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” (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+]
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1992)
As with “Aliens,” Cameron knew that going bigger was the key to the follow-up when it came to sequelizing himself, as he returned to the film that made his name. And again, he gave a twist with the eight-years-later “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” — turning Sarah Connor (Hamilton, who would begin a relationship with the director on set) into a Ripley-esque badass on the edge of sanity, introducing her future-saviour child John Connor (Edward Furlong), and crucially, sending the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) back not as adversary, but as hero, this time facing off against an even worse robotic killer, the T-1000 in Robert Patrick. Cameron brought everything he’d learnt on subsequent projects to the table, with several phenomenal action set pieces (the motorbike/truck chase is still an all-time classic), and repurposing the liquid CGI effects of “The Abyss” into his new villain, a genuine jaw-dropping, game-changing wonder. It helps that Patrick, while slight in contrast to Schwarzenegger, is wonderful, a villain just as deadly, and somehow even less human, than his predecessor. It’s a rousing, thrilling summer blockbuster, but one that can’t help but suffer in comparison to the original: Schwarzenegger’s performance loses a lot of its power by being brought onto the side of the angels, young John Connor is a Bart Simpson-esque figure who dated pretty fast, and the relationship between the two wavers between humor that falls flat (jokes have never been Cameron’s strong point) and unearned sentimentality. Still a million times better than the films that followed it, though. [B-]
“True Lies” (1994)
Remember what we just said about Cameron and comedy? This would be the nail in that particular coffin. The director reunited with Schwarzenegger for a James Bond-inspired espionage-themed action-comedy about a superspy whose wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks he’s a dull computer salesman. And as ever, Cameron delivered on the action side of things, with several stunning set pieces as good as anything he’s made before or since, most notably the motorcycle vs. horse chase, and the impressive Overseas Highway section. But even then, he goes a little overboard, with a Harrier Jump Jet finale that feels overstuffed and something of a damp squib compared to what came before (a common trend in 1990s action movies: see also near-contempoaries “Speed” and “Die Hard: With A Vengeance“). But more crucially, while the cast — particularly Curtis, who won a Golden Globe for the performance — are game, the gags don’t land as often as they should, coming off as sitcom-y rather than the stuff of rom-com greatness. We suspect it’s because there’s an unpleasant, mean-spirited tone to the whole thing: Cameron can’t meld the extreme violence to the light tone, and there’s something deeply misogynistic about the way Curtis’ character is treated. To say nothing of the Islamic terrorist villains, which felt uncomfortable even at the time, but is damn near unwatchable these days — indeed, Cameron pulled the plug on a sequel after 9/11. Worth watching for the action sequences, but the rest is better left fast-forwarded through. [C-]
It looked at the time as if James Cameron had finally met his hubristic downfall with “Titanic.” A period romance with another disaster-plagued set, which went wildly over budget, making it the most expensive movie of all time, and the doommongers were out in force. But of course, it turned out to be the most successsful movie of all time, the first to make a billion dollars, a haul that will only be added to by this week’s 3D re-release. In the intervening fifteen years, it’s become hard to distinguish the film’s success, and its inevitable backlash, with whether or not it’s any good. But it’s unlikely the film would have become the phenomenon it was if it didn’t work, and make no mistake: “Titanic” works like gangbusters. Is it one of the finest works of cinema? Of course not. The script clunks in many places, there’s a lack of nuance throughout, both in the depiction of the bright-eyed, charming below-decks passengers and the sneering upper-class passengers embodied by Billy Zane‘s toupeed villain and the bookending sequences feel indulgent (and mark the only time that Bill Paxton has felt ill-fitting in a Cameron picture). But one only has to look at “Pearl Harbor” and “Australia” to see how difficult it is to pull this sort of thing off, and Cameron makes it look easy: the film is immaculately made on every level, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are excellent as the central couple, deservedly becoming lasting stars on the back of the film by giving “Titanic” heft not necessarily found in its screenplay, and the sinking, when it comes, is undeniably thrilling and horrifying in equal measure. Cameron’s made better films, for certain, but it’s little wonder that this one connected in the way it did. How could he ever top it?… [B+]
…By literally doubling his efforts, and making a film that didn’t just cost twice as much, but earned nearly twice as much. It might have taken him over a decade (which he spent much of diving, and successfully creating a young clone of himself, who would go on to direct “The King’s Speech“) — partly because he was waiting for the technology to catch up to his dreams — but Cameron came out swinging with his return to science fiction, and came up with another phenomenon, helping legitimize 3D in the process, causing the craze for stereo vision to sweep Hollywood. What’s so interesting is the degree to which it mirrors its predecessor. 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. But the spectacle is even greater than on “Titanic,” Cameron using effects that haven’t been topped before or since, and designing an immersive fantastical world that was genuinely unlike anything that had been seen before on movie screens. It’s virtually an animated movie, but never feels like it, thanks to the the weight he gives the characters and their stakes. And far from letting his filmmaking skills fade away over his decade of absence, they seem to have improved: the filmmaker’s freed by his virtual world, the camera dipping and diving and zooming with total clarity: the final action scene arguably tops anything from his entire career. Ultimately, the film never quite has the memorable performances to match “Titanic” (although we suspect stand-out Zoe Saldana will never get the credit she’s due), and the central romance doesn’t quite resonate in the same way. But nearly three-billion-dollars-worth of admissions can’t be wrong: Cameron, for the most parts, had delivered a thrilling, eye-popping piece of popular entertainment once again. [B-]
Also Worth Mentioning: We’ve stuck to Cameron’s big-screen features, but for the completists, there’s also the extended Martini Ranch video “Reach,” theme park attraction “T2 3D: Battle Across Time,” “Freak Nation,” an episode of the short-lived TV series “Dark Angel,” which he co-created, and documentaries “Expedition: Bismarck,” “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep.” Plus he penned the script for “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and the story for ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Strange Days,” which he also produced. Other producing work includes exec-ing Bigelow’s “Point Break,” shepherding Steven Soderbergh‘s remake of “Solaris,” and this Christmas’s 3D extravaganza “Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away.”