James Cameron is obsessed with storytelling.
I know, ‘duh’, right? He’s a filmmaker, it comes with the job title, but while this is certainly true, I’m looking a bit deeper. Cameron doesn’t want to give you just any old story; he wants you to see it like never before. It’s as if he takes stock of the current movie-making techniques and then writes his stories just outside what’s possible, just to try something new. He asked for the largest marionette in cinema history for Aliens, pioneered digital characters for The Abyss and Terminator 2, utilized prototype submarines for Ghosts of the Abyss, and now plans to exploit cutting edge 3D tech to create the sci-fi epic Avatar, a film some have claimed will do nothing less than change the way we watch movies. Cameron doesn’t make films, he invents them.
It’s deceptively easy, then, to dismiss him as a populist director, obsessed with aesthetics over content, tinkering up shiny bits of fluff with his killer robots, industrial power armor, and bumbling terrorist squads. Cameron’s only so-called “prestige picture”, Titanic, is his clumsiest script, as if he stumbled from trying to reach too high. Cameron belongs in his violent fantasies, a critic might say, where the burden of expectation is light for films starring heroic superwomen or cybernetic golems.
But there is no real safe zone for Cameron’s work; it’s an illusion. While movie audiences have steadily lowered their bar, accepting any old bit of idiocy as long as it looks really cool, Cameron has pushed further and further upward. Examining his career chronologically, one can chart his rise from stubborn patsy on Piranha 2 up through an escalating set of dares, topping the complexity of The Terminator with Aliens, which he in turn tops with The Abyss, and so on, until he arrives at his grandest challenge — recreating the doomed Titanic, a task which appears to drain him wholly dry. Yet even now, more than a decade later, and after dabbling in documentaries, TV specials, serial action shows, Cameron returns to his feature canvas, ready to top even that momentous, award-winning film.
What is Cameron looking for? Why does he push himself so hard? That’s a question I’d wager not even his family, children, or any of his four ex-wives could answer. Whatever it is, he does not seek lightly. Personally, I suspect he’s looking for a balance in his life, some intangible equilibrium he will only know once reached. Cameron’s films reflect his search, exploring the balance between humanity and technology (Titanic, the Terminator films, Aliens), between estranged families (The Abyss, True Lies), and between the basic good in humanity and our paradoxical need to destroy ourselves (all of the above). Cameron’s quest for his own balance (hypothetically) drives him to map it in his work, of which he becomes so obsessed as to wreck the synergy he so desperately sought to capture, a cycle which could last the remainder of his career. Or am I digging too deep?
I launched this project with a question: is it possible for James Cameron to return from such a lengthy absence and be the same filmmaker he was before? I can’t say for certain, but I can say this: our passions rarely die. Instead, they scurry into dark corners until we are ready to rediscover them. Or until they rediscover us. The word from the Avatar set is like nothing I’ve heard before. The photography went on beyond a year, with the post-production and effects work scheduled to take even longer. The story has been called no less than Lawrence of Arabia in space, and that quote about changing the way we see movies? I didn’t make it up. Something is going on, whether that is over-elastic hype or the warnings of a coming film revolution. No matter what Avatar is or isn’t, I look forward to following Cameron through the rest of his quest. He has given us new things to look at, from the creatures of his nightmares to a tomb at the bottom of the sea, and as his exile draws to an end, I believe we will witness a film inventor’s new beginning.