Movie mogul is a phrase rarely used since the demise of the golden age of Hollywood and the rise of the independent filmmaker. But it’s an apt term for James Cameron. Since his breakout success with the innovative, low-budget sci-fi thriller The Terminator (1984), most new Cameron films have been received like a seismic cultural event rather than a blockbuster release. With the imminent release of Avatar: The Way of Water, we look back on Cameron’s career – the highs, the lows, the films he would rather forget and those that forged his reputation. Included is his work as a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, with each judged for its ability to thrill us, the impact of its effects and its overall quality – the Jim-o-meter – within the Cameron universe.
This 11-minute short, Cameron’s first venture into filmmaking, may be limited by budget constraints and a small crew, but in its world-building vision it lays the ground for what was to come. It also highlights how perfunctory a role dialogue often plays in Cameron’s work when compared with the complexity of his visuals – what we see often says more than the characters.
Xenogenesis opened doors in the industry for Cameron. He became a model maker at Roger Corman Studios, was an art director on the enjoyable John Sayles-scripted, Seven Samurai-influenced Western-in-space romp Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), headed up visual effects on John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and served as production designer on the post-Alien (1979) sci-fi/horror mashup Galaxy of Terror (1981).
Thrill: 3/10 – More vision than story.
Effects: 5/10 – Cameron shows originality even with a miniscule budget.
Jim-o-Meter: 5/10 – Only for the most hardened Cameron fan.
Piranha Part 2: The Spawning (1981)
Dig deep enough and every director who has worked for decades has that one film they wish no longer saw the light of a projector. Before establishing himself as one of the cinematic visionaries of his generation, Cameron debuted with his one bonafide stinker.
He had signed on as special effects supervisor for Piranha 2, but following the departure of director Miller Drake, he took over the production. It wasn’t an easy shoot, with Camron clashing constantly with producer Ovidio Assonitis. That said, other films that have achieved notoriety for their difficulties on set resulted in something better than this.
Cameron’s debut isn’t even a good bad movie. Employing a familiar trope – scientists breeding a new kind of creature – that has proven remarkably resilient over the years (see Mimic , Deep Blue Sea  and Bong Joon Ho’s The Host ), Cameron’s film revolves around a land-bound strain of genetically modified, flesh-eating fish. A sliver of beach no longer holds them back as these piranhas can fly. Yes, you read it correctly: FLY! Cue atrocious special effects and a cast (save for ever watchable Cameron regular Lance Henriksen) whose limited acting skills have you praying for their early on-screen demise. The film’s sub-heading was changed at some point. A pity, because The Flying Killers better sums up just how cheesy this film is.
Thrill: 3/10 – There’s the promise of tension, but it’s often undermined by the acting.
Effects: 2/10 – ‘Haddock with dentures’ is what one critic wrote.
Jim-o-Meter: 1/10 – On a US chat show, Cameron joked that it’s the best flying killer fish film ever made. That’s a better line than any in his woeful script.
The Terminator (1984)
Cameron’s clashes with his producer on Piranha 2 apparently gave him nightmares, one of which found him dreaming that a robotic assassin had been sent from the future to kill him. That dream, along with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), inspired Cameron’s breakthrough second feature.
A low-budget masterpiece, The Terminator remains a supremely effective example of a film shorn of all excess. Its lean narrative and unfussy directorial style drive the action to its thrilling conclusion. Like Halloween and Alien (1979), The Terminator features a female protagonist in Linda Hamilton whose journey sees her toughen up and, by the film’s conclusion, kickin’ ass. Cameron initially considered Lance Henricksen for the role of the relentless cyborg, but instead gave it to Arnold Schwarzenegger. What must have been a gamble at the time paid off handsomely. The ex-bodybuilder’s oversized physique added immeasurably to the terminator’s seemingly indestructible nature and his diction, robotic at best, brought humour to his character’s early fish-out-of-water scenes. The film was a massive hit and allowed Cameron to expand his vision as a filmmaker.
Thrill: 9/10 – not a moment is wasted
Effects: 8/10 – Cameron proves he can create wonders on a modest budget.
Jim-o-Meter: 10/10 – It remains one of Cameron’s finest achievements and one of the greatest action blockbusters.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992)
‘I’ll be back.’ It’s the line Schwarzenegger’s cyborg uses before trashing a downtown LA police precinct in The Terminator. It also proved to be the mantra by which Cameron returned to his career-making story; a promise not just to return, but to do so in some style. Which is exactly what Terminator 2: Judgement Day achieved. After experimenting with innovations in computer-graphic imagery for his underwater epic The Abyss (1989), Cameron helped develop software that would take visual effects into a whole new realm. Their seamless integration into the real world was extraordinary. But what makes Terminator 2 so compelling is the combination of visual and special (physical) effects with a maturity in Cameron’s writing. Schwarzenegger may once again play a hulk of a robot, with Robert Patrick as an all-new fluid metal nemesis, but Cameron invests his main players with an emotional clout that raises the stakes. And like its predecessor, the filmmaker strips away any excess, even when his characters are tearing up a whole city.
Thrill: 10/10 – It goes from 0-100 in its first 10 minutes and never lets up.
Effects: 10/10 – Some 30 years on, certain effects still retain a wow factor.
Jim-o-Meter: 10/10 – A masterpiece of action cinema.
The opening of Titanic (1997) attracted more press than the launch of the Transatlantic liner whose doomed story it tells. In the years leading up to its release, Cameron’s passion project was regarded as a fool’s errand. He was ridiculed for a film whose budget appeared to be spiralling out of control. But Cameron had the last laugh. His heartbreaking story of doomed lovers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a now iconic pairing) fighting for survival on the sinking ship won a record-tying 11 Oscars and became the biggest film of all time at the box office.
The scale of the film is magnificent and, for a story everyone knows, Cameron squeezes every last drop of suspense from each sequence (he cleverly shows you exactly how the boat will founder in an opening sequence, brilliantly contextualising the latter half of the film). It is Cameron’s finest achievement: a film that blends adrenalin-spiking action set pieces, swooning romance and historical realism. Titanic is big, brash moviemaking that few filmmakers would dare take on.
Thrill: 10/10 – All 3h16 of runtime are utterly engrossing: the initial budding romance and the later disaster-movie elements perfectly complementing each other.
Effects: 9/10 – From the engine room to the ship’s sinking, Cameron creates a breathtaking portrait of life – and death – aboard the doomed liner.
Jim-o-Meter: 10/10 – Titanic is a peerless example of old-fashioned epic moviemaking.
True Lies (1994)
Cameron wasn’t done with Schwarzenegger. The filmmaker’s remake of the 1991 French comedy hit Le Totale! – about a telecommunications employee who is in fact a successful spy – is a fun concept that Cameron’s maximalist approach turns into a fitfully entertaining Bond-like adventure.
Schwarzenegger is game as Harry Tasker, whose seemingly dull persona has driven his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) into the arms of a sleazy car salesman (Bill Paxton) who poses as a secret agent. At the same time, Harry and partner Gib Gibson (Tom Arnold) are chasing down a couple of missing nuclear weapons. Moving between the two plot strands until they merge into one, Cameron creates a series of 007-style set pieces, one-upping himself with each sequence. It’s no-holds-barred – there’s even a nuclear detonation off the Florida coastline. All this would be escapist fun were it not for the two elements that drag the film down. Curtis makes the most of her role, particularly when she unwittingly joins Harry on his mission, but there is a streak of misogyny in the way she is treated by her husband when he suspects her of infidelity. And the clownish portrayal of the Muslim villains, though in keeping with many films from the 1980s and 90s, is juvenile at best. Unlike Terminator 2, True Lies lacks pace in places, but Cameron still delivers on the action set-pieces, from a shootout in a toilet and a novel chase scene through LA’s iconic postmodern landmark, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, to a fabulously OTT shootout along a water-crossing Klorida Keys freeway.
Thrill: 7/10 – When the film lets rip, Cameron is at his most entertaining.
Effects: 7/10 – Nothing ground-breaking, more in the service of genre expectations.
Jim-o-Meter: 6/10 – For all its fun, the film leaves a bad taste.
Following the death of his brother, disabled former marine Jake Sully is offered a lease of life by taking his sibling’s place in a scientific project on planet Pandora. His being will be projected into an avatar of a Na’vi, the blue-skinned, sapient humanoids that populate the planet and are proving to be an effective barrier to the mining companies that want to extract from the planet the precious ore Unobtanium. That’s the set-up of Cameron’s sci-fi opus that became a sensation on release and topped Titanic as the most successful film ever made at the global box office.
Seen on a big screen and in 3D, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of Cameron’s vision and the virtuosity of his skill in creating Pandora and the creatures that live upon it. Like Terminator 2, the director crossed the boundaries of what had previously been achieved with visual effects. The result is magnificent. All that remains is to see whether he can do it again with Avatar: The Way of Water.
Thrill: 9/10 – Compelling action scenes are balanced with more ruminative moments, allowing us to see the splendour of the world Cameron has created.
Effects: 10/10 – Stunning.
Jim-o-Meter: 9/10 – Like Titanic, Cameron’s vision is utterly absorbing.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (Screenplay, 1985)
Terminator 2 wasn’t Cameron’s first stab at a sequel. He co-wrote, with Sylvester Stallone, the sequel to the action star’s 1982 hit First Blood. That film introduced the world to ex-Vietnam vet John Rambo, whose bruising encounter with the bigoted sheriff of a small US mountain town sets of a chain of events that play out as a reflection of domestic attitudes towards servicemen who had been involved in that divisive conflict.
By the time Cameron began working with Stallone on the sequel, the US was in a very different place. President Ronald Reagan was nearing his second term in office and an increasing number of narratives were emerging, thanks to action stars of the era like Stallone and Chuck Norris, that were rewriting the country’s role in Vietnam. Enter a new kind of Rambo.
Fetishising Stallone’s muscled physique as much as the weapons he used, Rambo: First Blood Part II sees its eponymous hero return to Vietnam and actually win the war, albeit on a smaller scale. Director George P. Cosmatos might lack the invention of Cameron at his best, but the script he has to work with is revisionist nonsense tarted up with patriotic fervour. It’s as dumb a movie as Piranha II, with xenophobia in the place of silliness.
Thrill: 5/10 – If you like your guns phallic and explosions orgasmic, this is for you.
Effects: 3/10 – Without Cameron in control, nothing convinces.
Jim-o-Meter: 5/10 – In its defence, it’s better than the three subsequent Rambo films. But that’s hardly saying much.
A year after Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cameron returned as director with another sequel. But this time he built on the promise of The Terminator, delivering a hugely entertaining action epic and boldly refashioning the generic roots of the series’ original. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) perfectly meshed sci-fi with the stalker sub-genre. Cameron’s film, by contrast, pitched itself as an all-out war movie. Sigourney Weaver returned to her star-making role of Ripley, but this time she was prepared and armed.
A brief preamble sets the scene before Ripley and a band of roughneck mercs travel to a planet where a human colony has been overtaken by artist HR Geiger’s chilling creations. Cameron shoots mostly at night, including a cast of regulars from his previous work (Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henricksen) alongside Weaver. She is magnificent, balancing compassion for the young girl she finds and takes care of, with a steely determination to destroy the alien nest. And the film never lets up, increasing the tension and claustrophobia of Scott’s original film, even as it plays out on a much larger scale.
Thrill: 10/10 – After the dumbness of Rambo, Cameron showed what a war movie should really look like.
Effects: 8/10 – The aliens never looked better, but the limitations of the effects industry at that time occasionally show.
Jim-o-Meter: 9/10 – As good as, if not better than, Scott’s original and superior to the many subsequent outings in this cinematic universe.
Strange Days (Story/Screenplay, 1995)
Kathryn Bigelow’s dystopian fin-de-siècle thriller, set in LA in the days leading up to the new millennium, is a dazzling feel-bad mind-trip. Ralph Fiennes plays Lennie Nero, a sleazebag ex-cop who deals in black market SQUID recordings; an illegal device that taps into the cerebral cortex, allowing viewers who don a crab-like skullcap the ability to not only see what someone else sees but to also experience their emotions. Lenny is given a recording showing a popular Black rapper being killed by two white cops. With LA already on the brink of meltdown, the footage would push the city into an abyss if it went public. Lenny becomes the target of the cops, city officials and groups that want the footage released.
Cameron wrote the original story and collaborated with Jay Cocks on the screenplay. Bigelow’s fascination with the interaction between technology and immersive storytelling is pushed to the max in the SQUID clip sequences, employing micro cameras to create a dizzying style. The film is controversial for a graphic scene of sexual assault. But it’s less a misstep on Bigelow’s part than an attempt – albeit a disturbing one – to grapple with our culture’s acceptance of screen violence as entertainment.
Strange Days is by no means perfect, but it’s the kind of bold filmmaking that US studios rarely allow. Mostly forgotten now, it deserves greater attention. By some margin, it’s the best screenplay Cameron worked on that he didn’t direct.
Thrill: 7/10 – It’s an unsettling ride, but there are moments of brilliance.
Effects: 7/10 – It looks dated now, but the film evinces a scuzzy quality that adds to its dystopian worldview.
Jim-o-Meter: 7/10 – Flawed and occasionally disturbing, it is nevertheless one of Cameron’s most intelligent and provocative screenplays.
Alita: Battle Angel (Screenplay, 2019)
While developing the technology to continue his adventures on and around planet Pandora in the Avatar series, Cameron’s universe-building turned to a story he developed about a cyborg girl pieced together by a kindly scientist. Alita initially seems ordinary, but she was originally created as a state-of-the-art battle commando. Soon enough, she starts wreaking havoc on an Earth some thousands of years into the future and 300 years after a catastrophic global war.
Robert Rodriguez directs, working with Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay. The world is stunningly realised and a stark contrast to Avatar; rather than a verdant, pastoral planet, Earth is a cyberpunk heaven (or hell) of a megalopolis. Alita soon becomes its saviour from a malevolent overlord who lives in a city that floats in the planet’s atmosphere.
The film’s visuals are impressive, but Rodriguez’s direction is not on a par with Cameron. And the element that usually makes Rodriguez’s films – from El Mariachi (1992) to the Spy Kids series so enjoyable, his mischievous humour – is entirely absent. It’s all a little too po-faced. And the story feels like a rehash of other dystopian/saviour narratives.
Thrill: 6/10 – The odd chase is breathtaking, but there’s too much lazily conceived exposition in between.
Effects: 8/10 – Alita herself is an impressive creation, as is the backdrop. However this conjured world lacks the real-world bite of a film like Elysium (2013).
Jim-o-Meter: 6/10 – Far less than the sum of its parts.
Ghosts of the Abyss (Documentary, 2003)
Cameron, his friend and Titanic actor Bill Paxton and a crew aboard a small submarine journey down to the wreck of the Titanic. The film comprises the most exciting moments from the 12 journeys they made.
Cameron embraced 3D technology for the film – one of the numerous technologies he was developing as he prepared to film Avatar. And although it’s a documentary, Cameron invests Ghosts of the Abyss with all the thrills of his narrative features. If you experience claustrophobia you might want to avoid it, but it is a fascinating journey.
Thrill: 7/10 – Cameron in a sub at the bottom of the ocean? Of course it’s tense.
Effects: N/A – The film eschews studio effects in favour of an unvarnished view of the deep.
Jim-o-Meter: 7/10 – A compelling accompaniment to Titanic.
The Abyss (1989)
This is where it all began for Cameron when it comes to his reputation as a maestro of visual effects. The story of a research base on the ocean’s floor coming into contact with an alien species showcases everything that’s wonderous with Cameron’s films, but also highlights his weaknesses.
It involves a US Navy submarine in distress, a Marine rescue team with one member suffering the effects of extreme cabin pressure, a seabed marine station edging towards an unfathomably deep trench, a married couple who can’t bear to share the same space and discovering an alien species. It might also be cinema's most gut-wrenching exercise in claustrophobia.
Cameron famously spent more than two years on the arduous shoot that pushed his cast and crew to their limit. And in the film’s first two thirds it feels worth it. The effects that would contribute to the world of Terminator 2 were first developed here. The alien species, manifesting itself as tendrils of water are a beautiful sight. Combined with Cameron’s skill at raising tension to unbearably high stakes, the film is magnificent. At least, until Ed Harris’ gnarly foreman of the marine base descends to trench to retrieve a bomb and encounters an entire civilisation of alien species. From this point, it feels like the effects team ran out of budget. Nevertheless, it’s another Cameron film whose vision is immense and at its best it shows what a hugely skilled director he is.
Thrill: 8/10 – Tense doesn’t quite convey the nerve-shredding suspense of the more disaster-like aspect of the film.
Effects: 8/10 – Aside from the final section, Cameron pushes the envelope of what visual effects could do at the time.
Jim-o-Meter: 8/10 – The end doesn’t work, with a spaceship that looks like it’s made of plastic, but the film is a mostly fantastic white-knuckle ride into the unknown.
Aliens of the Deep (Documentary, 2005)
Edging closer to the technologies that he would employ to create Avatar, Cameron embraced digital 3D technology to travel deep into the Atlantic and Pacific to investigate thermal vents, around which exist a panoply of creatures that have never previously been filmed exist. Cameron, in tandem with NASA scientists, then consider how close this world might be to other planets in the universe where life is possible.
What’s most fascinating about Cameron’s second deep-water documentary outing is how much the creatures he encountered on these dives resemble the life forms that were to populate Pandora in Avatar.
Thrill: 5/10 – More a journey of wonder than suspense.
Effects: N/A – There are some moments of exquisite natural beauty.
Jim-o-Meter: 6.5/10 – The commentary isn’t always as fascinating as the imagery.
WATCH AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER IN 2D OR 3D IN CINEMAS