As Neytiri, the Na'vi warrior woman that forges a bond with paraplegic marine Jake Sully in "Avatar," Zoe Saldana is the latest actress to transform herself into a powerful heroine at the hands of director James Cameron.
In fact, if there's one thing that Cameron excels at — other than groundbreaking visual effects, awe-inspiring stories and epically orchestrated action sequences, of course — it's his development of strong female characters.
While Neytiri is certainly one such character, she is merely the latest in a long line of brilliantly crafted women in Cameron's films. Here are some of the others. (click the image above the text to check out our James Cameron Heroines flipbook gallery!)
Although not created by Cameron, the filmmaker took Sigourney Weaver's character of Ellen Ripley to new heights in "Aliens," the action-packed sequel to Ridley Scott's claustrophobic thriller, "Alien." Ripley went from being the survivor of an alien assault to masterful combatant and motherly protector when the deadly species comes rearing its head once again. Shockingly, Ripley's return to LV-426 comes with a plethora of highly trained marines by her side — yet it's this meagerly trained warehouse worker that manages to outlive the rest and take out Aliens like the best.
"Terminator" leading lady Linda Hamilton's transformation as Sarah Connor follows a similar trajectory as Ripley's — from mild-mannered waitress to battle-hardened soldier — except that Sarah's development was a pure collaboration of Cameron and Hamilton, start to finish. Despite her deadly precision with any and all available weapons, Connor's most dangerous skill is her maternal instinct, as she'll do anything in her power to protect her son for the sake of mankind's future.
No matter how cool Ripley is, her badassery is still second to Private Vasquez, Jenette Goldstein's smartgun-wielding soldier that's never been mistaken for a man. Vasquez isn't the smartest bulb in the bunch and she's reluctant to take her superiors seriously, but when it comes to mowing down a horde of acid-blooded aliens with extreme prejudice, there aren't many other people you'd want on your side. Goldstein gets bonus points for ruthlessly executing Xander Berkley with her T-1000 arm in Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
It isn't easy being married to a secret agent, especially when you're not even in on the secret. But when the proverbial cat comes out of the bag and flying straight into Helen Tasker's face, the cubicle-bound housewife reacts by showing her own spy-worthy talents — skills that include seductive pole dancing and punching Tia Carrere in the face. Jamie Lee Curtis does an excellent job handling the role of a neglected wife that rises to the butt-kicking occasion in "True Lies," easily Cameron's funniest film to date.
One might say that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's turn as Dr. Lindsey Brigman in "The Abyss" doesn't quite measure up to some of the above mentioned Cameron-penned characters, but that's definitely not true. Don't forget Brigman's bold move to hand over the only nearby diving suit to her ex-husband, essentially letting herself drown with the expectation that she can be resuscitated once she's above water. It's a risky maneuver that pays off exactly as Brigman hoped. While there are plenty of other reasons to include her name alongside the likes of Ripley and Sarah Connor, this particular scene is her standout — indeed, it's one of Cameron's best.
Let us know your favorite leading ladies in James Cameron's films in the comments section or on Twitter!