3. The Terminator (1984)
This is really where it all started for Cameron, with his second official directing gig (but the first that was really all his) and a movie that became not only one of the signature action/sci-fi thrillers of the 1980s but a classic of its genre. Several of the director’s early themes and stylistic trademarks—humanity vs. technology, relentless pacing and action, visceral violence—manifest themselves in this simple tale of a cybernetic assassin from the future sent back in time to kill the mother of humanity’s future savior.
The movie also began Cameron’s longstanding collaborations with Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was struggling to establish himself as an actor when this film came along and made him a star. And while Linda Hamilton’s role was more or less a damsel in distress for much of this movie, her character’s later evolution, combined with Cameron’s next movie, embraced the idea of women as action heroes long before Hollywood as a whole was willing to do so.
The Terminator also launched Cameron’s sometimes derivative approach to storytelling, as he was actually threatened with a lawsuit by legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison for lifting elements from his Outer Limits episode “Soldier” (the case was settled out of court). But hey, everyone borrows from somewhere. Whatever its genesis, The Terminator remains a lean, tense, suspenseful, and even terrifying thriller with perfect casting, ingenious low-budget filmmaking, and a directorial energy that would be not be denied.
2. Aliens (1986)
It’s difficult enough to make a sequel to an acknowledged masterpiece, yet James Cameron, incredibly, did it twice. In this first instance—his first film for a major Hollywood studio (Fox)—he did it by flipping genres entirely. Largely discarding the haunted house and horror trappings of Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), Cameron instead turned the follow-up into a rousing “Marines vs. the monsters” story, featuring the kind of ragtag collection of charismatic soldiers seen and beloved in traditional war movies.
Leading the charge was Sigourney Weaver, the only survivor of Alien, returning to ger breakout role of Ripley and (at least temporarily) shattering the Hollywood taboo against female action heroes with a performance that remains one of the few in science fiction to be nominated for an Oscar. She was also surrounded by one of Cameron’s best casts. Even though his space Marines were archetypes instead of characters, folks like the unforgettable Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, and Al Williams imbued them with personality, humanity, and humor.
Working with a relatively slim $18 million budget, Cameron crafted a breathless, intense, and oddly intimate story of terror, heroism, and battle that became one of the greatest sci-fi blockbusters of all time. While we prefer the leaner theatrical cut to the extended edition, we do wish that Cameron had kept the scene where Ripley learns about the fate of her daughter in the former; it provides a motivation to her later rescue of little alien attack survivor Newt (Carrie Henn) that adds an entire layer of thematic and emotional resonance to the movie.