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" (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" (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]
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" (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+]