” The key to a sequel is to meet audience expectation and yet be surprising. “
The self-pronounced king of the world. With good reason too, there’s no doubt he pioneered a lot for film. He claims the mantle for the top two grossing films of all-time as well as the most Oscar-winning film. Does he deserve it? Kind of. He’s not the best, but he’s certainly not the worst. For the better part of his work, he understands cinema, he understands the aura of the blockbuster scale and how to integrate emotion into the action. While he may be currently concerning himself with 3D innovation and a richer visual experience above storytelling, we still have the legacy of his 80s and 90s work to enjoy.
01. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Linda Hamilton
Oscar Nominations: Editing, Cinematography, Visual Effects (winner), Makeup (winner) Sound (winner), Sound Editing (winner)
The ultimate summer blockbuster. It has the air of summer. The L.A. heat beats down on every scene. The first film was dark and grungy and while the second Terminator has bigger action, it invites us to see all the detail. Every clanging metal, bursting bullets, fiery explosion. It draws you in and expands the world, centring on a character that was key but imaginary since the beginning. But despite its mainstream appeal, it holds onto moments of horror. I remember always having to look through my hands with graphic deaths of John’s foster parent and the prison guard. Small weapons, done big.
02. The Terminator (1984)
Starring: Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Oscar Nominations: none
The first Terminator created an icon. Not only with the invincible cyborg, but with bodybuilder-turned-actor then later Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Schwarzenegger movies with their uncompromising action and sharp humour defined my childhood’s worth of grown-up films. But The Terminator works on its own merits. It may have dated qualities such as clunky stop-motion special effects, but it’s drenched in a grimy atmosphere. Always get a kick out of the creative ideas that are set up here that will later set up billion dollar franchises.
03. Aliens (1986)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn
Oscar Nominations: Actress, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Sound Editing (winner), Visual Effects (winner), Original Score
Following up from The Terminator, which is his debut more than anything, Cameron was tasked with the sequel to the horror phenomenon Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. If anyone understood mixing horror and science fiction besides Scott, it was Cameron. However, he took it in a different direction. Rather than the effective but drawn out suspense of Alien, Cameron wanted ball-to-the-walls action. That’s not all Aliens is good for, he also develops Weaver’s Ripley much more than Alien attempted, carving the heroine known today.
04. True Lies (1994)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie-Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold
Oscar Nominations: Visual Effects
Hot on the heels of Terminator 2, the Cameron and Schwarzenegger partnership became synonymous with entertainment. True Lies is one of the finest of the cheese-charm, effortless action blockbusters showcasing Arnie, having a budget that can meet the scale it’s reaching for. It does take many liberties, especially with the caricature terrorists, but at its heart is the rekindled romance between the hero and wife, played by Jamie-Lee Curtis, who’s just as big a joy to watch as Arnie.
05. Titanic (1997)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart
Oscar Nominations: Picture (winner), Director (winner), Actress, Supporting Actress, Editing (winner), Cinematography (winner), Art Direction (winner), Costume Design (winner), Visual Effects (winner) Makeup, Sound (winner), Sound Editing (winner), Score (winner), Original Song (winner)
Titanic means big. It’s meant big for 100 years. James Cameron’s Titanic blew the word to the next dimension. Big money, big spectacle, big stars, big running-time, big Oscar-tally. Many find delights in what it has to offer, and it does has something for everyone. Romance, a touch of disaster action, that’s enough. The audience came in droves. It has a lot to admire, especially in the enormous production of the film, but it’s hard to deny that the sentimentality of of the script can often be too trite for its own good.
06. The Abyss (1989)
Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Manstrantonio, Michael Biehn
Oscar Nominations: Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound, Visual Effects (winner)
It’s common knowledge that James Cameron’s true passion is in diving. Before Titanic, The Abyss offered him the chance to dive more often than a professional diver. It’s a good film, but it falls short of its potential, especially indulging in some terribly contrived sequences. The visual effects are especially impressive for their time though.
07. Avatar (2009)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography (winner), Art Direction (winner), Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects (winner), Original Score
Yeah, the one. The inexplicable #1 grossing film of all-time. First of all, I don’t care that its story is not original. The story is as old as time. But it’s how it’s played is what matters and Avatar feels mishandled, forced and cliched, moreso than Titanic. The special effects are impressive based on the sheer man hours put into it but it always felt so trivial. None of the aspects of Pandora really feel like they mean anything. I’m sure a lot of people get a lot out of more than I do, but I forgot about it a week later. Not bad, but not good. Just because it’s the biggest doesn’t mean it’s the best. I’ll skip sequels.
Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981) – I was considering not doing this article until I saw this but I don’t really want to see it. Apparently Cameron was fired after the first week, though are reports that he did shoot the film but wasn’t involved in editing. Nevertheless, not the start he would’ve wanted.
Strange Days (1995) – Directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to beat Cameron for the Best Director Oscar in 2009, Cameron wrote, produced and (uncredited) edited this sci-fi thriller starring Ralph Fiennes.
Point Break (1991) – Another film directed by Bigelow, but only executive produced by Cameron. An action film in the same vein as his own.
Dark Angel (2000-2002) – A TV series created by James Cameron that ran for two seasons. Features his trademark strong female lead in the form of Jessica Alba.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) – Written by Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron, expect action and then some more action.