All Films Considered: James Cameron

  • Publish Date: December 18, 2009
  • Comments: ↓ 6 user comments

The king of the (movie) world

Director James Cameron is certainly not the most prolific filmmaker in the world, but he is one of the most successful. Because Cameron fans have to wait so long in between movies, and because of the high bar set by previous commercial mega-hits like Titanic, when a new film like Avatar arrives, it is not just another movie -- it's an event. To celebrate this occasion, we look back at the films that helped cement the director's reputation.

We know that Cameron is a bankable draw, and that many of his movies are considered today to be all-time classics. But how did critics take to these films when they were first released? Very well, it turns out. Cameron's Metascores over the past 15 years have been remarkably consistent, with all of his movies receiving -- at worst -- mostly positive reviews. The period is bookended by two of his biggest critical successes, The Terminator and Avatar:

Movies are plotted by Metascore, a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good).

Let's examine each of these movies in more detail. The pie charts indicate the percentage of critics giving positive (green), mixed (yellow) and negative (red) reviews.

Movies Directed by James Cameron, 1984 - Present
  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
The Terminator 1984 84 8.6
Est. Production Budget: $6.4M
Worldwide Gross: $78.3M
"A blazing, cinematic comic book, full of virtuoso moviemaking, terrific momentum, solid performances and a compelling story."

In 1984, James Cameron introduced us to the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, and the future of sci-fi cinema was changed for the better. In The Terminator, Cameron created a massive cyborg that not only chilled us with his cold-blooded objective, but thrilled us with his badass biker fashion sense and had us hoping he'd be back.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Aliens 1986 87 n/a
Est. Production Budget: ???
Worldwide Gross: $131.0M
"It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety. I walked outside and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was drained... Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft."
--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

We have fewer reviews in our database for this film than for any other on this page (so that Metascore may not truly reflect the broad critical consensus), but this sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic is a classic in its own right, raising (or even establishing) the bar for science fiction action movies and firmly establishing Sigourney Weaver's Ripley as the top female action hero in cinema history.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
The Abyss 1989 62 7.8
Est. Production Budget: ???
Worldwide Gross: $90.0M
"The climax of The Abyss is downright embarrassing; in the light of day, its payoff effect looks like a glazed ceramic what's-it your 11-year-old made in crafts class."
--Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

Cameron's underwater crew of blue-collar workers encounter aliens in the deep in this sci-fi drama that let Industrial Light and Magic cut its teeth on the CGI effects that would later be used in Terminator 2. But back in '89, the "liquid" creatures were on the side of good, while the evil was pure human: Michael Biehn, who plays a bad lieutenant with “sea crazies" and sabotage on the brain.

Although the effects may have been notable, the movie's ending was not. Even those critics who enjoyed a large portion of The Abyss found the conclusion flawed. However, an altered "Special Edition" released four years later corrected many of those flaws.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991 69 9.4
Est. Production Budget: $102M
Worldwide Gross: $519.8M
"No-one can walk out of this and say they didn't see the whole hundred mil up there on the screen in exploding vehicles, wrecked buildings, monster effects and sheer sweaty action."
--Kim Newman, Empire

As promised, the big guy returns in Cameron’s follow up to The Terminator that set the standard for the bigger, better, and louder blockbuster sequel. This time, Arnie’s good, and he has to save John Conner from the T1000, a deadly cyborg made of a deliciously diabolical liquid metal that marked a breakthrough in special effects.

The Terminator saga would continue from here without Cameron -- in the courtroom and on the big screen.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
True Lies 1994 63 6.0
Est. Production Budget: $115M
Worldwide Gross: $378.9M
"The catch is, once you get past the stunning special effects and the mind-numbing stuntwork, there's not all that much there."
--Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Arnold Schwarzenegger, once again Cameron's muse, tangos his way from one spy mission to another as a family man with a secret in a comedy that packs action and surprises, including a most memorable striptease from a very svelte Jamie Lee Curtis.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Titanic 1997 74 7.6
Est. Production Budget: $200M
Worldwide Gross: $1,842.8M
"Titanic floods you with elemental passion in a way that invites comparison with the original movie spectacles of D.W. Griffith."
--Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Our hearts still go on for the mega blockbuster that made Kate and Leo household names. The film about a doomed love affair between passengers on the infamous maiden voyage of the "unsinkable" ship swept the Oscars with a staggering 14 nominations and 11 wins, confirming that Cameron was truly the king of the world. We just wish he didn't remind us in his acceptance speech.

Even more staggering than the number of awards was the box office take; Titanic is, to this day, the highest-grossing movie of all time. But Cameron would not release another non-documentary film until Avatar, a dozen years later.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Ghosts of the Abyss 2003 67 8.0
Est. Production Budget: ???
Worldwide Gross: $22.1M
"Despite over-ripe narration and an understandable urge to cram too much in, Ghosts of the Abyss is a thrilling documentary. "
--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Cameron continued his fascination with all things Titanic with a 3-D IMAX documentary that illuminates the haunting beauty of the still-submerged ocean liner. As part of his ongoing effort to improve storytelling with advancement in film technology, Cameron employed cameras specifically created for the film project to capture footage of the wreck in crystal clear detail.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Aliens of the Deep 2005 71 5.6
Est. Production Budget: ???
Worldwide Gross: $12.7M
"A fascinating, kid-friendly journey. "
--Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune

In this gorgeously shot documentary, Cameron takes us on an exploration of sea life as we've never seen it before in an effort to uncover a link between the unusual creatures found in the deep and possible extraterrestrial life found in worlds beyond Earth. With attractive NASA scientists as our guides, this trip into the deep blue will have you wonder if aliens aren’t already among us.

While the two undersea documentaries accounted for Cameron's only on-screen output during the past decade, he was also using that time to prepare for his next major feature.

  Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
Avatar 2009 82 9.2
Est. Production Budget: $310M*
"A quantum leap in movie magic; watching it, I began to understand how people in 1933 must have felt when they saw 'King Kong.' "
--J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader

A groundbreaking 3D spectacle utilizing state-of-the-art film technology, Avatar reached theaters as one of the most highly anticipated films of all time -- as well as one of the most expensive to produce. While its ultimate commercial fate is still in the hands of moviegoers, critics have responded with great enthusiasm, hailing Cameron's visually groundbreaking film as one of the top major releases of the year. The only thing preventing the Metascore from being even higher is the same thing that hurt a many of the lower-scoring films above (at least in the eyes of critics): Cameron's lack of storytelling mastery.

The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). User scores represent an average of scores assigned by site visitors on a scale from 0 (bad) to 10 (good). The scores listed for Avatar are from December 18, 2009. Source of box office grosses and budgets: Box Office Mojo. * Source of Avatar budget: Los Angeles Times.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (6)

  • Marc Doyle  

    Elvis Mitchell's calling The Terminator a "B-Movie" is a bit of a joke in retrospect. But I suppose it had a B-movie "feel" to it. It was just way ahead of its time.

  • karamashi  

    Where's Piranha 2?

  • Greg  

    ...and Aquaman? Johnny Chase is going to lose it!

  • darthstuey  

    How did Titanic get over 10% more than True Lies- that's just wrong- and what's with the low scores for T2-silly reviewers of the time.

  • Sam  

    I agree with Greg - Aquaman was the highest grossing film of all time on the weekend it opened!

  • OXIDE  

    "-You're fired!"

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