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King Of The World: The Films Of James Cameron

by Oliver Lyttelton
April 4, 2012 11:35 AM
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James Cameron
James Cameron is, in case it has escaped your attention, the most successful filmmaker in history. The Canadian director hadn't exactly been starved for box-office smashes early in his career, but his last two films, "Titanic" and "Avatar," have hauled in nearly $5 billion between them, and are currently the number one and number two hits of all time. He's also the man behind the "Terminator" franchise, helmed one of the best-liked of the "Alien" series, has become a deep-sea explorer, and, uh, gave the world flying piranhas.

This week sees "Titanic" back on screens in post-converted 3D form, and given that we're still at least two years away from seeing the filmmaker's next work ("Avatar 2" and "Avatar 3" are currently targeted for around 2014/2015), it seemed like a good opportunity to look back on his career and see how he went from a visual effects whiz on "Escape From New York" to the titan he is today. And you can catch "Titanic 3D" in theaters from Friday, April 6th.

Piranha II: The Spawning

"Piranha II: The Spawning" (1981)
When "Piranha 3DD" hits theaters later in the summer, it might be worth noting the name of director John Gulager. After all, the last time someone made the sequel to an exploitation movie about the pint-sized fish killers, they grew up to become James Cameron. And the good news for Gulager is, no matter how bad his film turns out, it's still likely to be better than Cameron's "Piranha II: The Spawning." But then again, it's not fair to blame Cameron for it either. While the film is technically his directorial debut (at the age of only 27), the truth is more complex: Cameron was hired to replace original director Miller Drake on the sequel to Joe Dante's 1978 "Jaws" rip-off, but was fired by producer Ovidio Assontis after two-and-a-half weeks, according to the helmer. Only years later was Cameron able to put together his own edit, which emerged on home video release in some territories, and while his version marks an improvement, you can't polish a turd, and it's a Z-grade monster movie of the worst order. To his credit, Cameron's never pretended it's anything other than the kind, mostly disowning the picture, but it's at least intriguing to see him work with frequent favorite Lance Henriksen for the first time, and to see the slightest hints of the director he would become. But for the most part, we'd rather go swimming with actual flying piranhas than watch this one again. [F]

The Terminator

"The Terminator" (1984)
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Cameron made his full debut with a lean, mean sci-fi thriller that might still, nearly thirty years on, be his greatest achievement. Inspired by a dream he had while in production on "Piranha II" and sold to Cameron's future wife Gale Anne Hurd, then an assistant at Roger Corman's company, for a dollar, the film follows Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a seemingly ordinary woman stalked by a seemingly unstoppable cyborg killer (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his breakout role). Fortunately, she has Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who's been sent back from the same future as the Terminator, to look after her. Made for under $7 million, Cameron uses the special effects (including makeup from the legendary Stan Winston) relatively sparingly, meaning that they still wow when they do arrive, and lets the rest of the film play out as a fat-free, relentless chase picture that shows for the first time that Cameron was going to be one of the all-time great action directors. But there are also hints of the man who would go on to make "Titanic": there can be no doubt that Cameron is a romantic at heart, and the surprisingly tender romance between Connor and Reese gives the film an emotional hook missing in the many rip-offs since. But ultimately, they never stood a chance against the title character, which, partly because it gives the star only eighteen lines of dialogue (most of which are "Sarah Connor"), provided Schwarzenegger with easily his most iconic screen role, and one of the most memorable villains in cinema history, one who would only be watered down across three sequels. [A]


"Aliens" (1986)
Ridley Scott's "Alien" was a beloved film, but not a blockbuster hit, and Fox had no real plans for a sequel in the works. Until James Cameron came along, that is; even before filming had begun on "The Terminator," the director, a huge fan of the original, wrangled a meeting with Fox and managed to get hired to write a script, which would see Ripley woken from half-a-century in cryogenic sleep to join a platoon of marines on a search for the missing terraforming colony on LV-426, the planet where the creature that stalked the Nostromo first appeared. After "The Terminator" became a sleeper hit, Cameron was hired, and the film was rushed into production. And despite the hurried schedule, and Cameron's clashing with the British crew (the first in what would become something of a theme), the director came up with one of the few worthy sequels in history. Rather than try to recreate the original, Cameron expanded the scope, and even changed the genre, coming up with a Vietnam-inspired action/horror that was loud and big where Scott's film was quiet and enclosed. It shouldn't have worked, but it absolutely does: Cameron loves and respects the mythos created in the original (something you never felt with subsequent sequels by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), expanding the universe in impressive ways while retaining the essence of it. And what could have been macho and obnoxious is given a new twist by retaining Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (something Cameron had to fight the studio for after she demanded a pay hike). The director's feminist credentials were really cemented here: Ripley is a heroine both maternal and entirely badass, and the performance deservedly won her an Oscar nomination, something almost unheard of from the genre. The idea of Cameron directing a "Prometheus" sequel might have been an April Fool's gag, but we can't say we'd be against the idea. [A]

The Abyss

"The Abyss" (1989)
Cameron's love of deep-sea diving is well-known at this point: indeed, only last week, the filmmaker went on a self-funded expedition to the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth. But we can't imagine that that experience was anything near as difficult as the experience of making "The Abyss." His original sci-fi tale follows a SEAL team escorted to an underwater oil platform, designed by scientist Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whose estranged husband Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) is the foreman down there, in order to try and rescue a US nuclear submarine before the Soviets get there. When down there, they swiftly discover that strange alien creatures are down there too. The gruelling, tempestuous schedule (Mastrantonio stormed off set shouting "We are not animals" at one point) proved too much for even the director, who admitted "I don't ever want to go through this again," but the film marks his third excellent sci-fi picture in a row, for much of its running time, at least: the diving sequences are thrilling, Cameron continually piling stakes on stakes, and again, the central relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio gives it a genuine, human center (Cameron knows a thing or two about seperated couples, having been divorced four times). It's only in the conclusion that it falters: once bonkers Marine Michael Biehn falls out of the picture, the tension dissipates a little, and the ending feels a little too fairytale, a little too Spielbergian: the first example of Cameron's sentimentality working against him. It's still an eminently watchable piece of science fiction however, even in its inessential Special Edition release. [B+]

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  • Goatboy | June 19, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    I must admit I disagree with the review of The Abyss. I think the movie's strongest part is the end. Once the action aspect goes it becomes an intelligent and emotional fantasy. I would probably go as far as to say it's my favourite movie of his (although The Terminator is not far behind it).

  • Who dat ninja | April 8, 2012 12:05 PMReply

    You rank Avatar and Titanic higher than T2 and True Lies? Your street cred is revoaked.

  • Mark | April 8, 2012 7:47 AMReply

    Two points:

    1. The Abyss should get an A+
    2. Wendo, Xian and Ugh! are talking out of their asses.

  • droopy | April 7, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    i dont get the cameron/tom hooper comparison/joke...

  • jimmiescoffee | April 6, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    'T2' a B-? hilarious.

  • whothehellareyoupeople | April 6, 2012 3:33 PMReply

    True Lies, one of the 10 best action movies ever made, gets a C-? Terminator 2, also one of the 10 best action movies ever made, gets a B-? This is so wildly off base I had to laugh when I saw it. I never comment on threads, but this snobbery is just infuriating.

  • jon | April 5, 2012 3:29 AMReply

    Alien "wasn't a blockbuster hit"? Where are you doing your research?

    To make $78 million domestic on an $11 million budget in 1979 sure sounds like the definition of a "blockbuster" to me. Aliens brought in $85 million domestic 7 years later, for comparison.

  • Carson Wells | April 5, 2012 12:40 AMReply

    That is a remarkably bland filmography for someone so strangely well regarded.

  • James | April 4, 2012 6:21 PMReply

    Cameron also edited much of STRANGE DAYS. However he was not in the union at the time and so could not receive screen credit. He joined the union before TITANIC, allowing him to be credited there.

  • UGH! | April 4, 2012 5:14 PMReply

    Cameron=Egomaniacal douche!

  • Xian | April 4, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    Cameron inspired "by a dream" for the original "Terminator??" Hmmmm, wonder what Harlan Ellison would say about that.

  • tristan eldritch | April 4, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    "The script creaks with cliches. The broad-strokes storytelling borrows from any number of sources, and the heroes and villains lack any shades of grey."

    Here a thing that puzzles me. Why do people not mind cliches (and for that matter broad-stroke story-telling) in an art movie like There Will Be Blood (Day Lewis and Dano's characters are both broadly-drawn cliches, and Day Lewis winding up alone and insane in his mansion is essentially the cliche of how that character always ends up), and yet criticize a populist entertainment movie like Avatar for being cliched? The point of movie like Avatar is always how sincerely and effectively the cliches are manipulated, not original it is.

  • steven grayston | April 5, 2012 8:02 AM

    because those cliches in There Will Be Blood hadnt been done in that style and tone before. the cliches were in a completely original package, not mention exceptionally well acted. The avatar package had allready been done to death. its combination of cliched characters, plot, style and themes had allready been done , making the whole movie a cliche.

  • Wendo | April 4, 2012 2:25 PMReply

    You are much much much to mild with THE ABYSS --- one of the most ridicolous movies ever.

    At the same time I would agree with Ken that TERMINATOR II is quite an acomplishment.

    I am not sure if Cameron does indeed deserve the label „most successful director” --- Steven Spielberg seems more likely, relative to budget and the number of directing / producing successes

  • StephenM | April 4, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    Yeah, I think he peaked with Aliens. Terminator and Aliens are easily two of the greatest action films of all time, relentlessly thrilling and perfectly paced, with strong characters but minimum sentiment. Since then, he's continuously gone down the route of more extensive movies with bigger special effects and more and more silly, sentimental, unconvincing stories. Terminator 2 is still fun, but it's convoluted and doesn't have that same kick.

  • Oogle monster | April 4, 2012 1:48 PMReply

    Kudos to not ripping into Titanic. It seems to be the trend- in anticipation of the re-release- to make digs at a movie that had nearly every critic foaming at the mouth when it originally came out. Titanic was a landmark film for its time and should be treated as such. I get that a re-release tends to prompt new perspectives/criticism but the amount of snark and unnecessary digs I've read in the past few days regarding Titanic is a little baffling. On another note, what's the grade for Avatar? You can't just leave that out!

  • Ken | April 4, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    T2 is at least a B+, nothing less. Terminator is an A and is the better movie but there's not THAT much of a drop off between the first and second film. The action sequences are way more satisfying and even though Arnie is the good guy, he's still pretty badass. Plus, who cannot love Linda Hamilton's ass kicking performance whereas in the first Terminator she's just a scared young woman.

  • Nolan | April 4, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    I actually just recently watched both "Alien" and "Aliens" for the first time. It sort of amazes me that not only is "Aliens" well liked, but it is often viewed as superior to "Alien." I didn't really care for it at all. It did nothing to add to the violently sexual imagery established in the first one, and I even found the violence to be more mundane. Not to mention the borderline unbearable two and a half run time. The themes were all very obvious and rote in that special James Cameron sort of way, and I was annoyed at how many scenes were dedicated to trying to get us to understand that these marines were all macho idiots (which, at least for me, is where the run time started to become very noticeable.) Weaver was great, but I wish I had the ability to create a new cut of the film with the little girl muted.

  • Carson Wells | April 5, 2012 12:47 AM

    I agree. Alien is so far superior to Aliens I'm always baffled by the common view that Aliens is its equal, or even better. After recently watching Aliens it also struck me how many similarities it has to Avatar.

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