Archive for category James Cameron

Cameron #3 – Avatar

(Hey all!  Moving this week, so I’m taking a detour from the Kubrick Project to relaunch the James Cameron Project — now with pictures, captions, and a up-to-date countdown, re-ordered to accommodate the addition of Avatar.  And speaking of… here it is!)

He’s King of the World. Again.

Intro: As I worked on the James Cameron Project way back in the first days of this site, Avatar was just unsubstantiated rumor and a pile of buzz words, but I always assumed there was more to the project than empty promises. I figured that no matter what he was working on, Cameron wasn’t the kind of director who had ever fell short of his hype, no matter how self-generated it turned out to be. Despite an ugly reaction to the early trailers, positive word of mouth turned Avatar into one of the biggest hits in the history of the movies and a proof of concept for the future of 3D cinema. Still, just as with Cameron’s previous megahit, Titanic, the backlash is all anybody wants to talk about anymore. It’s become fashionable to hate on Avatar, except, of course, within its core fanbase. Cameron locked up the teenage girl demographic with Titanic. He finally came back for the boys with this one.

The Movie: A disabled Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system hosting a massive human mining operation. Unfortunately for the miners and their military escorts, Pandora is already inhabited by the Na’vi, gigantic hunter-gatherers that live in the jungle. The only way to communicate with the Na’vi is by donning avatars, genetically grown Na’vi bodies that can temporarily host human minds. The avatars are meant for researchers, but Jake’s scientist brother died in an accident, and untrained Jake was asked to replace him simply because the avatar requires a DNA match.

“Dear vlog, I thought about butterflies today and I cried.  Also I think Jenny likes me.  Here’s my impression of FRED.”

The planet has the usual political factions. The miners are desperate for a mineral, hilariously called “unobtanium”, and will do anything to get to it. The researchers, led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to study and teach the Na’vi and do granola earthy crunchy stuff, which begs the question of how they were both invited to the same picnic in the first place. The project’s military escorts, led by mobile phallus Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), basically just want to kill stuff.

Jake gets pulled in all directions, but his Marine background keeps him loyal to Quaritch. This changes when Jake, through a complicated series of accidents and mystical portents, ends up living and training with Neytiri (the motion-captured Zoe Saldana), a princess in a major Na’vi tribe. Jake falls for Neytiri and for the whole peaceful warrior culture of the Na’vi and begins to think of life in the avatar as his real world. That is until, wouldn’t you know it, the mother of all unobtanium (really?) nodes is detected underneath the tribe’s main home. Time to choose sides, Jake!

And make sure it’s the side with the sweet dragons.

He chooses the Na’vi, of course, but he’s too late to save their home tree, which is obliterated by Quaritch and his flying tanks. Jake survives to rally the various Na’vi tribes into a single fighting force and they take the battle to Quaritch before the soldiers can wipe out a sacred tree of souls. (It’s actually a kind of hard drive for the planet’s data retention system, which the Na’vi can access via their hair braids and… you know what? It’s fucking magic. Moving on.)

In a shocking finale, the better armed and organized military completely annihilates the primitive tribe and takes the planet’s resources for their own. OK, fine, of course the Na’vi defeat the human forces and Jake is the big hero of the battle. The humans have to leave Pandora and Jake transfers his mind permanently into his avatar, opening all sorts of questions about his lifespan and susceptibility to diseases and ability to procreate, but that nerdy crap will have to wait for the sequel! AVATAR!

“See, I’ve got an avatar, too.  And that wheelchair is like another kind of avatar.  You see where I’m going with this…”

The Scene: James Cameron has always excelled at building set pieces, big chunky action scenes that build to a crescendo and pack an emotional punch. Think of the reactor massacre in Aliens, or the destruction of the Cyberdyne building in Terminator 2. This is what Cameron does for a living, and he does it very well.

“Dun da duh duuuuh duh, dun da duh DUUUUH duh…”

In Avatar, that scene is the destruction of the Na’vi home tree, a scene that cuts the knots tying the script up and sends us reeling into a huge third act. Home tree is such a vital and important part of Jake’s training that I think most people would subconsciously assume that the big final battle would have to be a race to defend it, but instead the Na’vi never stand a chance. The gunships fade in over the horizon, women and children are gassed, and the whole thing comes crashing down. And then Quaritch finishes his coffee. The scene is vintage Cameron and nearly worth the price of the ticket in 3D.

The Line: “Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees.” – Quaritch at a recruit briefing. It’s a line so bad it kind of wraps back in on itself and turns good again, mainly because it lets you know that Quaritch is an outsized personality that doesn’t care about anything – not even that he sounds like a toolbox.

“This scar runs right through the goofy language center of my brain.  Gafoozlewatts.”

The Production: The script reportedly began life as a treatment written back in Cameron’s Terminator and True Lies days, but which was shelved when Cameron decided to wait for the technology to catch up to his core idea of populating the movie with actors who didn’t exist. With the arrival of Gollum and the Robert Zemeckis motion capture films in the early 2000s, and the development of a new high-definition 3D process, Cameron felt like he finally had the tools he needed to tell his story.

Oh, and $300 million dollars. Did I mention the $300 million dollars it would also take to tell his story? With that kind of investment, the suits at Fox were understandably nervous, despite the parade of filmmakers leaving Cameron’s top secret studio proclaiming that what they had just seen would change all of filmmaking. By the time the first trailer hit the internet, buzz and hype had merged into a media deluge of daily Avatar updates and speculation, an environment that helped contribute to the chuckles and giggles that accompanied the film’s initial “giant smurfs” and “furry-friendly cat people” images.

Furries use photoshop to commit a thousand crimes against this character every day.

Cameron and Fox went into damage control and smartly released a huge batch of footage in theatres on what became known as “Avatar Day.” The laughing stopped. By the time word of mouth got involved, there was no holding the movie back. Avatar hit theatres worldwide on December 16, 2009, and steamrolled for months, eventually crushing the untouchable Titanic and earning nearly $3 billion (with a ‘b’) in global box office, although it did this mostly through inflated ticket costs associated with IMAX and 3D. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars, but didn’t quite recreate Titanic‘s success there, losing most of the major categories to The Hurt Locker (directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, but that’s another Project.)

A James Cameron Film: As usual, Cameron seemingly can’t make a movie without inventing some new technology, and he did that here by housing two HD cameras in a single housing to create the best 3D image in movie history (and yes, that’s a qualified statement.) The film also features his usual strong heroine in Neytiri, a Cameron regular (Weaver), and his prevailing themes of peace with nature, and using technology as both a destructive and beneficial force (I know the primitive natives are the heroes here, but the avatar technology bridges cultures and pulls some pretty magical crap into the proceedings. Without it, and therefore Jake, the Na’vi would have been crushed.)

Lasting Impact: Still working itself out, although Avatar is likely to be a major film franchise and a big centerpiece for Fox Studios moving forward. Meanwhile, Cameron has turned snake oil salesman , traveling the tech convention circuit to proselytize his 3D technology (for which he owns the patents and stands to make gajillions) as the cure for what ails Hollywood and the rest of visual media, namely the threat of piracy. If he’s right and we’re watching 100% 3D media in 20 years, Avatar will be praised/blamed as a big part of that transition.

“When one of us has a problem, we all have a problem.  When one of us has a communicable disease, we ALL have a…”

Reason for Ranking: The film is well crafted and a nice little throwback to the way action movies used to be made in their heyday, with clearly defined action scenes and bold archetypal characters. While there’s nothing really new here (even Cameron reportedly admits to borrowing elements from John Carter of Mars and Dances With Wolves while crafting the screenplay), there’s rarely anything new anywhere. The trick is in how well a filmmaker presents a particular story, and Avatar presents pretty damn well. That being said, the film’s critics have fairly identified some major issues, primarily with the dialogue, Cameron’s heavy-handed environmental themes, and the persistent need for a safe, Anglo hero to save the savages from themselves (something that Avatar hardly invented.)

“People, listen.  Underneath this, I’m a white American, so please get out of my way so that I may empower you!”

That would have played better in the 80s, but not so much these days. I placed it above Titanic because the two films are ultimately very similar in emotional and technical achievement, but I happen to like the Avatar script better. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it doesn’t come close to touching Cameron’s two best films, both sequels. We’ll wait anxiously for Avatar 2 to change our minds.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. ???

3. Avatar

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Cameron #1 – Aliens

(Wrapping up The James Cameron Project countdown with #1….)

Intro: No fear. In the early ‘80s, the director of Piranha 2 sat in front of a group of studio suits and pitched his best ideas. He’d gotten the meeting on the strength of The Terminator, at this time still just an unproduced screenplay. He bombed his pitches, but the executives – sensing it would be a good idea to find something for this guy to do – casually asked if he’d try writing a sequel to Alien. You know, one of the greatest science-fiction/horror films ever made? The masterpiece of an accepted genius, Ridley Scott? That Alien?

Instead of locking up in terror, the young James Cameron snatched the offer and converted a forgotten story of his called Mother into a 50-page treatment over one raging weekend. He got the job, and his film – retitled Aliens – would become, arguably, the gold standard for action films for the next 20 years. Mere mortals would have been scared to death, but James Cameron – NO FEAR.

Pictured: James Cameron obliterating fear.

The Movie: (This synopsis decribes the director’s cut, first available on laserdisc and now part of the Alien Quadrilogy.) Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), last survivor of the Nostromo, is rescued after 57 years in cryogenic sleep to discover her 11-year old daughter has died an old woman and she’s lost her job as a flight officer thanks to blowing up her last ship. Worse, the Company regards her tale of the acid-blooded alien that devoured her crew with blatant skepticism. After all, the suits explain, colonists have lived on the alien’s planet, LV-426, for years with no complaints.

Ripley trudges through her new life, working the Company’s loading docks by day and dreaming of chestbursting aliens by night, until a situation arises. Company sleazeball Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) informs her that — in a miraculous coincidence that Burke totally had nothing to do with — the colony on LV-426 has gone dark. A team of colonial marines is going in to check it out, but just in case the alien story proves true, they want Ripley as an advisor. She has one condition: the orders aren’t to study or sample, but to destroy. Burke lies assures her that’s the plan.

“We’ll even go in a ship that looks like a weapon.  Trust me.”

Ripley and a large team of marines, including notables Hicks (Michael Biehn), Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), Hudson (Bill Paxton in a touching, nuanced performance), and the android Bishop (Lance Henricksen), soon arrive at the colony, finding only destruction. Something very, very bad has happened, with only one apparent survivor: Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl hiding in the colony’s air ducts. The daughterless Ripley and the motherless Newt bond over hot chocolate, enjoying one quiet moment before hell breaks loose. The marines, thinking they’ve located the rest of the colonists, stumble into an alien hive and are decimated by the beasts, a battle that ends with the survivors stranded on the planet by the wreck of their drop ship, and the colony’s thermonuclear reactor only four hours from total meltdown.

The marines struggle to hold a perimeter while Bishop sneaks outside to call down a new drop ship. Remembering his status as a side villain, Burke takes the chance to try and impregnate the girls with aliens for the Company’s bio-weapons division. The marines save Newt and Ripley, who then reveal that Burke caused the colony’s infestation by sending them to the coordinates Ripley indicated in her brief. Before the marines can properly waste Burke for his crimes, the aliens attack en masse to do it for them. A new battle erupts, killing all humans not named Hicks, Newt, or Ripley. The surviving trio race to meet up with Bishop, but Newt gets separated from her protectors and snatched by an alien.

The most horrifying game of Marco Polo in film history.

Ripley, maternally obsessed, leaves the injured Hicks with Bishop then returns to the hive for Newt. Armed to the teeth, Ripley retrieves Newt but stumbles upon the source of the entire infestation – the big, bad, wicked-looking Alien Queen. After blasting the Queen’s eggs, Ripley races through the exploding reactor to get to the rendezvous point. Bishop saves Ripley just as the pissed-off Queen arrives, then blasts into space as the reactor finally melts down.

In an exciting, actually impossible conclusion, Ripley discovers that the Queen has hitched a ride on the drop ship. The creature tears Bishop in half and sets her murderous attention on Newt. Ripley dons a forklift power armor suit and engages the queen in one-on-one combat, Mama vs. Mama, finally blasting the monster out of an airlock. The wounded “family” then climbs inside their Alien 3 death pods for the long trip home.

“I’m going to beat you with this thing until your appearance on the ship makes logical sense.”

The Scene: Very tough choice, as this movie is stacked. Do I pick the intense, claustrophobic battle in the hive that wipes out the Marines? Or the action sequence in the medical lab where Ripley and Newt fight off scuttling facehuggers?

No, I’d have to go with the excellent confrontation in the hive between Ripley and the Queen. While rescuing Newt, Ripley stares down the biggest, baddest of the alien critters in a room full of eggs. The two share a classic exchange of wordless threats. The Queen summons a couple of her warrior drones. Ripley points her flamethrower at the eggs. The Queen backs the drones off. The scene explodes when Ripley, finally purging the nightmares, cuts loose on the egg room with flame, rifle rounds, and grenades. It provides an emotional catharsis, a memorable sequence, and enough motivation for the hysterical Queen to follow Ripley all the way into space to avenge her brood. Classic.

“You want none of this.”

The Line: Everybody’s favorite. The Queen chases Newt through the starship. A door opens. Ripley steps forward in her power loader. “Get away from her, you BITCH!” The blurb might be just a touch out of character for the steel-nerved Ripley, but it’s a huge crowd-pleaser.

The Production: This film was an enormous risk for all involved. Cameron was a near-rookie. Producer Gale Ann Hurd had trouble gaining respect because she was “just the director’s wife.” And the crew could feel the long shadow of the original film lurking in every corner. This could have gone very poorly.

This poorly.

Just like the original film, Aliens went into production at the legendary Pinewood Studios in England, but what seemed like a good idea soon turned into a liability. The labor system in the UK is a much different animal than in Hollywood. Most of the crew were lifers, contracted to the studio and assured of a job no matter what did or didn’t happen on the film. They would disappear at tea time, rebel when asked to work more than an 8-hour day, and treated the young Cameron as a man who had not yet paid his dues. They had yet to even see The Terminator, and had no immediate desire to remedy that. Tensions wound so tight that when Cameron had to fire a mutinous assistant director, much of the crew walked out of the film.

Many felt Cameron was in over his head. The pressure must have been tremendous but rather than wilt, Cameron dug in and seemed to actually find himself as a filmmaker. His most famous traits developed here. He didn’t bother asking HR Giger, the original film’s monster designer, to come on board as Cameron had his own ideas and wanted it done his way. He pushed for the innovation of the Queen puppet, the largest marionette in the history of film. He pushed his crew harder, even as they resisted.

Thankfully, Paxton was there to keep shit loose.

Eventually, his work reaped rewards. The reaction to Aliens was incredible, and it remains the highest grossing film in the series, even to this day. Likely, it will stay that way as the audience interest in the creatures has appeared to wane. In addition to the financial success, perhaps Cameron’s greatest victory in Aliens was the critical attention. Critics near-unanimously praised the film, which eventually scored 7 Oscar nominations, including the biggest coup – Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. He didn’t make many friends along the way, but Cameron stubbornly willed a pure, classic piece of action cinema into the world.

…A James Cameron Film: The threat of nuclear destruction hangs over the characters for the second half of the film, creating a technological threat as well as a biological one. Ripley’s dependence on the power loader to save the day makes technology – in balance with human guidance – also a savior. Cameron recruited all of his favorite actors for this one: Biehn, Henricksen, Paxton, Goldstein. Also, Ripley is perhaps the first truly iconic Cameron heroine, a precursor to the T2 Sarah Connor. This is a distinctly Cameron touch, as the Ripley established in Alien is resourceful, but certainly non-confrontational.

“I PREFER TO AVOID CONFLICT, YOU BITCH!”

Lasting Impact: Huge, but subtle. Sequels were already common when Cameron’s film hit theatres, but he gave them a blueprint on how to succeed. He stayed true to the original film, but upped the action by adding a military element and defied expectations by switching genres. This blueprint is still being replicated today and is easy to see in such diverse films as Final Fantasy, 28 Weeks Later, Jason X, or even Alien: Resurrection.

Beyond that, big chunks of Aliens dialogue are ingrained in popular culture, most of it coming from Bill Paxton’s Hudson. “Game over, man! Game over!”

Reason for Ranking: Aliens is a masterpiece, every bit as good as Ridley Scott’s original, but distinctly different enough to become Cameron’s own. The film captures a series of characters, sketched hastily in group scenes, and makes them starkly real. We care about each of them. To this day, 20 or so viewings later, I still lament when Sgt. Apone is pulled into the hive, wishing he’d had more time. The film’s characters are so well drawn that when, several years later, Alien 3 dared to kill off Newt and Hicks in the opening few seconds, the audience turned on that film and then the franchise forever.

I mean, come on, they showed this girl’s autopsy!  David Fincher, what were you thinking?

Strongest of all is the story of Ripley, displaced in time and robbed of her young daughter. It makes sense that, broken by her tragedies, she places her hopes, her entire life, on being able to save one person, this girl. To purge her demons, she must confront the alien queen, a creature defending its own family as Ripley defends her adopted one. It’s a uniquely female action movie arc, not easily replicated, and brought to heartbreaking life in Weaver’s virtuoso performance.

Bottom line, no film in Cameron’s career contains as much pathos, as many vivid characters, and as thrilling a story as Aliens. There simply isn’t another choice.

See you next time with my final words on the work of James Cameron, and the finishing touch ofThe James Cameron Project.

The James Cameron Project:

1. Aliens

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

3.  Avatar

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Cameron #2 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

(Continuing The James Cameron Project with #2….)

Intro: Wes Craven’s Scream 2 has a self-aware scene in which film students debate the merits of various sequels, struggling to locate one that actually improves on its predecessor. The students dismiss sequels one after another until they reach two films they have no quick answer for. One is The Godfather: Part II, possibly the best sequel ever made. The other is Terminator 2.

Now, I might pick a few nits about Godfather II being better than the original, but I don’t see how anyone can argue against T2. The sequel is a step up in every department, from the miracle screenplay, to the performances, the action, and the pioneering special effects. It’s a near perfect adventure film, has barely aged a day since 1991, and is one of the biggest hits in Cameron’s career.

It’s Judgment Day!

The Movie: (Note: this synopsis is of the extended director’s cut.) It’s been ten years since Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) survived Skynet’s attempt on her life. John Connor (Edward Furlong), alleged future savior of the human race, is a ten-year old delinquent swiping cash from hacked ATMs. To be fair, he’s just acting out because Mom is locked in a looney bin for ranting about killer cyborgs and trying to blow up a computer factory. Sarah, meanwhile, makes the most of her time in the slam. She attends craft time, works on her memoirs, and gets totally stinking ripped.

Well, no, this is Arnold.  But close.

Once we’re past the exposition, two Terminators arrive — one sent to kill John, the other to protect him. This time, the cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the good guy, programmed to battle an even more dangerous machine, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). This new model is constructed from liquid metal, able to shape shift at will and re-form when damaged. The Arnie-bot is clearly outclassed.

Back at the institution, Sarah dreams of John’s father, Reese (Michael Biehn), who warns her that their son is in danger. How he knows is a damned mystery, since he’s equally dead, yet to be born, and a figment of Sarah’s subconscious.

“My brain hurts just being here.”

Still, he’s right, and the two Terminators clash over John at a local mall. After a massive chase down a Los Angeles drainage ditch, John discovers he’s the proud owner of a Terminator, programmed to obey his every command. Command #1: No killing. Command #2: Spring mom from the nuthouse.

“Command #3:  Ignore Command #1 if we can find this guy.”

What follows is an extended chase sequence, as John, Sarah, and Arnold flee the T-1000 at the institution and out of the city, eventually hiding with an old revolutionary acquaintance of Sarah’s. There, John and the Terminator bond, while Sarah dreams of nuclear war and the hell of Judgment Day. Shaken by her dreams, Sarah decides to take action, leaves her son with the robot, and tracks down a scientist named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), who is on the very edge of launching the Skynet computer that will one day destroy mankind. She plans to terminate him before he does.

John and the Terminator follow, arriving just in time to stop Sarah from murdering Dyson. As a Plan B, Arnie reveals his true nature and recites the tale of Skynet’s war, converting a stunned Dyson to the good guys.

Dyson smuggles the team into his company’s office building, where they destroy any and all material on the Skynet program. The resulting fracas and shenanigans attracts a hundred human cops… and one made of liquid metal. Dyson is killed in all the chaos, but the mission is a success. Skynet is on the ropes.

“Nuh-uh, son.”

The T-1000 still has his sights on John, and the ensuing freeway chase eventually crashes into a steel mill. The two Terminators fight amongst the machinery, with the T-1000 briefly taking the advantage before the Arnie-bot blows it up with a grenade launcher. Grenades aren’t fatal to the T-1000, but it stumbles and falls into a vat of molten steel, which for damn sure is. It melts away to nothing, followed by the last of the bits from the Skynet project… and the remaining Terminator, who has decided he must be destroyed for the threat of Skynet to truly end. John cries, Arnie gives the thumbs up, and Sarah lowers the bot into the steel. In the last shot, as a car drives down an open highway to an unknown future, Sarah wonders that if a Terminator can learn the value of human life, can we?

Nope.

The Scene: Against my better judgment, I’m going with a crowd pleaser. As the freeway chase crashes into the mill, a liquid nitrogen truck explodes, drenching the T-1000. He freezes solid, cracking and breaking all the way.

With a deadpan “Hasta la vista, baby,” Arnie-bot aims, fires a round, and shatters the T-1000 into a million little pieces. Amazingly, the scene gets better. The heat from the molten steel thaws the frozen pieces into little puddles, which then lump back together, allowing the robot to reform completely.

Pictured:  a bad-ass waste of time.

This scene is really cool. It’s also beyond stupid. Why do the good-guys wait until the damn thing has gotten up to start running from it? They just stare, no doubt transfixed by the special effects. In the extended edition, the T-1000 struggles with shape shifting after reforming, but this was cut from the theatrical version. So, literally, there is no reason for the scene except that it looks cool. I usually pick a scene here that really impacts the film, but I have to confess that this piece of eye candy is my first thought when I hear the title Terminator 2.

The Line: Arnie’s Spanish lesson results in the film’s most famous line, but I think the best is the sneaky message of the entire film – “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It resonates with us, not just as Reese’s words from the first film, but as the one shining bit of hope in a grimly pessimistic series.

The Production: A sequel to The Terminator was an easy sell to the studio, but it took considerable time to pull together. Schwarzenegger was now a bankable star, and the notoriously career-minded Austrian had vowed to play no more villains (not named Mr. Freeze), while Cameron focused his energies into his ambitious epic, The Abyss. Ironically, although The Abyss severely delayed production, its innovations in computer technology helped bring T2 to life.

“You look like Destro.”

Cameron first envisioned a shape shifting, liquid enemy while writing the first film, but the budget and technological limits ruled it out. Then along came the water tentacle from The Abyss, proving that a digitally animated creature can stand up in a live-action film. Suddenly, the T-1000 looked possible.

The triumph of T2 is how high Cameron set the bar, while still sailing over it. If the water tentacle didn’t work, the scene was expendable. If the T-1000 didn’t work, that’s what we call a “$100 million dollar oops”. T2 was the most expensive movie ever filmed at its time, and the entire production hung on whether or not that effect worked. That, and a 10-year old with no acting experience holding his own against Arnold. And the script – written in only six weeks – not totally sucking. And an audience accepting Arnold as another Terminator when he was so clearly destroyed in the first film (that was an actual concern at the time.)

Little wonder, then, that Cameron allowed his stress level spill to over on the set. By this point, there’s no use in listing his crew’s complaints; we’ve heard them all. Instead, I’ll just publish this amusing quote from Bill Wyman at Salon.com: “…a sound man says Cameron, dissatisfied with a strangled scream on the soundtrack, ended up personally providing a presumably more suitable one. It’s all told with a sort of forced joviality; but you don’t have to listen too closely to get the sense the guy wouldn’t have minded inducing the scream from Cameron himself.”

A James Cameron Film: Just as in the first Terminator, the heroes are saved by machinery in a working factory, using tools we control to destroy tools we’ve lost control of. As usual, this seems to suggest that the answer to humanity’s problem isn’t “no technology”, but “technology in balance.” Of course, the theme of nuclear holocaust carries over from the first Terminator. Also, Sarah Connor has now evolved into a more typical Cameron heroine, tough, no-nonsense, driven. A super-mom. Plus, Arnold Schwarzenegger and (in the extended cut) Michael Biehn.

Lasting Impact: The impact of Terminator 2 is still now being felt. Digital characters have advanced far enough to merit Oscar discussion (Andy Serkis as both Gollum and King Kong), but my impression is that most of the digital critters out there are still trying to replicate the success of the T-1000. The total digital effects in T2 add up to only about 3 ½ minutes worth of the 2+ hour film, yet very few digital villains have approached the same level of awe. A lot of that is Robert Patrick’s note-perfect performance, but credit also belongs to Industrial Light and Magic and the mind of James Cameron. The film is simply a landmark of spectacle cinema, as much a high-water mark as The Matrix would be nearly a decade later.

Reason for Ranking: While critics and fans alike praise the movie for being a near-perfect action film, it’s still only James Cameron’s second best sequel. The top film on this list so clearly earned its place that, for all its merits, T2 could only ever be #2. See you at the finish line, in the future, where no one can hear you scream.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

3. Avatar

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Cameron #4 – Titanic

(Note:  This article written before the release of Avatar.) Continuing The James Cameron Project with #4…

Intro: I like Titanic. I like it enough to be annoyed to have to start a discussion of the film by stating I do, in fact, like it. Titanic is the world’s biggest box office smash; nearly $2 billion in total business, one ticket at a time. The movie dominated its year both financially and critically, but since those crazy days has faced an equal and opposite backlash. Opinion polls call Titanic one of the worst Best Picture winners in history, and occasionally just the worst film period. To today’s film crowd, any movie loved by so many people so unconditionally just can’t be good. Hating Titanic is an easy way to be different, to plant a flag on one’s own little island while the masses party in Cancun.

Titanic certainly has its faulty rivets, the most prominent being its clunky screenplay. The film’s power is not in the words, however, but the craft. James Cameron put more into Titanic than would be expected, or even reasonable, then not only caught the lightning but sold the bottle over and over and over again. This film is a Hollywood legend and, in spite of its flaws, deserves to be examined honestly and not as an easy punchline to a familiar joke.

Unless it’s that one about tossing the $^&*@%* diamond in the @#*(^#* ocean.

The Movie: We open on hero shots of the Titanic leaving port in 1912 before jaunting to the present-day wreck, where the improbably named Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) leads an elite team of nerds in pursuit of a priceless blue diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean”. The team fails to locate the stone, instead discovering some well-preserved pornography art. Jump cut to California where the 101-year old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) sees the pic on TV and boldly declares that the woman in the picture – and wearing the diamond – is her. Lovett flies Rose out to his salvage boat to hear her tale.

Art.

In 1912, Ms. Calvert was Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a 17-year old heiress engaged to the wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy f’n Zane), who made his fortune on Pittsburgh steel and being a dickshaft. She boards the Titanic in ultra first class as Hockley boasts that God himself couldn’t sink the ship. Nearby, a penniless drifter named Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins a steerage ticket on a lucky hand of poker, races to jump on board, and quickly declares he’s the king of the world.

Once the ship hits open sea, Rose has a battle with depression. She feels trapped by her future and contemplates leaping off the back of the ship, a plan narrowly averted by Jack.

(Jack, here’s a hint. Don’t hit on a girl in the midst of a suicide attempt! It’s, like, the number one warning sign!)

Hockley rewards Jack’s heroism with a humiliating invite to dine in first class with the “gentlemen” the next evening. After suffering through that gauntlet, Jack shows Rose a real party by taking her below decks for some raucous Irish dancing. Their budding flirtations are quickly halted, however, when Hockley discovers Rose’s actions and becomes abusive. Rose cuts it off with Jack. (Fickle, Jack. Fickle! Another warning sign!)

The fate of guys everywhere who ignore the signs.

Jack refuses to give up, and eventually Rose agrees to run away with him. She asks Jack to draw her portrait, wearing only the giant diamond Hockley bought for her. Jack obliges, and the pair soon steam up the back of a locked car. Love is great! Love is grand! Hey, is that an iceberg?

CRRRUNNCH.

The movie really shifts into gear as the boat begins to sink. Jack and Rose and Hockley play out their love triangle amidst the chaos of the collapsing vessel. Morality plays break out all over the ship. The crew locks third class passengers in steerage, so that the wealthy can get first pick at the lifeboats. Violence breaks out on the top deck. Children are used as bartering chips. Jack and Rose finally escape Hockley, but with no boats left they are forced to cling to the ship as it finally goes under. They become just two of the 1500 flailing, screaming survivors. Jack helps Rose onto a piece of driftwood, but with no way to save himself he makes Rose promise to live each day to the fullest, then promptly freezes to death. (Told ya, Jack.) When one boat finally does return, Rose drops Jack’s dead weight and gets herself rescued. She wraps up her story by arriving in New York, slipping past Hockley and living out the rest of her happy, full life.

What she neglects to tell Kurt Vanderjack Brock Lovett is that she kept the diamond. After the crew goes to sleep, old Rose slips out onto the deck of the ship, tosses the priceless, inhumanly valuable diamond into the water. She then dies in her sleep and her soul returns to Titanic, where she is cursed to spend a hellish afterlife with the rest of the damned and prideful victims who dared challenge the power of a vengeful God.

“Kiss me before we burn forever.”

Er, I mean she has a romantic reunion with her long lost love.

The Scene: It’s tough to pick one single scene, so I’m going to point to the entire last hour of the film. Even if he’s awkward with staging a believable love story, James Cameron can sink shit real good. As he stated when pitching the film, “The Titanic story is like a great novel that really happened.” The ship was going too fast. Rescuers ignored calls for help. A class war played itself out over the course of a terrifying hour, and rich and poor alike froze to death in the North Atlantic. The real story is so compelling that throwing a fictional romance on top could have been overkill, but instead catapulted the film to another level. And it’s all because the movie didn’t skimp on the goods. Want to watch a boat sink? This is how it’s done.

“Bring on the blue filter.  I’m about to get James Cameron on this shit.”

The Line: It’s fitting that in a movie with a famously weak script, the best piece of dialogue is an ad-lib. Forget that “king of the world” crap. When Jack and Rose are rising out of the ocean on the back of the world’s biggest sinking ocean liner, moments from the vessel cracking in two, Rose turns to Jack and says – “Jack… this is where we first met.” It’s a cheese-free, touching moment between the two of them, and it was suggested by Winslet as an on-set improv.

The Production: Reams have been written about the terror of filming Titanic. A book on the making of the film actually spent time on the best-sellers list, the most successful movie tie-in book of its kind. The words “militaristic” and “tyrannical” came up multiple times in my research and, just as in The Abyss, both lead actors have suggested they wouldn’t work with Cameron again in the future.

Cameron became obsessed with the wreck after visiting it to collect footage for a pitch. He eventually got two studios to split the costs and the distribution rights. Good thing, because by the time Cameron was done, the budget for the film was a whopping $200 million dollars, an astronomical sum in 1997.

They spent over $50 million alone on teenage girl swoons.

Cameron’s visit to the wreck flipped a switch in his brain. He became utterly obsessed with not only the story, but with getting every detail exactly and painstakingly correct. Every prop and set is so close to the real thing that it IS the real thing, right down to the White Star logo on the dinnerware. Cameron even built a full-scale replica of the ship, accurate down to the rivets, minus one side and some redundant deck sections. The filming took place in a 17 million gallon tank in Mexico, but moved to a smaller tank – “only” five million gallons – to sink the interiors. The shoot lasted nearly six months, with Cameron acting as his usual charming self. One disgruntled employee took revenge by lacing the cast and crew’s chowder with PCP, sending several to the hospital. He was never caught.

Meanwhile, the reputation of the film was sinking. The media loves a Hollywood bust, and Titanic looked like a big one. Delays in production pushed the film from its planned July opening into December, and Cameron’s obsessions seemed like overpriced indulgence. The critics smelled blood. Titanic was considered, no question, a sure bet to bomb. The film opened at #1, barely, with $28 million and pundits warned it had no chance to recoup its costs. And then the insanity began. Kids who don’t remember the Titanic winter have nothing to compare it to. It was a phenomenon, like Star Wars had been decades earlier. Sell-outs were common, even a month after its release. The film rode this wave of success to the Oscars, netting 11, including Cameron’s only Best Director and Best Picture wins. When Cameron raised his Oscar at the awards, he shouted that he was “king of the world.” After surviving this ordeal, I’m sure he felt like exactly that.

“If I’d won my Oscar, I was going to give ’em the puppies.”

…A James Cameron Film: By now, we’ve established Cameron’s technological themes. He exposes the dangers of relying solely on technology, while saluting its use as a tool. There has never been a story that sums up this theme as completly as that of the Titanic. The sheer arrogance of the owners and builders of that ship, and the dramatic irony that brings about their deaths, is ripe for Cameron’s brand of storytelling, and he plays it to perfection. His Titanic is an observation of how the human spirit breaks down when our technology collapses from underneath us, and how we are slaves to our tools, whether they be real (the ship) or imaginary (the social ladders we use to define “us” from “them.”) Combine that with the ocean setting, his strong female hero, and the presence of Bill Paxton and you have an essential James Cameron work.

Lasting Impact: Two blights upon America, courtesy of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor knock-off and Celine Dion’s song, “My Heart Will Go On.”

Pictured:  romance.

Beyond that? The film launched Leonardo DiCaprio into superstardom, much to his everlasting anger. After being dragged against his will through tween publications like Tiger Beat and Cute Boy Giggle Book, Leo hid away in a cave and gradually rebuilt a solid, respectable career. Kate Winslet likewise hid away in the UK for a while and has become a strong, fearless actress. While they each owe their celebrity to this film, they struggled for years to distance themselves from it, to be taken seriously as actors instead of stars lucking into the biggest movie hit in history. Sadly, coupled with the public backlash I mentioned earlier, that appears to be the film’s biggest legacy – people trying to survive the film’s reputation and forge ahead without it.

Reason for Ranking: The decision in front of me is whether I look at Titanic as a story, or as a film. Can I separate the script from the accomplishment? Cameron is responsible for both, so it was a tough, tough choice. My final verdict is that the love story in the script is creaky, no question, but the filmmaking is so far ahead of the game that Titanic overcomes this flaw. There is passion and craft hanging on every frame, and the monumental achievement in bringing this film to life cannot be overlooked. I won’t allow some awkward dialogue to detract from Cameron’s victory – this film should have been impossible, was destined to sink its studio, and yet did much, much more than succeed. It conquered. As an accomplishment, it cracks the top three, but the script keeps it from rising any further.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. ???

3. ???

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Cameron #6 – The Terminator

You might have heard of this one.

Intro: The Terminator was James Cameron’s breakthrough film, the movie that put him on the speed dial of every producer in Hollywood. In this one modest action flick, Cameron established his fundamental style, made ‘Schwarzenegger’ a household word, and created a fictional universe deep enough to sustain a multi-billion dollar Hollywood action franchise.

And he did it armed only with a shoestring budget and a reputation as “the flying piranha guy.”

The Movie: In the year 2029, giant motorized tanks roll over a field of crunching human skulls. A prologue talks of war and annihilation, assuring us that the last battle for the future will take place in our time… tonight.

1984. A freak lightning storm rains naked men down onto the California streets. One of these men is a hulking, Austrian brute (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who promptly mugs a street gang (which includes Bill Paxton and that alien thug from The X-Files) for their jeans.

Pictured: The 80s.

Meanwhile, another naked guy (Michael Biehn) snags a pair of trousers from an unfortunate homeless man. That’s right, folks, the first 10 minutes of this movie is all about the future coming back to steal our pants.

Slacks acquired, both men embark on a quest to find local waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Austrian’s technique is to track and assassinate all the Sarah Connors found in the phone booth. The other guy zeroes in on the right Sarah, then shadows her into a dance club called Tech-Noir.

“Is that the safety dance?  That is my jam.”

The Austrian shows up to shoot Sarah, but the other guy rescues her from certain death by plugging several shotgun rounds into the Austrian’s chest. A bewildered Sarah watches the Austrian rise to his feet, just in time to get a message from her defender – “Come with me if you want to live.”

The man is Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future sent to protect Sarah from a programmed killing machine, a cybernetic organism called a Terminator. Sarah’s future son will be a great leader in the epic war between humanity and the ruthless machine army manned by the defense grid Skynet. The machines, on the edge of losing the war, sent the Terminator back in time to erase the existence of their enemy, John Connor, before he can even be born.

The Terminator quickly finds the pair, resulting in a disastrous car chase that severely injures the bot and lands Reese and Sarah in jail. While Reese proclaims his sanity, the Terminator busts into the precinct and slaughters everybody with a badge. Reese and Sarah escape and hide in a motel room, where Reese romances Sarah with talk of plastic explosives and guns. He has a confession – Sarah’s son John gave Reese a picture of her in the future, his most prized possession. Reese volunteered for this mission because he’s in love with her. Sarah swoons and the two decide to make with the sexy time paradox.

“Trust me, sweet cheeks, it’s to save the future.”

The Terminator soon arrives, sending them running for their lives once more. The chase ends when the Terminator hijacks a tanker truck, and Reese makes him pay for it with a pipe bomb in the exhaust. Whatever doesn’t kill a terminator, however, makes him stop-motion. Arnold exits the stage as the flesh burns off the machine, which climbs out of the fire and chases the couple into an unnamed factory. Reese dies defending Sarah, but the severely crippled machine makes one last lunge for her throat. With an ironic one-liner Arnie would approve (“You’re terminated, fucker.”), she mashes the bot in a press.

In the film’s final scene, a visibly-pregnant Sarah drives to Mexico, making audio tapes for baby John. The future is uncertain, but a storm hangs on the horizon.

The Scene: Say you’re an assassin with orders to terminate a young woman. She’s in police custody, barricaded safely inside a building with 30 police officers standing between you and her. What do you do? If you’re human, you might observe the station at a distance and wait for your chance, or perhaps you’ll infiltrate. If, on the other hand, you’re an unstoppable killing machine from the future, you might try a different tactic. Like, for example, plowing into the building with your car and laying waste to every soul in your way, including the cool Paul Winfield and the cooler Lance Henricksen. And of course you do, because you don’t give a fuck, because you’re a robot.  It’s the meanest scene in the film, redefining the rules of the game. How do you combat something that seriously lacks in give-a-shit? For Sarah and Reese, no place is safe and they are completely on their own. This scene makes this villain, which in turn makes the film. And, of course, it’s all prefaced by…

The Line: “I’ll be back.” It’s the line that launched a career. On the page, it’s nothing special. But combined with his sudden, violent return a few moments later, it struck an audience nerve and became Arnold’s signature line for the rest of his career.

“I shall return shortly to file a complaint.”  “CUT!”

The Production: Unlike other films on this list, the production of The Terminator appears to have been rather calm. Instead of the usual urban legends of James Cameron’s wrath, most of the production stories revolve around the long list of original “Terminators” before Arnold came on board. Originally the part was supposed to go to Cameron favorite Lance Henricksen, who wound up in a bit police officer part instead. Biehn was also considered for the role before snaring the part of Reese. There is a frequent rumor that OJ Simpson was up for the part, but that Cameron vetoed him for being unbelievable as a cold-blooded killer. I don’t know if I buy that one, but it’s a fun story. While I love Arnold in the role, a part of me mourns for the Lance Henricksen version we never saw. It would have been very different, but perhaps even more chilling.

Or maybe this is good enough.

The story famously came to Cameron in a dream, but there is some debate about exactly how much Cameron invented. The writing credits actually belong to Cameron and his eventual ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd, with William Wisher doing an uncredited polish on the dialogue. Sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, however, filed a lawsuit which accused Cameron of stealing the idea from several of Ellison’s short stories. Although the terms of the lawsuit sound like a reach, the studio settled out of court and Ellison is acknowledged in the credits.

…A James Cameron Film: This is the film that established James Cameron’s technique. Cameron plays with the theme of nuclear war and the idea of machinery and technology becoming humanity’s biggest threat. Technology can also save us, however, as Sarah learns in the factory – a factory whose whirring machines draw an obvious parallel to the machines of the future. Sarah Connor is a proto-version of the superheroine Cameron likes to work with, and she blooms completely by the sequel. Also, this film combines Cameron’s favorite stable of actors, with Michael Biehn, Lance Henricksen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Paxton all in various roles. The only thing we’re missing is an ocean.

Lasting Impact: Enormous. In addition to being an action highlight of the ‘80s and spawning a slew of mediocre imitations, The Terminator is its own cottage industry, giving us masks, toys, books, games, sequels, a TV spinoff, and, incidentally, James Cameron himself. If The Terminator had failed, Cameron might have had his star snuffed before it had even begun to shine.

On a bigger level, The Terminator gave us a new look at the future, and it wasn’t a pretty one. The Terminator didn’t invent the idea of a machine-dominated dystopia, or mankind’s extermination via technology, but the film certainly popularized it. Other action franchises, such as The Matrix trilogy, owe a debt of gratitude to this film bringing that idea into the mainstream.

Perhaps most importantly, The Terminator gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the film’s release was mildly famous simply for being famous. He’d become a minor celebrity from his bodybuilding success, and achieved some movie fame for the Conan series, due more to his pecs than his performance. The Terminator and “I’ll be back” gave Arnold real audience clout, which he parlayed into an shrewd string of action hits and, eventually, into politics. Today, he’s one of the most powerful political figures in the country, possibly the world, and only a constitutional amendment away from making a serious run at the Presidency. To say The Terminator started this is simplifying things, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Reason for Ranking: This was a difficult film to rank, my first real challenge. While the film is a landmark of action cinema and has a tremendous legacy, and despite its archetypal story and iconic scenes… I have to rank the actual film here, not its script or impact. Ultimately, The Terminator is clunky in spots, and a lot of the movie is showing its age. There are simply better films in Cameron’s catalog, even if they don’t have quite the same far-reaching influence. It’s a very good film, but Cameron has topped it many times since.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. ???

3. ???

4. ???

5. ???

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Cameron #9 – Piranha II: The Spawning

Counting down the James Cameron Project, starting exactly where he started:

Intro: Before he could create new worlds, pioneer technologies, and collect his golden statues, Cameron first had to pay his dues on this Italian fish-sploitation number with random nudity, buckets of blood, and no clear reason to exist. (minus the nudity and the blood….)

Cameron originally came aboard the project as a special effects guru, fresh from his work with Roger Corman. After the original director bailed on the production (details are fuzzy as to why), Italian mega-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis called Cameron in from the bullpen to finish the job. The down side: Not even a budding master could save this clunker. The up side: Thanks to this film and a bout of virulent fever, Cameron went on to slightly better things.

And now… The Spawning!

The Movie: Welcome to Club Elysium, home of surf, sand, and the best dynamite fishing in the Caribbean. Oh, and a freshly sunken navy vessel filled with experimental biological weapons. Anne (Tricia O’Neal) is the club’s resident diving instructor with baffling guidelines to let her students swim around, but not inside, the wreck. Good call, because lost in the ship’s cargo is a batch of experimental mutant piranha eggs. Navy scientists crossbred the little buggers with grunion and flying fish to create the perfect fishy predator. Why? Why the hell not?

You may ask why the military hasn’t sent someone to retrieve this dangerous and presumably expensive cargo. After all, if a team of novice diving students can get to it, why can’t the professionals? Why is Anne allowed to swim her students anywhere near this fresh wreckage in the first place? The answers must have been saved for Piranha III: The Apology.

Back at Elysium, Anne prepares for the summer tourist season under the watchful eye of her estranged husband, and local boat cop, Steve (Lance Henricksen.) It isn’t clear why Anne and Steve split up, but the lack of a father figure has clearly done a number on their teen son Chris. Check out this still from his first scene in the movie.

That’s just a healthy American male, right? Except that’s not a sexy Italian strumpet he’s slapping with a live fish – that’s Mom. Poor, confused Oedipus Chris spends the rest of the movie romancing a teen sexpot with a bra allergy, but his heart seems committed to Mom’s apple pie.

After we’ve mingled with a few of the club’s oversexed and underhot clientele, the fish start doing their thing and it doesn’t take long for the little guys to rack up some impressive kills. Anne and Steve plead for the beaches to close, but they get the stock Jaws runaround about causing a needless panic. Of course, the situation builds to the annual Fish Fry, where tourists race to the beach to catch mating grunion, tragically forgetting the club’s brochure slogan – “Club Elysium: Where the Fish Eat You!”

Enter Tyler (Steve Marachuk), a government biochemist hiding out as a tourist to investigate the piranha problem he started. Want to bet he’s an asshole? Allow me to present the following – Tyler’s reaction when Steve catches him in bed with Anne.

Folks, Tyler is a super asshole. Thankfully he has the decency to become piranha chow down in the wreck after he and Anne rig it to explode. Anne swims away, the boat (And the fish? I guess?) goes boom, and her dysfunctional family reunites.

The Scene: No scene quite sums up the experience of Piranha II: The Spawning like Anne and Tyler’s late night dinner date at the morgue. One of Anne’s students became piranha kibble so she breaks into the hospital, intending to prove the culprit was not a barracuda or an eel. A nurse shoos her out, but just a few moments later we get…

“Como esta, putas!”

That’s right! A piranha has been nesting inside the corpse — for hours, in cold storage – and has chosen this dramatically appropriate moment to kill again. After ripping out the nurse’s throat, the fish MAKES ITS ESCAPE by busting out the window. People, I can’t make this up. Piranha II: The Spawning. It’s a real movie.

The Line: I can’t remember any dialogue worth repeating, so instead I will quote the man himself. James Cameron, tongue firmly in cheek, from the Terminator 2 commentary: “I believe The Spawning was the finest flying killer fish horror-comedy ever made.”

With incest.

Horror-comedy? Mr. Cameron, just because we’re laughing, please don’t pretend you knew there were jokes.

The Production: There’s a lot of myth and legend over the production of The Spawning, due largely to the power play between the young Cameron and the producer Assonitis. Unbelievably, there was a major struggle for creative control of this turkey. Rumors persist that Assonitis, a noted control freak, smothered Cameron’s creativity and challenged or changed every major decision the director made. It’s unclear who wrote the screenplay, credited to the pen name ‘H.A. Milton’, but it was Assonitis that insisted on the large cast of wacky supporting characters and their useless miniature dramas. The first twenty minutes of movie is spent introducing potential piranha victims such as the nerdy dentist and his gold-digging love interest, or the horny widow and the doofus pool boy, but when the fish finally swoop out of the water to cull the herd, they attack all-new, nameless characters. We never even see the other folks again. Decisions like this must have driven Cameron, a screenwriter and a perfectionist, out of his young mind.

“No, just hold the fish to your throat and scream.  We’ll cut around it, nobody will know.”

My favorite rumor about the film’s production has Cameron breaking into the editing room one dark and stormy night to cut his own version of the film, while Assonitis was away at a film festival. Unfortunately, Assonitis cut it back as soon as the changes were discovered. Sometimes I mourn for the brilliant James Cameron Piranha II: The Spawning cut we’ve been denied.

…A James Cameron Film: Many Cameron trademarks make their first appearance in The Spawning. Of most interest are the lingering shots of the wrecked navy boat on the ocean floor, foreshadowing — or perhaps launching — Cameron’s obsession with underwater scenery and exploration. The film also features a strong female lead in Anne, technology run amok (bioengineered flying killer fish is something I would call very amok), and Lance Henricksen in the first of several collaborations with the director.

Lasting Impact: For trivia buffs, this is the film equivalent of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball squad, making it a lasting, easy punchline.

A fish escaping through a window is EXACTLY like a missed free throw.

More importantly, while Cameron was filming this movie off the Grand Cayman islands, he reportedly caught a nasty virus. While sleeping off the resulting fever, he had a dream about a vicious robot emerging from fire to kill him. He woke up, started writing, and soon left all this behind with The Terminator.

Reason for Ranking: Flying piranha.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. ???

3. ???

4. ???

5. ???

6. ???

7. ???

8. ???

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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Hollywood Project – James Cameron

It’s either 1987 or 1988. In any case, I’m very young. My parents, older sister, and one of my sister’s friends are watching a movie on TV. The music is urgent and tense. Marines pan flashlights down burned, darkened corridors. A girl about my age scurries through the debris. The marines rescue her. “It won’t make any difference,” she says. Before I know what’s happening, the marines are in a boiler room. Human eyes open from within a sticky cocoon. Her chest lurches and she pleads for death.

“Go to bed!” I’m ushered out of the room so rapidly that I know the movie is on the edge of something great. As I pass the recliner on the way to the hall, I sneak a peek around it, just in time to see a bloody, screaming creature explode from the woman’s rib cage.

I outrace Mom to my bedroom.

The next morning, I quizzed my sister over breakfast. “What happened to that robot guy?”

“Cut in half.”

“What about that lady soldier with the bandana?”

“She blew herself up.”

Cut in half? She blew herself up? WHOA.

I’d discovered James Cameron years before I knew his name.

James Cameron owned action films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, then reached his peak with the love story Titanic, a film he conceived, researched, wrote, directed, and even hand-modeled for. The film, once expected to be a surefire bomb, reaped almost two billion dollars in worldwide box office, and dominated at the Academy Awards where Cameron proclaimed himself – with good reason – the king of the world. Film nerds waited to see what he’d do next.

A decade later, we’re still waiting. As the countdown to his new film, Avatar, stretches ever longer, questions surround it – has James Cameron been gone too long? Does he still have it? Can any new film, no matter how cool and experimental, possibly live up to this wait?

To guess the man’s future, however, we must look into his past.  James Cameron is the next Hollywood Project.

Fingerprint

Name: James Francis Cameron

Birth: 8/16/1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada.

Parents: Phillip Cameron (electrical engineer) and Shirley Cameron (artist/nurse)

Life: Cameron grew up in Ontario and showed early skill in painting, building, and photography. His parents were supportive of his talents, arranging art exhibits and supplying him with a 16mm camera and film. In his late teens, the family moved to Fullerton, California, where Cameron, torn between his passions in science and art, chose to study physics. Sensing a mistake, Cameron dropped out of courses and spent time driving trucks for the local school system while developing his skills in screenwriting and supporting his waitress wife, Sharon. The release of a new science-fiction epic, Star Wars, had a profound effect on Cameron. He became a regular at the library for the University of Southern California, devouring any and all theory on filmmaking and the sciences involved in it. He created a short film as a calling card and presented it to legendary B-picture director Roger Corman, who immediately put him to work.

Cameron is currently in his fifth marriage, and is the father of four children.

Career: Cameron apprenticed in Roger Corman’s infamous factory, working the special effects departments for such films as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror. His intelligence and enthusiasm pushed him quickly up the ladder. One legend has Cameron rigging a power line into a fake, maggoty arm so the bugs would writhe on his cue, just as important producers wandered by to see it. He finally received his directing break with Piranha II: The Spawning, then followed with The Terminator, Aliens, and the screenplay for Rambo II. Each became a monster success (minus the Piranha one), and Cameron was suddenly Hollywood’s go-to action/sci-fi prodigy. Cameron went on to direct some of the biggest action hits of the next 15 years, culminating in the legendary success of Titanic, which netted him a Best Director Oscar. Since then, Cameron’s career has gone low-key, focused on documentaries and TV specials. Cameron is finally returning to narrative film in 2009 with the 3D alien saga, Avatar.

Trademarks: Cameron’s films have a recurring theme — acknowledged by the director — of technology (particularly nuclear tech), and the benefits and dangers inherent in it. His films tend to feature strong female characters in lead roles. He often uses the ocean as a setting, and likes to use dream sequences to reveal a character’s fears.

Behind the camera, Cameron is known for his sometimes volatile temperament and has a reputation as a perfectionist. His films often feature an innovation or new technology in a prominent role.

Number of Eligible Films: 8

Remarks: I don’t want to turn these articles into Psych 101, but sometimes it can’t be helped. If there’s a theme that jumps out from the life and career of James Cameron, it’s that bit about him being a perfectionist. As we’ll see throughout the countdown, Cameron is often the subject of his crew’s horror stories. He drives his employees to insane lengths, sometimes, in the pursuit of a shot or a schedule. He almost always writes his own scripts. For the love of– he’s been married five times. I’m not going to dwell on his private life, but come on. It’s as if he’s been waging a quest for the perfect woman, perhaps the same strong woman that drives so many of his films.

And how perfect are his parents? If yellow and red make orange, then an engineer and an artist make a filmmaker. In his work, Cameron straddles the line between the science of what he’s doing and the art of it. His balance in both is the reason for his tremendous success.

(Note: The James Cameron Project is complete. To check out the Project, please enjoy the links below.)

The James Cameron Project:

1. Aliens

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

3. Avatar

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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