe there exists a 2-hour version of this film, even a 2 ½ hour version that clicks along marvellously. The Titanic’s tragedy is wrapped in a love story, one that has its beginning, middle, and end all in a few days, thus padding the run time way too much. Speaking of tragic, Billy Zane. Though not entirely his fault (he didn’t write his dialogue or direct himself), his character is awful, but not in the way that’s fun to root against. Just annoying. 

7-Ghosts of the Abyss (2003)

Ghosts of the Abyss
Image: Walden Media

Back-to-back titanic movies. Titanic and a Titanic documentary. How can the 90-minute underwater exploration doc rank higher than the multi-Oscar-winning legend? To put it bluntly, Ghosts is more focused. It comes as no surprise that this was Cameron’s next film when one thinks about it. His fascination with the vessel’s sad story fuelled much of what made the 1997 film so iconic. Said picture rightly deserves its place in film history. It accomplished far, far too much to deny it that.

Ghosts of the Abyss, which was originally released on IMAX in 3D, packs the filmmaker’s obsessiveness about the ship, its story, and legacy into a fun, haunting ride deep under the Atlantic. The movie even pulls off a neat effect by having real underwater footage of decrepit rooms and halls fade to either CGI or acted out replicas of what they would have looked like. To that effect, Ghosts accomplishes more efficiently what the previous movie took 3+ hours to do whilst indulging in a story of star-crossed lovers. Look closely and you’ll notice Titanic footage superimposed with photographs of deceased passengers. 

The dreadful banter we’ll see later in Aliens of the Deep starts here. Who knows why the participants talk the way they do. Maybe the camera gets non-actors over-excited and nervous. That really is the only downside. Even people with limited interest in the ship’s story will get something out of it. Like with Deep, the technology employed to pull off their expeditions is gobsmacking. In an ironic twist given the wreckage they explore, one of their two little box-shaped cameras needs rescuing at one point!

6-Avatar (2009)

Avatar
Image: 20th Century Studios

The film that usurped Titanic as the greatest box-office earner of all time, although it failed to equal its tally in Oscar Glory. We have already written extensively about the 2009 runaway hit, but this is a new occasion for analysis. What’s more, we aren’t looking at it in a vacuum but rather as part of a filmmaker’s entire canon. 

This was another recent re-watch that served as a clear reminder of how Cameron pushes the limit on all fronts when embarking on a project. That goes both ways. Unless one is allergic to blockbuster fun with CGI (Some people are. No harm, no foul.), it’s nearly impossible to watch Avatar, especially on a large canvas, and react with no more than a shoulder shrug. It’s too big, too colourful, too detailed oriented, and too ambitious to leave everybody nonplussed. 

The effect Avatar had some many moviegoing patrons back in 2009 and early 2010 is well documented. It was genuine escapism for a lot of people. It’s easy to see why. There are multiple sequences during which it feels as though Cameron really has created a new world. Let’s us not pretend that just any filmmaker can pull that off willy-nilly. But for all its ambition, the common criticism is that the story is somewhat rote. The viewer gets to enjoy a new alien planet of stunning detail and discover the tech by which humans interact with said new domain. The downside is that it’s through the prism of a plot with beats any mildly seasoned movie buff can guess well in advance. Caucasian man falls in love with native princess, saves their land, etc etc.

Ranking Midway Point Assessment 

We have gone through a lot of films already and discussed multiple ideas found in the Canadian director’s oeuvre. He loves exploration, preferably underwater. Or at least the exploration of worlds familiar to precious few. Technology is a big theme in his films. Technology to travel, technology to accomplish big goals.

He is also something of an activist. Avatar is about respecting nature, and so is Aliens of the DeepTitanic is, in some ways, about the evils of wanting to play god. People can and should “do better.” Don’t make genetically engineered human-eating piranhas with wings. Maybe don’t make a movie about it either, but we digress. 

5-Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Terminator 2
Image: Le Studio Canal+

The T-800 said he’d be back, although he may not have been referring to the 1991 sequel to The Terminator. Nor could he have imagined that he’d be back as a goodie rather than a baddie. Be that as it may, Judgement Day show that lightning can strike twice. Incidentally, it stuck twice in two ways for Cameron. He had already made a great sequel with Aliens back in 1986. This time he took his own film and made an amazing sequel. 

However shoddy the dialogue in his pictures can be, and there are some nasty clunkers in T2, the characters are what drive the entire story. Viewers get to see the continuation of Sarah Connor’s importance in the future war against the machines. Her son John Connor, while more whiny than his mother was in the first film and bit too cool for school, is still a charming figure. And then there is the T-800. Once a terrifying robotic monster, he now fights alongside the heroes. While that should be reassuring, the existence of his upgraded counterpart, the T-1000, means all bets are off. 

The biggest criticism one can aim towards the film- apart from that scene in which John teaches his robot protector to smile- is that Judgement Day is predominantly a retread of the first film. Killer robot is sent back in time to destroy a figure that the villainous program Skynet believes will become its undoing. Yes, T2 is rinse and repeat. BUT it’s bigger, more complex, and, as Cameron loves to do, shows off jaw dropping special effects. Jurassic Park gets a lot of credit for making CGI a key component in modern filmmaking, but T2 is no slouch either. The moment when the T-1000 oozes into the helicopter cockpit is the stuff of legend.

4-True Lies (1994)

True Lies
Image: 20th Century Studios

Here is the great outlier of the list when considering our hybrid strategy. True Lies is wall-to-wall fun. It has adventure, it has a lovely romance story involving two people already in love, great locations, and pokes good-natured fun at James Bond movies. A terrific score accompanies the action, Tom Arnold is barely annoying, the action and stunts feel visceral, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is honest to God charming, funny, and witty. 

The film’s sense of fun is grand, as are its ambitions to deliver a rollicking spy adventure that takes the heroes around the world. Even better, it finds its humour organically. The setup in and of itself is completely asinine, but the humour bleeds through the inherent ludicrousness. True Lies is often hilarious. 

It isn’t perfect, mind you. The Titanic symptom rears its ugly head here in that Cameron is too confident he can take as much time as he wants to explore every single subplot. The side story of Bill Paxton’s swooning of Jamie Lee Curtis eats up more time than necessary. Even from a 1994 perspective, it’s odd witnessing the hero have his wife strip and perform a sensual dance under duress. True, she doesn’t know it’s her husband, but something about is amiss. 

Why is this ranking an outlier? The quality is there. The themes much less so. True Lies doesn’t fit snuggly in the Cameron canon, but it’s so much fun and so well made that it must rank highly. 

3-The Terminator (1984)

Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition
Image: Orion Pictures

Considered to be James Cameron’s true feature-length debut, The Terminator is more removed from its popular sequel than some may be led to believe. The 1991 film overflows with iconic imagery and is aided by the fact that one of the industry’s biggest stars at the time was playing a machine re-programmed to fight the good fight. Conversely, the 1984 original has a lesser known but no less beefed-up Schwarzenegger play an unstoppable killing machine. Few would want to face an angry Arnie in his prime, even less so when he is devoid of any human emotions and guided by the sole purpose of stopping humanity’s one hope of survival. 

This article is far from the first voice to argue this (please don’t stop reading if you’ve heard this one before): The Terminator is a horror film. In the future, humans created better more sophisticated machines. The latter then earned a conscious of sorts and decreed humans as unworthy, thus waging war. The Los Angeles that Cameron depicts feels dangerous, treacherous. It’s cyberpunk by way of 1980s edgy Americana. It’s drenched in the blackness of night, where one must look around every corner before turning, just in case the T-800 is waiting. 

Cameron’s fascination with our ability to ameliorate technology is given a deadly twist in the original Terminator. Ironic given that it’s one of his earlier films. Even Tilt Magazine’s editor-in-chief agrees that the film is about our dangerous determination to achieve unending technological progress. Perhaps the filmmaker needed to exorcise some demons before indulging in tech years down the road. Just like Kyle Reese crossed time to fall in love with Sarah Connor, so too does many people’s adoration for this 1984 picture span the decades. 

2-Aliens (1986)

Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition
Image: 20th Century Studios

It may be late in the game to point out another obsession of Cameron’s, but Aliens forces our hand. Plenty of technology is on display in this 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s original horror film. It’s science-fiction-inspired tech, but blends in nicely with what most people could recognize at the time. Even though the story takes place on a far-off planet, it still feels sufficiently credible. There are also extra-terrestrials and, because it takes place in a run-down colony, the notion of exploration is present as well.

Another theme the Canuck often explores in his oeuvre is the military. More specifically, the military’s often dubious role in ensuring humankind’s progress. When watching Cameron’s films, one gets the sense that his conclusion is “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” In Aliens, the military is in large part responsible for helping Ripley and Newt make it off LV-426 alive. On the flip side, the participation of the military is also what helps a private enterprise go forth with the foolish decision to colonize the xenomorph home. 

Aliens is a rollicking, breathtaking thrill ride. Apologies if the previous sentence reads like something off of a DVD cover, but it truly applies in this case. Cameron took a relatively small-scale haunted house film and made it a tense, action-packed, big-budget extravaganza. In most cases, movie fans and critics would decry such a bastardization of a brilliant original film. Not when this director is running the show. The sequel was the public’s first demonstration that, when he puts his mind to it, Cameron can do whatever he pleases and make most people agree that it was the correct decision. The film is so nerve-wracking and engaging that when the xenomorph queen shows up, the article’s author cannot help but say aloud:

“Get away from her you B*TCH!”

1-The Abyss (1989)

The Abyss - Ranking the Films of James Cameron: Mr. Ambition
Image: 20th Century Studios

The number 1 film in a ranking of James Cameron films, given our strategy, is The Abyss. Now, having this film ranked first overall is understandably annoying for some. Not because it isn’t a great piece of entertainment. It is very entertaining. The issue is its availability or lack thereof. Unless one purchases the old two-disc special edition DVD or, heaven forbid, the single-disc full-screen edition (*barfs), watching The Abyss is a challenge. Not an impossible one…but we’ll leave it at that. 

Why number 1? It literally features everything James Cameron loves to tell stories about. The filmmaking process was unspeakably arduous given the sort of project it was. It pushed filmmaking to its limits at the time. The oxygenated water that looks like it’s straight out of science fiction? It’s a real thing, mostly

The film features the military making very uncouth decisions that put the protagonists in danger. 

It features aliens, albeit of the benevolent kind.

Because of the presence of extra-terrestrials, the heroes go on a journey of exploration of sorts, even though they are at heart underwater drillers. 

The Abyss argues for a message of compassion and understanding. When faced with the unknown, show curiosity rather than hostility. 

Finally, the movie is incredibly fun. The editing, the casting, the sets, the action scenes, the quality of the underwater footage, the imagination that went into visualizing the sea-bound visitors from another world, Ed Harris yelling his face off, etc. As far as what Cameron likes to do with his films (how they are made, what they are about) and what he succeeds at making (entertainment), it’s difficult to argue that this is not top of the class. The Terminator and Aliens are phenomenal pictures, but he hadn’t ventured into a project of this scale before. In many respects, one can argue he’s been chasing this movie’s magic ever since. The new Avatar‘s subtitle, The Way of Water, is a dead giveaway.

The Abyss is why James Cameron can be called Mr. Ambition.

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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