Total Recall: James Cameron Movies

We take a look at the career of the visionary director of Avatar.

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4. The Abyss

Cameron had to spearhead the invention of a new type of 3-D camera before he could get Avatar off the ground, but he was no stranger to breaking the limits of technology to bring his vision to life: 1989's underwater epic The Abyss required the construction of the world's biggest tank of filtered fresh water, as well as newly designed watertight cameras and bleeding-edge special effects work from Industrial Light & Magic. It also required a lot of patience on the part of its cast (including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, both of whom suffered emotional breakdowns during the grueling six-month shoot) and crew (including Cameron himself, who spent hours at a time under 50 feet of water) -- and the studio had its own cross to bear, enduring millions of dollars in cost overruns and weeks of delays. In the end, The Abyss wasn't as profitable as Cameron's other epics, only bringing in around $90 million against a $70 million budget, but critics were generally kind, particularly to the longer version that eventually surfaced on home video (Widgett Walls of Needcoffee.com called the theatrical release "an abomination" and wrote, "For God's sake, make sure you have the director's cut"). And perhaps more importantly, all that mucking around with wet stuff helped prepare Cameron for a certain movie about an ocean liner hitting an iceberg.


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3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

More often than not, if it takes seven years to put together the sequel to a hit movie, disappointment is just around the corner. In the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, the prolonged delay worked to everyone's advantage: James Cameron, a relative newcomer when The Terminator was filmed, had spent the intervening years turning himself into one of Hollywood's biggest directors, and one of the few filmmakers with enough clout to secure the $102 million budget necessary to pay for both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the super-cool special effects that turned Robert Patrick into a puddle of molten metal. It was money well spent, as T2's eventual $519 million worldwide gross proved; in fact, despite its slightly lower Tomatometer rating, many fans believe the second Terminator is superior to the original. If you enjoy movies and shows like ABC's Lost, in which white-knuckle action and impossibly trippy sci-fi storylines somehow manage to coexist, thank James Cameron for Terminator 2, because this is one of the best examples of how to do it right. In the words of Newsweek's David Ansen, "For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this bruisingly exciting movie never loses sight of its humanity. That's its point, and its pride."


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2. The Terminator

Talk about your abrupt turnarounds: just a few years after suffering through Piranha II, Cameron convinced Orion Pictures to take a chance on his idea for a sci-fi action film about a time-traveling cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a mission to kill the mother (Linda Hamilton) of a 21st century freedom fighter before she can get it on with her predestined baby daddy (Michael Biehn). Unlike its ever-expanding pack of sequels and spinoffs, 1984's The Terminator was a low-budget affair, going from set to screen for a paltry $6.5 million -- and it promptly turned around and grossed more than $75 million, launching a franchise that has gone on to outlast Cameron's involvement (much to the chagrin of many fans). Even though The Terminator's budgetary constraints occasionally show up onscreen, it's still easy to see why it was so successful -- not only is it one of the most purely entertaining popcorn flicks of the decade, this was the role Schwarzenegger was born to play. "I remain perpetually amazed by how magnificently Cameron keeps the tension up," wrote Antagony & Ecstasy's Tim Brayton, adding, "there is not a single moment that isn't operating at 100 percent."


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1. Aliens

More than a decade before he stood in front of an international audience and proclaimed himself the king of the world, James Cameron demonstrated his healthy reserves of chutzpah by approaching Fox about taking the reins on a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Unlike Piranha II, Cameron's proposed Aliens would be following up a certified classic -- and one that many viewers would have been happy to leave sequel-free. Fox wasn't particularly eager to revisit Alien either, at least initially; first, the studio expressed doubt as to whether there was really an audience for another installment, and then a pay dispute with Sigourney Weaver threatened to derail the whole thing. Even when Aliens started to roll, the obstacles kept coming -- Cameron's difficulties with his uncooperative crew are the stuff of legend -- but by the time the sequel reached audiences and returned more than $130 million on the studio's $18.5 million investment, not to mention seven Academy Award nominations, it was pretty clear Cameron had known what he was doing all along. At 100 percent on the Tomatometer, Aliens has earned plenty of praise from top critics like Walter Goodman of the New York Times, who called it "A flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-'em-up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics."


In case you were wondering, here are Cameron's top ten movies according RT users' scores:

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day -- 96%
2. Aliens -- 96%
3. The Terminator -- 95%
4. The Abyss -- 90%
5. True Lies -- 85%
6. Titanic -- 81%
7. Ghosts of the Abyss -- 72%
8. Aliens of the Deep -- 60%
9. Piranha II: The Spawning -- 21%


Take a look through Cameron's complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out the reviews for Avatar.

Finally, here's Xenogenesis, Cameron's first film, from 1978:

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