The Best James Cameron Movie Isn’t An Avatar Film

James Cameron's best movie is Aliens, which developed the world of Xenomorphs more than any other movie.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated

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Among all filmmakers, James Cameron must bow only to Steven Spielberg as the most commercially successful director of all time, with the man behind Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones holding a nearly $2 billion lead over him. However, Cameron has the Avatar franchise on his side, with at least two more sequels planned in his science fiction epic that will undoubtedly gross billions of dollars. But as successful as his Avatar films might be, they will never be as good as his single best movie: Aliens.

Aliens was released in 1986, the sequel to the already revered 1979 Ridley Scott Alien movie starring Sigourney Weaver and the scariest star beast ever put on screen. Even now, a gap of seven years would be considered a long time between films; add the original director being replaced by a guy whose only credit at the time was Piranha II: The Spawning and James Cameron’s Aliens seems like a risky proposition. 

Of course, by the time Aliens hit theaters, Cameron had unleashed another of the great sci-fi monster franchises; The Terminator arrived in 1984 and made him a bonafide hitmaker. But when James Cameron was contracted by 20th Century Fox to develop Aliens, Terminator was still in script stage and he was best known for helping to co-write Rambo: First Blood Part II. It is hard to imagine that anyone could expect Aliens to live up to the first movie, let alone surpass it.

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It could be argued forever whether or not Aliens is a better movie than Alien, and likely will be. But what cannot be argued is that James Cameron expanded the franchise to a degree that no one could have anticipated, introducing the concepts of Colonial Marines and the Xenomorph Queen and defining the nefarious Weyland-Yutani Corporation that would be as much the antagonist of the series as the aliens themselves.

In a way, Aliens is the model for James Cameron’s trademark world-building that would find its full fruition in the Avatar series. While the first Alien movie was a stripped-down slasher movie that just happened to be set on a spaceship (replace the Xenomorph with Michael Myers and surprisingly little changes), Aliens exists in a fuller universe with characters with backstories, motivations other than survival, and colonies of humans out in space.

But aside from expanding the central concept of “acid-blood aliens exist,” James Cameron did something else remarkable with Aliens: he shifted the genre of the franchise entirely. While Ridley Scott’s Alien was essentially a horror movie with sci-fi trappings, Aliens is a straight-up action movie. While the Xenomorphs coming after Ellen Ripley (Weaver), Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn, who replaced James Remar after he was arrested for drug possession), corporate stooge Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser), Hudson (the late, great Bill Paxton), and the rest are basically the same, the entire tone of the movie has changed.

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If it is not for the better, the genre shift certainly makes Aliens stand on its own merits. This is the movie that truly transformed Sigourney Weaver into the greatest female action hero of all time (regardless of what Jennifer Lawrence says). The idea of Ripley battling a giant Xenomorph in a power-suit, highly trained space commandos blasting the hell out of everything even as they know it is a losing battle, “Game over, man!” All of that iconography comes from James Cameron. 

Fortunately, audiences recognized it at the time. Aliens was a critical and commercial hit, becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year and still holding a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Combined with the success of The Terminator, James Cameron was a newly minted hit filmmaker, which he would follow up by nearly killing Ed Harris and then repeatedly making the biggest and most commercially successful movies of all time one after another.

It is entirely likely that James Cameron will continue making Avatar movies for either the rest of his career or until the box office grosses diminish (which doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon). But Aliens will remain the highlight of his career, an almost unprecedented burst of creative force and world-building that would continue to expand for decades. It may not have been the original, but it did at least as much to create the franchise as the first movie did.