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Face-Off: Steven Spielberg vs. James Cameron

03.08.2012by: Paul Huffman
In last weeks Face Off we let two 80's icons duke it out, the contenders were the memorable characters of Ferris Bueller and John Bender. You are readers have spoken and the righteous dude Bueller ruled the strikebacks 9-3. This week we pit two of today's most prolific directors against each other and see who comes out on top.

This Face-Off proves to be interesting. Although James Cameron does not have as an extensive filmography as that of Steven Spielberg, the films Cameron has churned out have had a lasting impression on critics, audiences, and the Box Office throughout the years. We will be looking at these two legends' work as a whole this week, in the form of five Face Off's within a Face Off. I'll choose five of Spielberg's best versus five of Cameron's best and force myself to choose which of these classics left a larger impact on me. Naturally you'll ask how could I choose between some of these films? Well, cuz that's the job folks. Follow my lead.

Jaws/Terminator
Jaws is a classic film that earned Steven Spielberg understandable comparisons to the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg employed an amazing technique of keeping the horror of what was causing all this mayhem hidden in the shadows for most of the film, and it's a technique that paid off.

The troubled production makes you have to appreciate this film that much more, you have to know there were times this gem may not have even seen the light of day, but boy did it. It had characters to root for, great performances, and made you fear stepping foot into the water. Jaws had the honor of being the highest grossing film of all time until Star Wars took over that mantle. Spielberg took elements that many thought was impossible to pull off and made it happen, this is to be commended.
The Terminator came to Cameron in the form of a dream that consisted of a metallic torso emerging from flames with knives in hand, and well...the rest is history. Cameron went to work on the script and the rest of the pieces fell into place. Usually films that cover the concept of time travel give me migraines, but with this film I was always just along for the ride. That alone is a testament to it's entertainment value.

So much depth was put into this story, likeable characters, and it showcased a character that Ahnuld was born to play. This film also has to be noted for it's many memorable scenes, the glimpses of a post-apocalyptic future as envisioned by Cameron, and the incredibly suspenseful neo-noir club scene. Bravo Cameron, bravo.

*The studio expressed desire to see O.J Simpson as the Terminator, but Cameron felt O.J would not be believable as a killer.
Close Encounters/Aliens
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in many ways a labor of love for Spielberg, he pulled many elements from his past to bring this project to life and it shows. When he was a boy Spielberg was woken up by his father and taken to the side of a rode to witness a meteor shower (remind you of anything)? Many scenes that showed up in Close Encounters were pulled from a film Spielberg shot as a teenager entitled Firelight.

Close Encounters also marks one of the rare instances Spielberg wrote the entire screenplay for one of his films. I would say he did a good job, up until the wonderful climax at the end we are kept on the hook by the slow deterioration of the mind of the main character played by Richard Dreyfuss. It's a wonderful classic where Spielberg's passion shines through.
When I saw Alien I thought to myself, how can you top this? Then I jumped into the sequel that Cameron graced us with and I received my answer. Alien was slow, methodical, it toyed with your fears and your emotions and did it effectively. Aliens was a balls to wall, in your face action romp that was effective for completely different reasons. Cameron had the task of portraying the evolution of our main character Ripley into the battle scarred, hard ass she became and we bought it. This marks his introduction into kick ass female characters (carried over into Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Iconic lines, memorable characters, and a change of pace from the original make this one of the best sequels of all time. Cameron had big shoes to fill and he got the job done.
E.T./The Abyss
E.T. is a personal favorite of mine. The themes of family, acceptance, and the need to connect with someone resonated with me then, and it resonates with me today. The iconic imagery, the unbelievable performances from the films child actors, the music, and of course that cuddly little alien just stay etched in your brain after you've seen this film. You can't shake it. Also it must be said that this is one of the few films I could watch today and be taken back to childhood, for some that is hard to pull off but damn if Spielberg didn't capture all of our imaginations with this gem.
Many critics praised the first two acts of The Abyss but go on to say the conclusion made the film fall flat on it's face. This is not an opinion I share, although I do agree with the part about the first two acts being tops. Boy did this bad boy have some suspense to it, a great cast, a great score, and yes...a satisfying conclusion. Cameron is famous for his rough filming style, several members of the cast had emotional breakdowns in the process of filming this movie and I'd just like to say...I hope everyone involved with this film knows it was worth it.
Schindler's List/Titanic
Schindler's List has been met with a mix of high praise and controversy. It was naturally going to be a tough subject to tackle, but it my opinion it was ultimately done with taste and the perfect amount of emotion. You take away all the hoopla surrounding what this film is addressing and strip it down to it's core and it's about one man making a huge difference in the lives of many.

Shot brilliantly in black and white, save for a little girl wearing a red coat that has become an iconic part of this film, Spielberg threw us into recognizing the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and one mans unwavering mission to save as many as he can. This was an important project for Spielberg and in my opinion he treated it with respect and gave us one hell of an emotional ride.
Titanic gave us an epic love story (I'm a sap back up off me) that we felt from the beginning was doomed to be torn apart because all knew where it was going. That's a formula of storytelling I can get into. For some this film didn't work, for me the love story I could buy until sh*t hit the fan and I attribute that to the fine performances from our two leads, and the rest of the cast while I'm it.

Then came the groundbreaking visual effects that this film had, holy shit. I listened to Cameron's DVD commentary for this film not too long ago and had to appreciate the amount of research he conducted to make this film as close to reality as humanly possible. The dedication to detail showed in the final product, the grand scale of this film was breathtaking and in my opinion the love it got come awards season was completely deserved. A great achievement.
Jurassic Park/Avatar
What is there to say about Jurassic Park? I will say in all my years I can't recall anyone I know having anything negative to say about this thrill ride. With this film Spielberg came around once again and broke new ground, captured our imaginations, and put us on the edge of our seats. All of the elements of this film just worked: the location, the score, the suspense, the cast of characters...it just feels like this movie did no wrong. Thank you Steven.
Avatar, oh Avatar...your glorious visual feast you. Cameron graced us with this film in 2009 and whooped his own ass in Box Office sales making this to date the highest grossing film in North America. While I agree with the general opinion that this film didn't have the most original of plots, Dances with Wolves mixed with Pocahontas with a little Ferngully sprinkled on top blah, blah, blah. But there are hardly any new stories anymore, so bring something to the table and Cameron did what he does best. His visuals. Shot with groundbreaking technology Cameron once again revolutionized the film industry with this movie and for that it has to be recognized. The sequels are sure to break even more new ground.
Overall Work
Steven Spielberg has made a name for himself producing half the sh*it that comes out these days. His name has been attached to various other classic films i.e. Poltergeist, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and various cartoons and television series. His filmography is so vast that I was not even able to add many classics of his in this categories...films like the Indiana Jones trilogy, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, A.I, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and the countless other films he's recently released or is currently working on can't be ignored. He shows no signs of slowing down and I am expecting more classics from this man.
As I stated earlier, James Cameron does not have as much of a resume as Steven Spielberg does...but the contributions and breakthrough in technology that Cameron has brought to the game puts him on the same level nonetheless. Actors and crew members have called Cameron difficult to work with, even in some instances calling him cruel and noticing his temper, while this may be true all the effort he puts it and forces from the people he works with has shined through in the finished product and well...it's worked. In addition to his many classic films Cameron has also had a notable hand in documentaries including Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. He's a man of many interests and it makes him intriguing as a Director and as a person. I look forward to more game changing work from James Cameron.
Steven Spielberg
So there you have it, folks. This was a close race but ultimately Steven Spielberg's films do indeed have more of a place in my heart. Both Spielberg and Cameron have earned their title as two of the best directors of all time with their contributions to the industry. So what do you think? PLEASE NOTE that this isn't to focus on the selected films I've chosen to talk about, but rather the quality of the men behind these many classics.

If you have an idea that you'd like to see in a future FACE OFF column, feel free to shoot an email to me at paulhuffman@joblo.com with your ideas and some ideas for the critique to base your ideas off. Thank you and in the meantime...

Which director is your favourite?
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