James Cameron is not only one of the most successful directors of the last 30 years, but one of the best. With 3 Oscars, 28 other awards (including Saturn, Golden Globe & Bradbury wins) and 18 nominations it is clear he has continued to delight both fans and critics throughout his career. His CV not only boasts a plethora of well loved, successful movies but multiple bona fide classics that have changed the way people have made movies since. Having grossed in excess of $3.5 billion worldwide is it little wonder we are currently greeting a film 12 years in the making and costing an estimate $230 million (so says imdb) to make. Very few directors could pull off such an audacious project, even fewer would be allowed, but Cameron is one of them.
What makes James Cameron one of my favourite directors, and such a popular director in general is his ability to combine almost everything needed to make a good film and a good story. Characters, tone, atmosphere, narrative and effects all blend perfectly together in his best work. He can produce a film of all out action and still portray real people, with a fully rounded sense of self and a place in the world he wants to convey. He can give depth to the shallow, and strength to the weak while making the coldest of machines explode with life. This is part of what made Avatar such an exciting prospect. This is a man who has done so much with the smallest of budgets then just built upwards with each movie he’s created. With Avatar he has invented his own technologies in order to realise his vision and with his imagination let loose it’s anyone’s guess where we’ll end up. As I approach the eve of viewing Avatar myself, I thought we should take a look at the journey that has led Cameron to the Pandoran landscape he now inhabits.
Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)
Originally hired as the special effects director Cameron took over this fishy fiasco after the original director departed. With a crew who didn’t speak English and an executive producer lording over all the decisions the film is barely his own but marks his directorial début non-the less. He didn’t have a say in the final cut, but there are signs of what was to come with similar mechanics used to make his flying piranha’s eventually deployed in the facehugger animatronics for Aliens.
The Terminator (1984)/Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The Terminator franchise may not have lived up to peoples expectations in the last two instalments but there is no denying the classic status of both of James Cameron’s original pieces. Inspired by two episodes of the Outer Limits written by Harlan Ellison, they tell the story of a near unstoppable killing machine sent back in time to quell a human resistance before it can begin.
In the original this machine is the perfectly cast Arnold Schwarzenegger. Large, cold and seemingly superhuman he cut an imposing figure against Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) the human fighter sent back to stop him from killing Sarah Connor, the woman who would give birth to the leader of the resistance. Cameron’s depth of skill provided a most tense and exciting action movie; on a shoe string budget, while showing a writing style and character nuance that brought everyone on screen to scintillating life.
He returned seven years later to continue the story by completely flipping audience expectation with a twist arguably up their with Darth “I am your father” Vader in terms of changing the films tone. Cameron goes on to turn what was once a figure completely lacking in humanity into one that learns the essence of man through those it has been programmed to protect. The Terminator adapts and grows into something we as an audience are genuinely upset to see ‘die’ while maintaining it’s strength and menacing purpose. In Robert Patrick, Cameron found an assailant who was even more frightening than Schwarzenegger in sheer composure and threat. He could disguise himself in ways you couldn’t consider, was cunning & ruthless not merely through force by often through slight of hand, which made him even more dangerous and effortlessly creepy. Terminator 2 in my opinion, is one of the very view instances of a sequel surpassing it’s original in almost every department.
Having already written and directed one of the best sequels of the decade Cameron went on to surpass himself with another classic Sci-Fi sequel and one of my personal favourite movies of all time Aliens. Whereas in T2 he essentially told the same story but flipped the cards, here he more ups the anti from the predecessor and takes a new tact mimicking the Vietnam conflict. Having endured a single foe with an ill equipped small crew in Ridley Scott’s suspense slasher Alien, this time we find Ellen Ripley cutting loose against an army of intergalactic interlopers with a crack mercenary team at her side. Aliens has everything needed to be the perfect terrifying action flick. The revelation we are dealing with numerous alien creatures after seeing the devastation wrought by just one has an edge all to its own, but the movie is so much more than just a battle between man and alien.
The world presented is full of flawed, natural and perfectly realised characters from Ripley herself to almost all the those around her. Sure, there is a little fodder to pad out the group but for the most part you get a strong sense of each person in this movie. Their open flaws make them human and draw you into caring for their well being as you watch the group being ripped apart from the cocky, sure unit they start out as. Again, even the less than human characters here displayed by android Bishop, manage to achieve a level of humanity through Cameron. We get a deeper sense of Ellen Ripley as more than just a survivor, her strength, emotion and motherly tenderness melted together to complete her character and steer her away from becoming a 2-Dimensional female action heroine. Her relationships with the characters Hicks and Newt, love interest and substitute daughter, bring her out of herself and push her to develop from the first film where she is constantly running, only facing the alien through necessity, to forging her way into the queens very nest to rescue Newt and in the climactic finale facing the queen one-on-one.
It’s a movie that doesn’t just take it’s predecessors ideas and turn them to eleven (see Tranformers 2) but properly develops the characters and adds to the history. It was successful enough to spawn a further two films, with another on the way and while they may not matched the first and second parts of Ellen Ripley’s story, neither could have existed without the characters journey in Aliens.
The Abyss (1989)
By 1989 Cameron had already showcased in all his previous movies that he had a flair for effects. He and the teams around him pulled off some wonderful stuff that really brought his films the extra dimension of belief and with The Abyss he began to push things even further. His aquatic epic about a SEAL team & rig workers who discover extra terrestrial life under the ocean came at a cost and received mixed, if mostly positive reviews, but saw Cameron pull off some of his toughest work to date. 40% of all the live-action principal photography took place underwater leading him to develop cutting edge equipment that allowed him to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly. The extremely stressful and problematic underwater shooting was followed by Industrial Light and Magic coming into problems developing the CGI used to bring the alien beings to life delaying the films release. Once finally on screen however, overall misgivings aside Cameron once again had delivered what proved an award winning movie and something that people would marvel upon looking at.
True Lies (1994)
After The Abyss Cameron would once again work with Arnold Schwarzenegger, this time in a much warmer role. Playing a secret agent and family man, Schwarzenegger blends action with comedy as Harry Tasker in True Lies. Having to hide his secret identity from his family eventually causes Harry problems and an adventure that will suck the whole family (both on and off screen) in soon ensues. Although another big action film, with plenty of stunt work and some effects involved, True Lies more showcases Cameron’s character work. It’s a tremendously fun movie if less impacting, in contrast to his darker themed past bringing another side to his work as his career developed and led on to arguably his most famous film until now.
Titanic, purely put, became less of a film and more of a phanomenon. Remaining the highest grossing film of all time it won eleven Academy Awards and garnered almost universally positive reviews. The tragic outcome of one of the UK’s most famous ships was cast up against an enduring love story between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet that captured many audiences hearts.
There were more jaw dropping special effects and economic uses of filming but this was a picture funded to the tune of $200 million, at the time making it the most expensive movie ever made. Titanic was a spectacle of epic proportions from the effects, to the story, the reaction and the (nauseous at the best of times) theme song from Celine Dion. Everything about this film screamed huge but again it was Cameron’s characters and grounding that allowed the epic portion of the drama to breathe real life. Anchored in the modern day by and elderly Rose’s narration and lent a more subtle pacing until the final horror unfolds Titanic is about more than just the tragedy of a ship sinking, it’s about people and about relationships. It is this connection and classic motif that allowed Titanic to find its audience so clearly and resolutely. While not everyone’s cup of tea (I’ve seen it once all the way through, and that is quite enough for me) there is something to be taken from it regardless as once again Cameron hits many targets across it’s bow.
Dark Angel (2000-2002)
Having spent some time working on a script for Spiderman, Cameron, eventually unable to do the project turned to television and created the series Dark Angel. The show was about a young super soldier who escaped from her creators. Trying to live her life and find her brothers and sisters (a total of 12 super soldiers were created) Max (played by Jessica Alba) was a continuation of themes previously demonstrated in both Terminator & Aliens in that it featured a strong female, but took on a more modern ‘girl power’ vibe as well. The show was a hit in its first season but after being moved to a different timeslot and going through changes in tone the viewer-ship dropped and Fox eventually cancelled the show after season 2 in 2002.
Finally, in 2009 having spent years making TV documentaries and working on new technologies James Cameron has unveiled what could prove to be his masterpiece Avatar. Showcasing all his talent to bring a world together that you can really believe in, Avatar looks set to push his vision further than ever before with eye bursting effects and mouth watering 3D. Cameron has been pushing boundaries and amazing audiences for over 30 years and it would seem he still has many tricks under his sleeve. Our review will be online this week and we hope you’re as excited as us about the prospect of this new thrilling piece of cinema from the directorial powerhouse. This jaunt through his history hopefully shows, that while Cameron may not be the most original writer, his directing and characterisation can border on perfection. He has consistently shown the ability to take characters and flesh them out into believable people we can invest in & identify with and place them in fantastical but real worlds of assassin machines, vicious deadly aliens and doomed vessels of the sea. So where will we be going next?