There’s no doubt James Cameron is a movie director who has changed the Hollywood landscape since he started making movies. Sure, his beginnings were a little rocky, with a sequel he would rather forget. But his first Terminator film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a killing machine, introduced him as a visionary who would always make different films. From then on, he was known as the guy who pushed the boundaries of genre films and who would always experiment with special effects, to the point of literally changing the way they enhanced the experience.
Today, he’s the director that everyone has expectations for, including the box-office moguls. What is he going to introduce next? What is his next feature film going to look like? Since Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic, his imprint has been visible, determinant, and powerful. The proof is an endeavor he would wait 12 years to release to theaters. Avatar could have been made decades ago, but its visual effects wouldn’t have looked as good as they did. And yet, for his next and latest feature, Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron would wait more than that until releasing the film. Needless to say, Hollywood sure does trust the guy.
So, in honor of his legacy, we gave some of his movies a rewatch to compile the best of the best. These are the best special and visual effects sequences in James Cameron’s films. Of these films, six won Oscars for Best Visual Effects.
James Cameron’s filmography:
Year of Release
Piranha II: The Spawning
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Avatar: The Way of Water
10 The Na’vi Swim – Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Avatar: The Way of Water
This Avatar sequel will further explore the relationship between the Na’vi and the humans that have interrupted their peaceful existence. James Cameron returns to direct.
- Release Date
- December 16, 2022
Avatar: The Way of Water tells the story of Jake Sully, now fully in Na’vi mode, as he becomes a father and leader. Some time after the events of the first film, Sully and family are part of the Omatikaya clan, but they’re forced to escape when Colonel Quaritch is reborn into an avatar and also brings back with him some of the soldiers that perished in the first rebellion. The family decides to relocate to another part of Pandora, and this is how they meet the Metkayina clan, who are mostly aquatic creatures.
Always Pushing the Boundaries
Cameron is the guy who will always go for more, attempting to do the impossible. And his experience with The Abyss and Titanic wasn’t enough, and in Avatar: The Way of Water, he decides to put water in the picture. If you’re familiar with special effects, you know how difficult the effects in water are.
However, in a groundbreaking sequence where the Na’vi go swimming for the first time and then in another with an encounter with a whale-like creature, Cameron proves why he’s the best at his craft. The sequence includes beautiful rendering and motion-capture technology in an environment that’s practically impossible to replicate.
9 The Motorcycle Chase – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron goes back to the universe of androids fighting humans for the future. However, in this ’90s behemoth of a film and the best Terminator movie, Sarah Connor has been institutionalized, and her son John is a reckless teenager living with foster parents. In the future, Skynet sends a liquid-metal terminator to kill John, but John himself has reprogrammed a T-800 to be loyal to him in the past. This is how a new version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most important character comes back, heads over to the Light Side of the Force, and protects John from a very lethal machine.
Combining Practical and CGI
Terminator 2: Judgment Day changed the world of visual effects forever. Cameron knew what he was doing when he co-wrote the film. When he approached Industrial Light & Magic with the project, they grabbed their heads and enhanced their computer systems to be able to achieve Cameron’s vision.
But CGI is mostly visible in other sequences of the film. In the iconic motorcycle chase through the LA River, the combination between visual effects and stunt work is marvelous. Tons of metal being moved at high speed, breakneck transfers between motorcycles, and a great shot of the T-1000 emerging from the flames without a scratch.
8 Jake Sully for the First Time in a Na’vi Body – Avatar (2009)
- Release Date
- December 18, 2009
2009’s extremely successful film Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a Marine forced to use a wheelchair after an accident, who gets the opportunity of a lifetime. His identical twin has passed away, but the company he worked for seeks Jake so he can replace his brother. The RDA recruits Sully to get into an avatar, a hybrid of alien and human tissue that Sully can use when placed in the habitat of a moon called Pandora. The alien race called the Na’vi are the residents of this place, and colonization seems inevitable. But Sully will change all that.
This One Is All About Dimensions
Avatar was Cameron’s return to cinema after a whopping 12-year absence. But guess what he was doing? He was preparing himself and the effects of the movie that changed everything back in 2009. The motion-capture technology was nothing like we had ever seen in film, and proof of this is the extremely realistic sequence where Sully enters his avatar body for the first time.
Waking up in the lab and pretty disoriented, Sully’s size is notable. His presence is well-noticed as he stumbles into everything, making the sequence a great combination of live-action and animation, and the testament to what we were about to see in Avatar.
7 The Attack on the Bridge – True Lies (1994)
True Lies is a 1994 action comedy that falls between the crevices when talking about Cameron’s finest. However, it’s still a terrific film, featuring Schwarzenegger in his prime and a storyline that actually works. In the film, Harry Tasker is a government spy whose family knows nothing about his job. However, when Harry suspects Helen may be having an affair, he puts her to the test, but at the same time, terrorists attempt to use a nuclear warhead. Just a regular day at the office for Tasker.
How to Make it Real?
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Helen is aboard a limousine as a hostage for the bad guys. Harry observes from a helicopter, as it’s inevitable that the bridge the limo is on will get blown off. The sequence is all about that precise moment. And while the film’s not heavy on the special effects (still nominated for an Oscar but lost to Forrest Gump), this scene is a remarkable piece of movie magic.
What you think is a real bridge blowing up was a meticulously planned explosion of a miniature bridge. If you think it’s not impressive, give the film a rewatch and try to come up with a visible flaw. It was the only film Cameron made after The Terminator that didn’t win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
6 The Ship Tilts and Sinks – Titanic (1997)
- Release Date
- November 18, 1997
1997’s Titanic was the last project by Cameron in a streak of blockbusters that changed the cinema landscape. The story takes place aboard the luxury ocean liner known as RMS Titanic as it departed from Southampton to New York City and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. It focuses on Rose and Jack, two passengers from different levels who fall in love before the ship hits the iceberg and attempt to survive the sinking tomb.
The Trick was in the Size
The whole film consists of impressive VFX shots that Cameron designed especially to accomplish realism, a subject that was crucial to making the film more compelling. However, producers also rented an enclosed tank to shoot some scenes of sinking interiors. But the best piece in the film comes in the climactic third act, when survivors panically see the ship being tilted, broken in two, and finally sinking. It’s a grand mix of miniature shots, CGI, and stuntwork that made it a mind-blowing yet terrifying sequence where Cameron made audiences aware of the size of the ship that actually sank.
5 The Hospital Escape and Chase – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, John teams up with the T-800 and together break into Pescadero State Hospital to release Sarah Connor. But that same night, Sarah finds a way to break out of her cell and escape. When she meets John and the terminator, her shock is pretty visible, and she runs in panic. Luckily, she realizes the huge dude has been reprogrammed. But at that very moment, the T-1000 also arrives and bends the rules of physics. Actually, scratch that. He shatters them.
At that Moment, Everyone Knew
The T-1000 going through the barrels is the classic confirmation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day being the rule-changer. No other film would ever top it for years, and everyone nodded in affirmation. However, this same sequence features the T-1000 morphing from tiles into a man in a VFX shot that still looks impressive even 30 years later (seriously, if you check out this scene, see how the floor subtly gives in when the shoe steps over the tile that will turn into a man).
The sequence then turns into a liquid metal extravaganza, with a huge blade going through closed elevator doors and then turning into the arms of the T-1000, who gets his big metal headshot seconds later.
4 Meeting the Aliens – The Abyss (1989)
In 1989’s The Abyss, the crew of an underwater drilling platform is hired by the US military to assist in the recovery of an American submarine that has sunk in the Cayman Trough. However, when the leader of the military team decides to go rogue and explore on his own, an accident occurs. Now, the crew is disconnected from everyone on the surface and alone. At least, they think they are alone.
A Beautiful World
The Abyss has more than a few shots that will make you go “wow!” and that includes the one that’s obviously further down the list. But one sequence viewers usually take for granted (at least before being able to watch the film in its entirety again) is the one where Bud Brigman decides to disarm the nuclear warhead in the depths of the ocean.
Bud reveals it was a one-way trip, but then the aliens (sorry, “non-terrestrial intelligence,” or NTIs) arrive. Bud is taken on a gorgeous psychedelic trip through layers of matte paintings, miniature shots, and a spectacular, revealing shot through which we see where the mysterious beings reside in the trench. It’s a vision so beautiful, it’s almost religious.
3 The Third Act – Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
In Avatar: The Way of Water, it doesn’t take long for Quaritch to catch up and reach the Na’vi’s new destination. And this time, he brings the big guns with him. This turns the film’s third act into a long and extremely well-edited sequence in which the Na’vi and Metkayina defend against the greedy monsters from corporations and some mercenaries they have brought along.
Again, Water is a Big Element
If you thought the visual effects in Avatar: The Way of Water were good when you witnessed the film’s first act, be prepared for the film’s conclusion. The final battle sequence is a perfect combination of CGI, digital puppets, and performance capture that had to be developed for the film. Up to that point, motion capture was based on markers installed on a subject and then photographed. Simple, right? When a water layer is added, there’s too much reflection underwater, and it gets trickier. The film is a landmark collaboration between Industrial Light & Magic and Weta.
2 Fighting the T-1000 in the Steel Mill – Terminator 2: Judgment Day
After Sarah, John, and the T-800 successfully blow up the Cyberdyne Systems building in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-1000 doesn’t stop his mission. Instead, he gets on a helicopter and chases them into a steel mill. Before entering, he steps into liquid nitrogen, and the T-800 blows him to pieces after delivering the “Hasta la vista, baby” line. But as we all remember, this wasn’t the end of the T-1000’s shenanigans.
A Gritty Combination of Heat, Metal and Stuntwork
The final vehicle chase is a great preamble to what comes next because of the fantastic stuntwork of the film’s third act. The entire sequence takes about seven minutes and shows the survivors trying to escape the might of the T-1000. It mostly depicts the two terminators in a fight with a couple of great VFX shots: the T-1000 morphing instead of physically turning his body, and the T-800 nailing a punch that the T-1000 predicts and morphs his head into hands.
It’s also in this scene where you can pause at just the right moment to see what the T-1000 really looks like behind the Robert Patrick cover. The sequence is a great combination of practical effects, makeup effects, and CGI and serves as a noteworthy conclusion to the 1990s blockbuster.
1 The Water Creature – The Abyss (1989)
In The Abyss, the underwater crew must wait until a storm on the surface goes by so they can try to restore communications. This is when the aliens decide to make their first contact. Through a pseudopod/tentacle, they navigate through the platform and see the sleeping humans. Lindsey and Bud wake up to see the water creature reaching out and recreating their faces. They confirm it’s made out of water when Lindsey sticks her finger into the creature. Before being able to interact further, Lt. Hiram Coffey, the SEAL team leader, panics and decides to “kill” the creature by lowering a door in one of the compartments.
The Birth of CGI. Sort of…
Cameron knew what he wanted even before making the film. Stop-motion was apparently the way to go in 1988 during the film’s production. But the technique’s master, Phil Tippett, suggested otherwise. Cameron then decided to approach Industrial Light & Magic, who would work on a computer animation. The result was a 75-second sequence that took half a year to complete and actually delayed the film’s release by a month. It wasn’t the first time CGI was used in a film, but nothing so realistic had ever been accomplished. It’s one of the best special effects sequences in ’80s science fiction.
To celebrate the genre where Cameron comfortably resides, here’s a list of the best sci-fi movies of the 1980s: