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Dissecting James Cameron!

01.05.2016by: Jake Dee

JAMES CAMERON!

Fan of his films or not, James Cameron's mark on the modern state of movies can't be overstated. It's indelible. Permanent. Perhaps unparalleled. To our minds, Cameron is the thinking man's Michael Bay, a man so aplomb at tackling large issues and grand ideas in a way that still retains universal entertainment appeal without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Cameron's films, however populist, rarely if ever dumb down its material in order to cull a buck. As a filmmaking explorer, a technological envelope-pusher, and an environmental champion, there isn't a more deserving paragon of art melding with commerce than Cameron's canon of seven narrative features. Seven, that's it (not counting PIRANHA 2; more on that below)! THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, T-2: JUDGMENT DAY, TRUE LIES, TITANIC, and AVATAR are, if not bona fide classics in some way, inarguable successes as global event films. And you know what, it seems Jimmy is just getting started!

And so are we. With Cameron poised to unleash the remaining AVATAR trilogy over the next three years, there may never be a better time to plop this sucker on the operating table and see what makes the dude tick. Really, isn't it long overdue that we Dissect James Cameron's illustrious 30 year career? Wait no longer then friends, the scalpel is sharp and unsheathed. Let's go to work!

BEST WORK

GET ALIENS HERE

It's pretty remarkable to think that James Cameron's two best flicks both happen to be sequels. One completely of his own doing, and the other a tone-changing, gear-shifting Ridley Scott addendum. Of course, I'm referring to the indefatigable blitzkrieg that is ALIENS, and the undeniably superior cyborg sequel T-2: JUDGMENT DAY. Let's delve into why they're Cameron's best!

ALIENS simply does everything right. Now, don't get it twisted, I'm still one of the few who prefer Ridley Scott's original...the cast, pacing and visual metaphor to my mind remains far more captivating as a whole. That said, there's no arguing how, for a sequel, ALIENS absolutely smashes its intended target. Its starts with the size and scope. Wisely, Cameron not only swelled the cast of characters - introducing equally memorable names like Hicks, Hudson, Bishop, Vasquez and Newt - but he also upped the terror quotient with the addition of more perilous baddies - face-huggers, Xenomorphs, The gargantuan Alien Queen, etc. Perhaps most noticeably different from the original though? The slam-bang tempo, rapid MTV-style editing and overt sense of humor and playfulness that may have been lacking in Ridley Scott's admittedly more austere version.

Whereas Scott's film is more of a contemplative slow-burn, Cameron's film is a relentless onslaught of jaw-flooring, orb-bugging action. The energy, intensity and hyper-kineticism are utterly unmatched. In fact, so diametrically opposed is the tone and tenor of the sequel that ALIENS in a way feels like one of the first videogame movies we've ever had the pleasure to witness. It's raw, unbridled, in your face, and never for a moment allows you time to catch your breath and gather yourself before another hair-raising action set-piece comes along. Hell, outside of the chest bursting scene in the original, what image in the entire franchise stands out more than Ripley battling the Alien Queen in that damn power loader to end the spectacle? Little to nil!

GET T-2: JUDGMENT DAY HERE

And hey, speaking of game-upping sequels, who could really argue against T-2 reigning supreme over its 1984 predecessor, THE TERMINATOR? Granted, we absolutely adore the cold-blooded, slasher-like template THE TERMINATOR largely adheres to, but come on, as an overall filmgoing experience, very few films offer the kind of consistent thrills that T-2 continues to provide. I swear, that mall-chase sequence that ends with a semi-truck getting flat-topped in those drained L.A. aqueducts is a sequence I can watch over and over on an endless loop...it's simply one of the best, most fluidly edited action scenes ever assembled. It really is. Moreover, just as Cameron lightened the tone of Scott's ALIEN, he wisely did the same for T-2, injecting a widely appealing humorous element to the characters that simply did not exist in the original. One of the legitimate faults of the former is how serious it takes itself, how devoid of levity the sci-fi action feels throughout. T-2 rectifies that with great entertainment value, lending sympathy for previously identified killing machine (Arnie) through humanized self-deprecating humor - slang-gags, sight gags, etc. The characters, like the overall movie, feels more dimensional.

In terms of the technical, JUDGMENT DAY also holds up far better than does THE TERMINATOR. That's not debatable. Whereas the first film feels stale and outmoded at times - mired in the antiquated designs of the 80s - the sequel still holds up 25 years later as an impressive piece of VFX wonderment. The liquid alloy of the T-1000 - played with brilliant unthawed iciness by Robert Patrick - really does play just as credibly and effectively today as it did back in 1991. Of course, that's sort have been Cameron's M.O. all along hasn't it, to be at the forefront of technological advancement and allocating such to the most entertaining ends imaginable. Too bad the technology couldn't match his vision for the cheesy throwaway 1981 sequel PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING!

WORST WORK

That's right y'all, when John Gulager's PIRANHA 3DD looks like a bona fide masterwork in comparison, you know PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING has indeed notched your cinematic nadir. Wow. Now, we will cut Cameron some slack here, as it's widely known that he was replaced after only a week of shooting by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis. Word is Assonitis detested what Cameron was laying down and fired his ass before taking over the directorial reins himself. I suppose it can therefore be argued that THE SPAWNING isn't a Cameron film at all, but since he seemed to have no qualms about eventually taking credit for the low-budget sequel, the criticism seems fair enough. Hell, Cameron even has a good sense of humor about it all, once publicly claiming "I believe 'The Spawning' was the finest flying piranha movie ever made." That it is, Jimbo, that it is!

Funnily enough, THE SPAWNING wasn't all bad. Actually, word is the flying piranha FX were reused by Cameron for the face-hugger scenes in ALIEN. Perhaps more valuable, Cameron has claimed that it was during the Rome release of PIRANHA 2 that he actually fell ill and had a fever dream in which he envisioned a metallic torso dragging itself from an explosion while holding kitchen knives in its hand. Yup, it was during the press tour of THE SPAWNING that Cameron germinated the first seedling of THE TERMINATOR. Go f*cking figure!

TRADEMARKS

With a strong and unwavering visionary like Cameron, many personal touches can be traced throughout his decorated body of work. For instance, his films almost always center on a bold and independent female character. Ripley (ALIENS), Sarah Conner (TERMINATOR) and Neytiri (AVATAR) are all prime examples of such. Then there's the thematic through-lines...as Cameron often poses large questions regarding man vs. nature, man vs. machine, man vs. his own worse self, etc. His films also tend to take place in or around the oceans, with varying arrays of blue steeping the color palate of most of said underwater movies. There's also his recurrent casting, favoring kick-ass names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and a few others. It's these consistent qualities that make a Cameron film almost instantly identifiable.

More cinematic constants in Cameron's oeuvre include the use of explosive and incendiary slow-mo action sequences, many of which built around or centered on an elevator lift (ALIENS, T-2, TRUE LIES, etc). He also tends to put his children characters in great places of peril, a la Newt in ALIENS and/or young John Conner in T-2. Cameron also allocates the embodied/disembodied computer POV in almost all of his films...be it the infrared outputs of the TERMINATOR, the video logs in AVATAR, the helmet-cams in ALIENS, the surveillance lenses in TRUE LIES, etc. It's safe to say that, through all these collective signatures, the sum totality equals an unmistakable James Cameron event!

HIDDEN GEMS

GET THE ABYSS HERE

Likely due to the gargantuan success of flicks like TITANIC, TERMINATOR, ALIENS and AVATAR, it would seem quite easy miss Cameron's fingerprints left on movies like THE ABYSS and STRANGE DAYS. Perhaps the former less so since he directed it, but how many of you knew that he actually wrote and produced the latter...for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow to direct no less? How amicable, no?

But first, THE ABYSS. One could argue that the 1989 underwater alien yarn is the lightest, most accessible and most warm-hearted of all of Cameron's work. It's PG-13 rating certainly supports that assertion, as does the casting of kind-faced stars like Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the two leads. The extraterrestrial search-and-rescue effort is that rare Cameron flick that actually leaves you uplifted and feeling optimistic about the future of humanity, a stark departure from his more well known and celebrated dystopian works. And despite the nightmare production shoot, one so maddening that Ed Harris reportedly socked Cameron in the face after continuing to film while he (Harris) nearly drowned, the subject matter is and was so near and dear to Jim's heart that he followed up with the underwater documentaries GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS in 2003 and ALIENS OF THE DEEP in 2005. Both flicks too can be construed as nonfiction hidden Cameron gems!

GET STRANGE DAYS HERE

STRANGE DAYS though, that's the true under-the-radar movie among Cameron's credits. I recall just being f*cking floored with its frenzied energy and wild imagination when clocking the film on video in the living room with my dad and sister one late 90s afternoon. What a bizarre mind-f*ck of a movie! The crux of the film deals with distorted memories and perverted emotions, as an ex-cop spirals into a complex murder mystery involving virtual reality and assumed human identity. It's a dazzlingly colorful movie that hums along at a torrid pace, populated with ever-memorable character actors like Tom Sizemore, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Vincent D'Onofrio...all supporting a great early starring turn by our compromised antihero Ralph Fiennes. Perhaps not a great movie, but certainly an unforgettable one...and one not often as associated with Cameron as it ought to be. In fact, Cameron is said to have done extensive editing work on the film but wasn't credited because he was not part of the editing union at the time. And if you look closely, one of Cameron's visual's trademark can be found during the fight scene among Lenny, Mace and Philo's crew. It's the broken florescent lighting scheme in sprays light across the frame like an abstract painting. That's a certified Cameron touch!

NEXT PROJECTS

GET AVATAR HERE

There's no goddamn wonder that, in the wake of STAR WARS' meteorically-cratering global impact, Jimmy Cam will go back to the marketing drawing board to one up J.J. Abrams and Disney with his next three...count them, THREE...new AVATAR flicks. He has to. It's in his competitive DNA. Scheduled for successive Christmastime releases in 2017, 2018 and 2019, very little about the continued AVATAR sagas has been dispensed, deliberately so, outside of course the fact that all three films were produced in New Zealand simultaneously. We also know that the principals in the first flick - namely Worthington, Weaver, Saldana and Lang - are all set to reprise their iconic Pandora personalities.

Oh, there is one other thing we can expect, per Cameron himself. Peep what he so eloquently had to say about the upcoming AVATAR sequels:

"They’re gonna be bitchin’. You will shit yourself with your mouth wide open."

Wow, how graphic. Not that I don't believe him, the question simply is, has too much time elapsed between the first film and its sequels to really give a damn? Are we still clamoring for more Pandora? Has the world of movies moved on to something grander and greater? My guess is yes, though we've all learned long ago to never bet against Cameron and his highly successful business acumen.

And believe it or not, Cameron has a few other non-AVATAR arrows in the quiver. One project he's long been attached to as producer is called ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, which he also scripted from Yukito Kishiro's acclaimed graphic novels. Word is Robert Rodriguez is slated to helm the flick under Cameron's watchful eye. Here's the story synopsis for the purported $200 million super-epic:

Alita is a creation from an age of despair. Found by the mysterious Dr. Ido while trolling for cyborg parts, Alita becomes a lethal, dangerous being. She cannot remember who she is, or where she came from. But to Dr. Ido, the truth is all too clear. She is the one being who can break the cycle of death and destruction left behind from Tiphares. But to accomplish her true purpose, she must fight and kill. And that is where Alita's true significance comes to bear. She is an angel from heaven. She is an angel of death.

Sounds pretty gnarly, no? Question is, would you rather see the next three AVATAR entries or BATTLE ANGEL first?

OVERALL

Love it or loathe it, the history of cinema can't well be written without James Cameron's contributions. After all, dude's the self-proclaimed King of the World! From early bites of brilliance flashed in PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING to the fully realized, unmistakable worlds of TERMINATOR, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, AVATAR and the profound global impact each has had...Cameron's capacity for creating ubiquitously consumed mass entertainment without the sacrifice of intelligence is truly second to none. At now 60 years of age, let's see if Cameron can continue to demonstrate more of the same with the AVATAR saga and beyond. My money says he will. What says you?

Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite Cameron flick?
Source: AITH

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