"I'm King of the World!" exulted James Francis Cameron (echoing Leonardo DeCaprio's Jack Dawson) when Titanic swamped the competition at the Oscars. It was an act of brio and braggadocio, as seen by many, but it was essentially true. After years of struggling with the see-sawing success of his films at the box-office ("Terminators" good, any "original" stuff bad) with the profit-dampeners of ever-increasing budgets, Titanic was finally Cameron's break-through.
It was a long time coming. There's an odd dichotomy about Cameron's directorial work. The conception is always with a romantic focus, core-themes deeply felt and imagined. Then the technocrat takes over and Cameron engineers the movie to a buffed polish and high shine that takes the passion out of it. And so, try as he might, Cameron had a hard time hooking a female audience, despite frequently having women as the heroes (or central focus) in all of his movies. There's too much wonk at play in his films to embrace the warm and fuzzy, and that's been the hindrance to his early see-sawing box-office.
Personally, I'd be more respectful of James Cameron's career if he didn't do adaptations (unofficially) so much and if he hadn't done so many films with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that the two men did some of their strongest work together showed a symbiotic relationship. Schwarzenegger needed a strong, manipulative director like Cameron and Cameron needed the star-wattage of the actor-politician if his films were to make back their investment.
But, give James Cameron this: the "envelope" thing. He writes to the cutting edge of what is possible and incorporates it in...and if its not possible he'll find a better way to do things so it is possible with a little movie-obfuscation thrown in. Any good director does this, really. But, most will re-write themselves out of a situation. Cameron will push the envelope to the point of tearing and this makes him an ingenious film-maker, who will move the visual aspects of film-making in a practical, if not artistic, way.
Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981) Bad tidings for the Caribbean resort, the Hotel Elisium. Seems that old sunken wreck off-shore is hiding a secret—a military experiment combining attributes of piranha, flying fish and, uh...grunion, managing to create something the world really needed: flesh-eating fish who can fly and don't need to stay in the water. Convenient. Dumb, but convenient. That sums up this one—a dollars-oriented follow-up to the first Piranha*—right down to the bone. By all measures, this is a terrible movie, crudely and dumbly exploitative, with performances that run the gamut of passable to just plain incompetent, with some terrible over-dubbing. There are extensive underwater sequences in and around a sunken hulk, but it's more than likely Cameron didn't shoot them—he was fired after 2 1/2 weeks by the producer, who went on to direct and edit the movie, himself (he was contractually obligated to have an American name on the director credit). In fact, except for some of the actors—Lance Henrikson being chief among them—the film has an all-Italian crew and production staff. Cameron doesn't even acknowledge this film, but has joked that it's "the best flying piranha movie ever made." There's plenty of room for improvement.
The Terminator (1984) One thing about Cameron: he stretches a budget like gang-busters. The Terminator is a cheap exploitation action film, but Cameron makes it work and makes it look like it cost many times more.
A future war between robots and their human masters has come to a head, so the robots send one of their own (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill the human leader's mother (Linda Hamilton) to prevent his birth. When word of this gets back to the humans they send a soldier (Michael Biehn) back to dispatch the cyber-assassin before he can kill her. It's a cat and mouse game as the implacable cyborg pursues the two humans through a nightmare landscape of industrialized blight. Despite the relatively low budget ($6.4 million), it's an impressive film, with some imaginative visuals—the orb-like energy field that projects the future warriors, for instance, that cuts a circular slice out of anything it touches—and the film had an inevitable snake-eats-its-tail finale. And Cameron found the perfect robot in Schwarzenegger, whose range was extremely limited, but who had a great sense of dead-pan timing. The movie was a huge (and surprise) hit remaining at the #1 box office spot for two weeks, making the Austrian body-builder (who, previously, had only one marginal box office success with Conan the Barbarian) an unlikely star.
Orion Studios agreed to a settlement with Harlan Ellison** that the film was "inspired by" his work for the '60's sci-fi anthology series "The Outer Limits," a corporate decision that has never set well with the director.
Aliens (1986) Cameron seemed like an odd choice to do the expansion of Ridley Scott's esoteric sci-fi monster film, but the result was a thrilling war story taking the fight to the enemy's ground. It had none of the creeping dread of the original, but Cameron made a good choice—the surprises were gone, so now the story had to be taken to a new level—a military assault on the planet and its denizens that, until now, had seemed unkillable, while also creating a new origin for the creatures that flew in the face (if you'll excuse the use of the phrase) of a discarded sequence in Scott's film, making the Xenomorphs a eusocial species, rather than evolutionary in nature.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley, with an increased fatalism after the events of the previous film, a determined Ishmael bent on something like revenge, then finding something to fight for. Cameron repeats some gambits from the first film—Lance Henrikson plays the "synthetic" this time—and displays, even more impressively, his ability to stretch a budget with model and wire-work. It's a high-tech war film that feels like a throwback to traditional combat films, with their diverse ethnicities and psyches, but turns into an even more feminist statement than the first film, making Weaver a major star.
The Abyss (1989) Of all the films with a deep-water scenario that summer of 1989,*** Cameron's film was the most forward-reaching—the others, ironically, being more like "Alien Under the Sea." The director had this one long in the works, about a deep-sea work station that finds much more than it bargained for than supervising oil drilling, when a Soviet nuclear sub sinks near their location. "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris) and his estranged engineer wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) battle each other and a team of Navy SEALS (led by Michael Biehn, his third film in a row with Cameron) who determine that they may not be alone down there. It's an impressive film, even more so in Cameron's longer, more philosophical "director's cut" that was later re-fashioned.
This was a daunting project with extended underwater sequences, filmed in a flooded, abandoned nuclear silo and with newly-engineered transports and deep-sea suits designed with head-masks that provided full-view of the actors' faces. The release date was delayed to accomodate the extensive special effects, including new work with a CGI-created "water tentacle" that still impresses for its look while being on the cutting edge of what, at the time, was CGI's limited capabilities. Cameron's work has made great leaps and strides since, but The Abyss shows the peak of Cameron's ingenuity and skill as a story-teller and film-maker.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) The return of the T-800 from the first film with a different mission. It's a few years later than the events of the first film, but those pesky robots are still sending their own back in time to kill human rebel leader John Connor. This time, though, the target is young Connor himself (played by Edward Furlong), a particularly troubled tween—Mom's in a mental institution for her foreknowledge of the coming events and young John is living with the lamest of foster-parents. So, the robots send their latest model, a T-1000 (played by a particularly lizard-like Robert Patrick), a liquid-metal chameleon of a cyborg that can take on any shape and is seemingly unstoppable. Sent back to protect John is another T-800 (Schwarzenegger again) who must battle trust issues with his charges, fend off the T-1000 and destroy the cause of the future Holocaust—purloined parts from the original Terminator assassin.
Cameron pulled out all the stops for this one (at the time, T-2 was the most expensive film ever made), but the results are impressive, including the many transformations of the T-1000 (often created by using twin actors—including Linda Hamilton and her sister), and a particularly gruesome dream sequence where Los Angeles is destroyed in a nuclear explosion. Not Cameron's best, but you'll never find a better "Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots" movie.
True Lies (1994) An Americanized version of the French spoof La Totale!, this one has Schwarzenegger as a deep-cover spy so secret not even his wife (a game Jamie Lee Curtis) knows what he's about. It's a problematic James Bond knock-off (from back in the day when Hollywood actually acknowledged there was such a thing as Middle-East terrorists, rather than a psuedo-Nazi organization or something), where Schwarzenegger's globe-trotting activities makes his wife think he's having an affair, rather than shooting people ("Yeah, but they were all bad" is his explanation). Forget the probability that Schwarzenegger could ever be a secret-anything, it's still a nasty little romp with some fun cameos (an eye-patched Charlton Heston runs the spy branch) and featuring the best performance by Tom Arnold, it still is so over-the-top that credibility is strained to the eye-rolling point where its painful.
Titanic (1997) Here was the challenge set for forth by producer Jon Landau****—make a box-office smash that has massive appeal to the public and do it without Arnold Schwarzenegger. This goal, combined with Cameron's fascination with deep-water explanation and the engineering feat (and fateful legacy of) the RMS Titanic, produced this film, which became a phenomenon very quickly and had an uncanny staying power at the box-office—it certainly stayed afloat longer than the ship.
A lot of people like Titanic.***** I'm not one of them. One can't argue with the skill and dedication behind it (on everybodys' parts) and one couldn't argue with the idea of "doing something different" with the event, which has figured in so many productions in film and the stage that all the legends have been hashed and re-hashed time and again. But...let's face facts. You would think that one of the great sailing disasters with all the souls enmeshed in the circumstances would be sufficient to make a story...but, no, Cameron had to gin up the triangle love story that culminated in one of the silliest moments of over-kill I've seen on film. While The Titanic is sinking—and remember, this might be dramatic if you focused on what was happening with more of the passengers, other than the group who gather at the Captain's table for a luxurious dinner—Cameron supposes and presents a chase and running gun-battle through the main dining room while it is three feet under water. I remember thinking, "The f@©%ing ship is sinking...isn't that enough?" Apparently not. For someone who did such meticulous research and recreation to "get it right," this is the ultimate example of rearranging deck-chairs. Titanic exposes the best and worst of Cameron's work: meticulous craftsmanship, with horribly "thick" writing.***** At least he had the great good sense to cast Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet as the disaster-crossed lovers, who managed to find ways to float the most leaden of dialogue.
And, in its depiction of an after-life and the reuniting of the lovers across time and tide, it is Cameron's most unabashedly romantic movie (and they all are, to a certain extent...except for Piranha 2). There's a lesson there, and Cameron's focus on the love-story undoubtedly created Titanic's unsinkable box-office success. In fact, it was the top-grossing film of all time...until Cameron made another movie.
Avatar (2009) Full review here. I'm still not as impressed with it as the rest of the world is. But it sure is beautiful to look at, and the motion-capture work is impressive and extraordinarily expressive, even if the faces are a little uni-dimensional, like monuments. So, while it's nice to look around, the writing doesn't live up to the man-hours and efforts to bring it to the screen. Or maybe all that work was done to make it seem more special. It's just SO damned derivative of the "white guy saves the tribe" story that has been endlessly slopped around in European literature that pretty soon the beauty of it goes away, as you suddenly realize that you're being hood-winked and watching a film version of cotton-candy. Looks nice, tastes fine, but throw a little cold water on it and it vanishes because there was nothing really there to begin with. So, there's lots of interesting elements—I listed them in my review—from many sources****** But they end up as one big gooey mess with mixed bleeding heart liberal messages: Nature good. Military bad ("...but look at the cool toys, man!"). Corporations bad. Love good. Mechanization bad ("cool toys" redux), but primitive good, (but...ewww, so primitive). As I mentioned before ("my review," redux) Cameron is the new George Lucas, for good or ill—the idea that he is starting work on Avatar II and III (when things were resolved in the first film) indicates that he might be spinning his wheels (however high-tech they may be) creatively. Time, a factor in so many of his work, will tell.
* That Roger Corman-produced "homage" to Jaws was co-written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante, and was admired by Jaws director Spielberg enough that he hired Dante to direct his Amblin-produced Gremlins.
** Those being "Soldier" (about a soldier from the future captured by the military) and "Demon with a Glass Hand" (about time-travelling murderers and the cyborg sent back in time to stop them). I've always thought "Demon" could use a full movie treatment as it's war-with-time-travel story was scaled back for television.
*** The others being , George Pan Cosmatos' Leviathan, and a planned adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Sphere" (which wasn't made until 1995).
**** Interestingly enough, Landau did basically the same thing for Bruce Springsteen—tell him to write a song that would become a Top 10 pop hit. The result was "Dancing in the Dark," the most innocuous of Springsteen's songs, but which became The Boss' first No. 1 song and propelled his "Born in the U.S.A." album to No. 1, as well. Landau's job seems to be to nullify whatever an artist is to make them unique, in order to become popular and rake in the bucks. Commerce over art. One can't argue with success, I suppose, and the popularity of Springsteen's and Cameron's work has allowed decades over less-commercial fare to be produced unimpeded. Is there a down-side to this? I think not.
***** For example Rose's blurting out "Jack! This is where we first met!" as they're clinging to the railing as the ship reaches its zenith, right before taking its final plunge. That point was very apparent visually, but Cameron doesn't trust his own visual sense, or the audience's ability to grasp it and has to take a sledge-hammer to the point to make it obvious.
****** That's a joke, actually. Of COURSE a lot of people like Titanic...before Avatar, it was the all-time box-office champ...Although if you factor in the inflation of ticket-prices, the story is a bit different. If you look at tickets sold, (rather than income generated) Gone With the Wind is still #1, the original Star Wars is #2. The Sound of Music is #3. Avatar is #14. Titanic is #6. At the time of GWTW, ticket prices were 25¢, whereas at the time of Avatar, the top ticket was $14. It is the difference between popularity and income generated.
****** I didn't mention one, however, that the estimable Jim Emerson snarkily pointed out: Na'vi looks like one of the Roger Dean album covers for Yes.