Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #3 - James Cameron

photo by Towpilot

-Terminator 2: Judgment Day
-The Abyss

-True Lies

-Pirahanna 2: The Spawning (though he only worked on that for a few days)

For over 10 years, James Cameron's Titanic was the highest grossing movie of all time at over $658 million dollars domestic.  Only one director could unseat James Cameron's record: James Cameron.  That is what he did with his follow up film, Avatar.

James Cameron has not made many movies in his over-3-decades-long career.  But each movie is an event.  One of the things I have always admired about him is that he always seeks to challenge himself and push the boundaries of movie-making.

His breakout movie, of course, was the original Terminator.  This could have easily been brushed on the dustbin of b-movie, sci-fi schlock.  But Cameron understood that you needed to start with a compelling story.  He also understood that the visuals needed to tell you the story.  It is amazing how terrifying Arnold Schwarzenegger was in that role.  He says very little, but Cameron always shoots him with such dramatic lighting and low angles that you feel his hulking presence bearing down on you the entire film.  This contrasts the raw humanity of Sarah and Kyle as they get beat up both physically and emotionally throughout the piece.

He then took a major risk when he made a sequel to one of the most revered science fiction movies of all time: Alien.  People told him that if it was bad, it would end his career.  If it was good, they'd give all the credit to Ridley Scott, the director of the first.  But Cameron had a story to tell.  And dare I say, he had a better story to tell than Scott.  I have always maintained that Aliens is the best action movie I have ever seen.  It is not because of the visual action spectacle alone.  The thing that sets it apart is that you cannot help but attach to all of the surviving characters.  You root for them and feel a real sense of jeopardy in losing them.  Aliens shows that Cameron knows how to make a movie that is both scary, exciting, and dramatically compelling.  Sigourney Weaver got a Best Actress nomination for her performance, something very rare for an action movie but well deserved.  It should also be noted his use of visual catharsis.  The scene with the loader is set up in the beginning, and there is some flaw in the rationale for using that in battle when you have a ship full of weapons.  But there is a unique thrill watching Ripley stand there in her "battle-suit" to go mano-a-mano with the queen.  It is intensely satisfying.

The Abyss was a box office disappointment, but I think it is one of his most underrated films.  The enormous challenge of filming underwater is hard to describe.  But the movie is not only beautiful visually, but it is extremely compelling.  To this day, I cannot watch the sub drowning scene without desperately trying to catch my breath:

People mostly note The Abyss for the step forward it presented in digital film-making, with the water pod

It is not a perfect movie.  It is a bit too long, too preachy, and very dour on the military (which we will see again in Avatar).  But it also creates an exciting sense of wonder and great heroic courage in the character of Bud.

Terminator 2 was another risk, where Cameron decided to make his iconic villain into the hero.  Again, most people will focus on the monumental technical achievement of T2, and rightly so because it is still spectacular to watch.  But he also demonstrates a mastery of the visuals.  He knows when to use slo-mo and not.  He knows when to use a digital effect and when to go practical.  The helicopter chase has within it the most dangerous stunt ever put on film:

But again, Cameron knows that this is all done to serve the story.  It all builds to an ending that I still find emotionally compelling, one that is noble and sad.

And then we have Titanic.

Some people forget that everyone was expecting Titanic to be a massive failure.  It was tens of millions of dollars over budget, it had not major stars, it was a dramatic period piece, most everyone dies so there would be no sequel, and the premiere kept getting pushed back.

But Cameron once again demonstrated that the spectacle was there to serve the emotional ends of the story.  We all knew that the Titanic was an impressive ship, but he showed you with his visuals as you take in the glory of this amazing ship.  He fills you with a sense of wonder, hope, and power as Jack shouts "I'm the king of the world!"  And he slowly turns the knife as that hope sinks below the icy depths.  We all want to believe in a love that is stronger than death.  And Cameron delivers it.  Who can forget one his most compellingly beautiful images:

And that is why it works so well and it was the number one movie at the box office for 15 weeks.  He used every visual skill at his disposal to not just give a feast for the eyes, but he used them as laser-guided arrows to hit you in the heart.  I know that this movie has a lot of hater backlash, but I would encourage anyone to watch it again and note the craft that Cameron uses as a director.

Even in his last movie, Avatar, you can see that skill at work.  Avatar's major flaw is its story.  Unlike his other movies it is difficult to connect to the story.  He imports his preachiness and military dourness from The Abyss.  But no one can deny the wondrous visuals of the film.  It was one of the most amazing 3-D experiences I have ever had.  And despite myself, I was moved by that final shot.

James Cameron never stops trying to stretch himself as a film-maker, and as a result he has given us some truly great movies.  But by him leading the way he has changed the movie making process forever.

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