“I had pictured myself as a filmmaker but I had never pictured myself as a director if that makes any sense at all.”—James Cameron
Canadian filmmaker James Cameron is universally acclaimed for his sci-fi epics and ambitious projects like Avatar, The Terminator and more. His films have been greeted with critical and commercial successes and he has won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. Avatar and Titanic are the second and third highest-grossing films of all time. In 2010, Time magazine named Cameron as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Born in Ontario, Cameron enrolled at Fullerton College for Physics but then he switched subjects to English. He dropped out after a year to work odd jobs and write in his free time. During this time, he also researched a lot about film technology at his local library. When he first saw Star Wars in 1977, he quit his job as a truck driver to enter the film industry.
“Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality,” the director once said. “Don’t put limitations on yourself. Others will do that for you,” he added. It is this mentality, this approach to cinema, which offers the clearest explanation as to why James Cameron has been able to create the mind-bending blockbusters he is now famous for.
On his 66th birthday, we explore Cameron’s impressive filmography as a tribute to one of the most successful directors of all time.
James Cameron’s Best Films Ranked:
8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
This was Cameron’s first directorial credit. However, the politics of production did not leave him with much control over the final product and on top of that, he had been hired as a substitute for the original director. The B-grade horror film left a lot to be desired but it gave some glimpses of Cameron’s talent for special effects.
Speaking about his issues with the producer, Cameron said, “I was hired by a very unscrupulous producer. He put me with an Italian crew who spoke no English then fired me a couple of weeks into the shoot and took over directing. Turns out, he’d done that on his two previous films. He wouldn’t show me a foot of film that I’d shot, so I went in and ran the film for myself. I made a few changes — I don’t know if the editor ever noticed — and it was fine.”
He added, “So I thought, ‘I actually can do this. I just fell in with a pack of thieves and wackos.’ I also realised nobody would hire me after that experience. I’d have to create my own thing to direct again.”
7. True Lies (1994)
The 1994 action-comedy True Lies explored the vast world of international espionage through the intimate relationship of a secret agent and his wife. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis put up funny and engaging performances as they deal with one problem after another but a lot of the goofy humour doesn’t have the same effect anymore. True Lies still holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first film to cross the $100 million budget.
Cameron insisted that the budget is irrelevant, “A film should be reviewed based on whether it’s successful at its stated goals. A film usually states its goals within the first act, and it either succeeds or fails based on what it’s trying to do, or based on what you want it to be doing, which are two different subjects.”
6. Avatar (2009)
Set in the year 2154, Cameron’s epic sci-fi film is an allegorical tale about the evils of colonization, psychological manipulation and even universal concepts like love. Avatar was the highest-grossing film of all time before Avengers: Endgame (2019) took its place. The film won two Academy Awards and it earned Cameron the Golden Globe for Best Director.
“Avatar takes place in another world and you’ll feel like you’ve been to that world. When you see a scene in 3D, that sense of reality is supercharged,” Cameron said. “But I made it my mission to keep the 3D out of the actors’ consciousnesses completely. Most of them forgot we were shooting 3D. Then every once in a while one of them would watch some dailies and come back wide-eyed.
“We’re making a $200m-plus movie and it’s all about the journey of one guy, Jake. Sam Worthington’s in every scene in the film, from beginning to end. It all hangs on that one piece of casting. And Sam is able to create a character that allows you to walk in his shoes. He’s a star.”
5. The Abyss (1989)
One of the more underrated works by Cameron, The Abyss is primarily remembered for its stunning Academy Award-winning visuals. In Cameron’s trademark style, we encounter the unknown when A civilian diving team discover an alien aquatic species while searching for a lost nuclear submarine. Cameron employs beautiful imagery to sustain the fantasy.
Cameron elaborated on his ideas, saying, “I used to always dream about tidal waves. I don’t know if it’s a Jungian thing; I haven’t researched it. Waves are rather good metaphors, which is probably why I was attracted to rewriting Point Break, even though I don’t surf. In The Abyss, there was no monster. We were the monster. Audiences didn’t like that. They wanted another duke-out between Sigourney Weaver and the Queen Alien. And that’s not what that movie ever was.
“I sat with the entire cast beforehand, one-by-one, as they were being considered for their parts and said, ‘Don’t take this if you’re not willing to learn how to be a helmet-rated deep diver, which will take you four weeks’. I told them this would be worse than a Kubrick movie.”
4. Titanic (1997)
This three-hour epic presents one of the world’s most tragic events in the form of a love story. It addresses issues ranging from the anthropocentric arrogance of man’s belief in technology to class conflicts. The film swept the Academy Awards, winning 11 prizes including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing for Cameron.
Cameron reflected, “I had dark hours on Titanic as dire as Piranha II. We missed the iceberg by that much. But I’m at my best when I’m neck-deep in ice water trying to work out how we’re going to keep the lights turned on when the water hits the bulbs.”
Adding, “Titanic was conceived as a love story. If I could have done it without one effect, I would’ve been happy. It was definitely a goal to integrate a very personal, emotional style with spectacle – and try to make that not be chocolate syrup on a cheeseburger, you know. The cathartic experience is what made the film work.”
3. The Terminator (1984)
Despite his official debut being Piranha II, this was the first film over which he had complete control and which established him as one of the top directors. Shot on a shoestring budget, this gritty action sci-fi romp features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg who is sent from the future to prevent an apocalypse. Cameron created a unique world full of memorable characters, a world which has been immortalized in popular culture.
“The idea of a hit man from the future trying to change past events was certainly not new,” Cameron explained. “What I thought was cutting-edge was deciding to not have the Terminator be a guy in a robot suit. That’s how it was typically done. But a flesh-covered endoskeleton? That was new.”
He continued, “So for me it was all about how we could develop stop-motion animation and puppetry to create a true robotic endoskeleton. The team at visual-effects house Stan Winston Studio jumped into it and made it work.”
2. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 original is one of the best sci-fi films of all time and a sequel was always going to have to live up to the monumental expectations that were generated by Scott’s masterpiece. However, Cameron does a commendable job at paying tribute to the original while simultaneously exercising his own artistic voice. The 1986 sci-fi action film stars Sigourney Weaver as Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, the lone survivor from a spaceship attacked by extra-terrestrial species. The film won Academy Awards for its visual effects and sound editing, earning five additional nominations including Best Actress for Weaver.
In an interview, Cameron said, “Our intention was to do a film that was not scary but more intense and exhilarating. It turned out everybody but us thought the film could be made without Sigourney Weaver, which completely blew my mind. One of my biggest problems was coming up with a reason why she goes back. Soldiers from Vietnam re-enlisted because they had an inner demon to be exorcised – that was a good metaphor for her.
“I wanted the final confrontation with the queen to be a hand-to-hand fight. A very intense, personal thing. I think of the queen as a character, rather than a thing or an animal. And there’s a lot of revelation going on there, how their whole social organisation works.”
1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Cameron’s extremely ambitious sequel to his breakthrough feature film remains his finest work yet. The filmmaker took the scope of the first film and amplified it in all respects, thanks to considerably less budgetary restrictions this time around. It pits one cyborg against another with the fate of humanity at stake. The film won Academy Awards for sound, sound effects editing, visual effects and makeup.
“Basically, what I wanted to say in Terminator 2 was that everything is meant to be a certain way, everything has already been written,” Cameron revealed. “You can call it karma or destiny, whatever. So I asked myself a hypothetical question: what if you could you grab a line of history like it’s a rope stretched between two points, and just pull it out of the way?”
He added, “I like to lead the audience; so when the audience thinks the film is over that’s when they’re thrust into a whole new territory that heightens the emotional experience.”