4. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The magnum opus in many peoples eyes, but that ranking tends to come with some rose colored glasses. 90’s kids will overblow this movie, thinking more about how it made them feel when they saw it as kids then actually judging the movie on its own merits. Which isn’t to say that the movie is bad. Far from it in fact. But this is a movie that manages to expand upon the mythology while also completely infantilizing it to play into its stars iconic status as a hero.
For a sequel to a badass and gritty sci fi horror movie, this movie has no mean bones in its body. It’s a movie made for the masses, the R rating a mere inconvenience to the fact that it’s a movie made for mass consumption. It’s big and huge and thrilling and a giant leap forward for the technical ends of filmmaking. But there’s a lot of bloat to the movie that is hard to ignore.
There’s a big vacuum at the center of the movie in Edward Furlong, a really annoying presence that doesn’t feel like the future savior of the human race. But despite these issues, this movie is magic. It has the special thing that appears in the best movies, allowing one to look past the issues to just be enthralled. The epic journey filled with arguably the best set pieces in Cameron’s history. Linda Hamilton at her absolute best in a truly groundbreaking role for a woman in Hollywood.
There’s Arnold in arguably his most iconic role doing some stellar work. We get Robert Patrick as the instantly iconic T-1000 shapeshifter, a landmark piece of effects work that holds up remarkably well today. And while there may be some bloat on this beast, this is another entry in Cameron’s filmography with an absolutely killer finale that is just nonstop insanity for the last act. In a decade that was not filled to the brim with blockbusters worth anything more than a apathetic dismissal, T2 stands out as one of the best.
3. The Terminator
The movie that started it all. James Cameron burst onto the scene with this low budget action/horror hybrid that launched him into the Hollywood game and gave us Arnold Schwarzenneger in the process. There is no movie in his filmography that is this lean and mean. He would get a propensity for going overlong with his movies, bloat taking up more and more of his runtimes. But here? Nope.
This is a movie that Walter Hill could be proud of, with all the extraneous bits carved off to make something that on its face is simple and archetype ridden, but hides some depth in its storytelling. Because for what we have here is a movie that values the underdog and those in society that are shunted to the side. People that have to scrape to survive. Sarah Connor is a waitress at a nothing special dinner and has no future to speak of. Kyle Reese is a massively PTSD afflicted soldier from the war torn future who puts it all on the line for a woman he loves that just so happens to be from the past. Together they have to stave off the efforts of an unstoppable machine that wants nothing but to wipe them off the map altogether.
Because while they may not look like it, they are responsible for the savior of humanity coming into being. We get to see, for the first time, Cameron’s understanding of how to get peak work out of FX men. We see his insane skill at third act mayhem. How he is able to build a set piece and work with action. What is different here than in all of his other movies is that there is some legitimate scares and a mean streak. People die. A whole bunch of them, many of whom are cops in a nightmarish assault on a police precinct. Innocents die with no mercy.
There’s Michael Biehn, an always welcome presence in genre fare. We see a man figuring out his craft, so every element we would see from him is not exactly present here. But we see enough of him to make it clearly a Cameron movie. Also a Harlan Ellison movie as Cameron infamously got sued by Ellison for copyright infringement and Ellison won. But that’s besides the point (although it is funny). There’s a simplicity to this movie that works in Cameron’s favor. So while it may not be the best movie that he’s done, it’s the purest movie in his oeuvre.
One of the most well worn arguments in cinema is that of the necessity and the point of sequels. Many like to cry out that sequels are never as good as the original. But there was always a handful of movies defenders would like to trot out that would make the case for sequels. And “Aliens” is one of them. As it very well should be. Because holy hell is this a movie that can very equally go toe to toe with “Alien”. But not because it does anything the same as Alien.
Aside from some of the mythology elements that it uses, like the face hugger and alien impregnation, it forges its own path. Cameron was very smart to realize that he couldn’t outdo what the original “Alien” did. Why bother trying to make another haunted house movie on a spaceship? The first one did that so well. So he would make the ingenious move to go bigger. Much bigger. So big that the movie is basically a war film with facehuggers instead of Vietcong, since the movie is essentially a sci fi parable for the Vietnam war (see also the Cameron penned “Rambo: First Blood Part 2”).
He builds upon what Ridley does and goes outward, making the threat even greater. Gone are the blue collar space truckers who would be easily taken down no matter what and in are the Colonial Marines that should be able to stand a chance but are just as easily cut down. They just stand a slightly better chance, if only slightly. But there’s also an army of Aliens coming to get them so it ends up being just as dangerous and bloody a story.
He builds upon Ripley to actually make her femininity a part of her character and not accidental wokeness. She gets an arc here and gets to truly be heroic. The Colonial Marines are great, with Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton standing out in iconic roles. Paul Reiser is a great little antagonist, a sleazeball corporate whore who only cares for profits with no interest in human life.
There’s yet another epic third act, which may very well be Cameron’s best. The initial raid on the Alien den. The look of the piece is gorgeous, at once keeping in line with the original movie but also forging its own path. So much of this movie is just pitch perfect, and while there may be some bloat in it, it doesn’t work in his favor this time out. Sadly it wouldn’t be true forever, but here we got a truly iconic work of art that helped define sci fi cinema forever.
1. True Lies
This may be a controversial one, but who cares. This movie is amazing. The third and (for now) final collaboration between Cameron and Arnold, they leave the sci fi world behind and decide to take a swing at the Spy genre. It’s a loving send up of the genre that in and of itself works on its own, in the same vein that “Shaun of The Dead” would follow.
Seeing what it would be like is James Bond was married and had to balance his work life with his home life doesn’t seem like the ideal fit for Cameron, as his work hasn’t been one filled with humor or light characters. But he delivered the goods here in his most easy going movie, his funniest movie, and possibly his most thrilling movie.
The set pieces here are astounding. Arnold is at peak icon status here, and Cameron knows it. He just knows how to film the man and build an action sequence around him. Shootouts and fist fights and jet planes, oh my! It probably wouldn’t be able to be made today as its lighthearted tackling of Islamic terrorism would be derided by both sides of the political aisle. But in the good ole days of the 1990s, this was a ok.
And honestly, it still works fine, if there’s gotta be a bit more mental gymnastics to work around the real life geo political shit storm that may make one uneasy at the sight of slapstick terrorists. And in keeping with his tradition of great female roles, we get Jamie Lee Curtis in maybe her best role. She has to play the wallflower house wife looking for excitement because she thinks Arnold is a boring office drone, but reality drops on her so god damn hard and she has to navigate this new reality. It’s great work, hilarious but also emotionally believable in its own way.
This movie is another long one from Cameron, but there’s no fat. It all works and all helps to propel the movie forward. It really can’t be overstated how weird it is to see this come from Cameron, something so light footed that never loses sense of the thrills. A movie this big and grand that never forgets the humans at the center of it. It’s masterpiece, one of the best action movies ever, and certainly one of the best action movies of the crappy 90s.