Total Recall

Total Recall: James Cameron Movies

We take a look at the career of the visionary director of Avatar.

by | December 16, 2009 | Comments

James Cameron

He got his start as a miniature model maker at Roger Corman Studios, and promptly went on to establish himself as one of the biggest directors in Hollywood — both in terms of his staggering box office grosses ($3.5 billion worldwide and counting) and his seemingly limitless appetite for epic storytelling. Like a lot of filmmakers, James Cameron‘s imagination has often outpaced the available technology — but unlike most of his peers, when confronted with those limits, he simply spurs the invention of new technology to get around them. Cameron’s latest effort, Avatar, required the development of a whole new 3-D camera, and rode the bleeding edge of CGI’s outer limits. After years of buildup, Avatar is finally here — but before we witness what’s being hyped as the future of filmmaking, why don’t we look back at James Cameron’s past?


9. Piranha II: The Spawning

Say what you will about low-budget horror movies, but they’ve proven themselves to be a strangely fertile breeding ground for future stars — from Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun to Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, countless young Hollywood professionals have paid their rent by toughing it out in a low-budget slasher. Few success stories have had humbler beginnings than James Cameron’s, however — the Roger Corman graduate was promoted from special effects on Piranha II after the original director took a hike. To Cameron’s chagrin, the promotion was largely ceremonial; he ultimately wasn’t even allowed to see his own footage, and according to legend, he broke into the studio’s editing facility to try and create his own cut of the film. Though it’s tempting to wonder what a Piranha II director’s cut would look like, it’s hard to imagine any amount of editing making an appreciable difference in the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction; Empire’s Kim Newman offered one of the kindest reviews, gently dismissing it after the fact as “for curious completists only.” To his credit, Cameron has shown a sense of humor about the whole thing, referring to Piranha II as “the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made.”


8. True Lies

Cameron closed out a decade as one of America’s preeminent action directors with True Lies, a reunion with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who starred as double life-leading secret agent Harry Tasker) and Brad Fiedel (who provided the score, as he had for the Terminator films). The death knell had sounded for the big, dumb 1980s action movie with 1992’s prophetically titled The Last Action Hero — which, fittingly, also starred Schwarzenegger — but Cameron helped revitalize the genre with a light, funny, fast-moving thrill ride that boasted likable performances from not only its well-muscled star, but a crackerjack supporting cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and Tom Arnold at his funniest. (Yeah, yeah, we know — insert your favorite Tom Arnold insult here.) Though it was heavily criticized for being misogynist and racist, True Lies combined with Speed to make the summer of 1994 feel a little like the 1980s never ended, and took Cameron’s reign as a Hollywood action king to its logical conclusion. Three years later, he’d resurface with the ultimate chick flick of the decade — but in the meantime, he was still earning the begrudging praise of critics like the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen, who wrote, “However high your ranking on the culture scale, I defy you to watch this and leave the theatre without a whistled ‘Wow’ followed by a grudging ‘That’s entertainment.'”


7. Ghosts of the Abyss

What originally drew James Cameron to Titanic wasn’t the chance to tell the story of the most famous shipwreck in American history — it was the opportunity to take a diving tour of the real-life wreckage. And since Cameron never does anything small, the end result was not just another movie, but a 3-D documentary — Disney’s first! — filmed with specially created cameras and beefed up with nifty CGI that let the audience see what the ship might have looked like during its seafaring days. Presented in IMAX 3-D, Ghosts of the Abyss functioned as a sort of delayed footnote to Titanic, albeit one with plenty of the sort of gee-whiz special effects Cameron would eventually use to create Avatar — and for some critics, that footnote was even more compelling than the main article. As Jeff Vice of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News wrote, “When James Cameron got a second chance to make a Titanic movie, he actually managed to make a better one.”


6. Titanic

Yes, it’s over three hours long, and yes, royalties from its soundtrack will keep future generations of Celine Dion’s family comfortably ensconced in gated communities for centuries to come — but don’t believe the post-backlash conventional wisdom that says James Cameron’s Titanic is a watery, overlong mess that only sentimental saps ever really liked. That’s just the backlash talking, and for proof, just look at the staggering $1.8 billion it grossed — Titanic was one of the last truly unifying pop culture phenomena, the Thriller of 1990s films. (Which sort of makes Billy Zane the filmic equivalent of “The Girl Is Mine,” but we digress.) Such great rewards didn’t come without equally impressive risks; at the time, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, and its astronomical $200 million budget, coupled with post-production delays that bumped the film’s release date back by almost six months, had many people predicting a Heaven’s Gate-style disaster. The rest, as they say, was history; commercial kudos aside, Titanic won 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and made Cameron enough money to keep him from working another day in his life. It was so unavoidably huge that it’s easy to understand why it became hip to dismiss the (first) movie that gave us Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as young lovers on the brink of certain doom, but its 82 percent Tomatometer doesn’t lie — and neither did Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile when he wrote, “You will walk out of Titanic not talking about budget or running time, but of its enormous emotive power, big as the engines of the ship itself, determined as its giant propellers to gouge into your heart, and as lasting as the love story that propels it.”


5. Aliens of the Deep

Two years after taking audiences on a deep sea expedition with Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron dove even further for Aliens of the Deep. As with Ghosts, he used 3-D technology to take audiences on his journey — but this time, instead of exploring a sunken ship, he ventured to the hydrothermal vents of the Mid-Ocean Range, where an otherworldly ecosystem (hence the film’s title) supports a variety of unusual organisms. Part of a three-dimensional holding pattern between madly hyped tentpole features? Perhaps. But as David Hiltbrand of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The experience is so immediate and immersive that you actually feel as if you are swimming with the krill.”


4. The Abyss

Cameron had to spearhead the invention of a new type of 3-D camera before he could get Avatar off the ground, but he was no stranger to breaking the limits of technology to bring his vision to life: 1989’s underwater epic The Abyss required the construction of the world’s biggest tank of filtered fresh water, as well as newly designed watertight cameras and bleeding-edge special effects work from Industrial Light & Magic. It also required a lot of patience on the part of its cast (including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, both of whom suffered emotional breakdowns during the grueling six-month shoot) and crew (including Cameron himself, who spent hours at a time under 50 feet of water) — and the studio had its own cross to bear, enduring millions of dollars in cost overruns and weeks of delays. In the end, The Abyss wasn’t as profitable as Cameron’s other epics, only bringing in around $90 million against a $70 million budget, but critics were generally kind, particularly to the longer version that eventually surfaced on home video (Widgett Walls of called the theatrical release “an abomination” and wrote, “For God’s sake, make sure you have the director’s cut”). And perhaps more importantly, all that mucking around with wet stuff helped prepare Cameron for a certain movie about an ocean liner hitting an iceberg.


3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

More often than not, if it takes seven years to put together the sequel to a hit movie, disappointment is just around the corner. In the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, the prolonged delay worked to everyone’s advantage: James Cameron, a relative newcomer when The Terminator was filmed, had spent the intervening years turning himself into one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, and one of the few filmmakers with enough clout to secure the $102 million budget necessary to pay for both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the super-cool special effects that turned Robert Patrick into a puddle of molten metal. It was money well spent, as T2‘s eventual $519 million worldwide gross proved; in fact, despite its slightly lower Tomatometer rating, many fans believe the second Terminator is superior to the original. If you enjoy movies and shows like ABC’s Lost, in which white-knuckle action and impossibly trippy sci-fi storylines somehow manage to coexist, thank James Cameron for Terminator 2, because this is one of the best examples of how to do it right. In the words of Newsweek’s David Ansen, “For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this bruisingly exciting movie never loses sight of its humanity. That’s its point, and its pride.”


2. The Terminator

Talk about your abrupt turnarounds: just a few years after suffering through Piranha II, Cameron convinced Orion Pictures to take a chance on his idea for a sci-fi action film about a time-traveling cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a mission to kill the mother (Linda Hamilton) of a 21st century freedom fighter before she can get it on with her predestined baby daddy (Michael Biehn). Unlike its ever-expanding pack of sequels and spinoffs, 1984’s The Terminator was a low-budget affair, going from set to screen for a paltry $6.5 million — and it promptly turned around and grossed more than $75 million, launching a franchise that has gone on to outlast Cameron’s involvement (much to the chagrin of many fans). Even though The Terminator‘s budgetary constraints occasionally show up onscreen, it’s still easy to see why it was so successful — not only is it one of the most purely entertaining popcorn flicks of the decade, this was the role Schwarzenegger was born to play. “I remain perpetually amazed by how magnificently Cameron keeps the tension up,” wrote Antagony & Ecstasy’s Tim Brayton, adding, “there is not a single moment that isn’t operating at 100 percent.”


1. Aliens

More than a decade before he stood in front of an international audience and proclaimed himself the king of the world, James Cameron demonstrated his healthy reserves of chutzpah by approaching Fox about taking the reins on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unlike Piranha II, Cameron’s proposed Aliens would be following up a certified classic — and one that many viewers would have been happy to leave sequel-free. Fox wasn’t particularly eager to revisit Alien either, at least initially; first, the studio expressed doubt as to whether there was really an audience for another installment, and then a pay dispute with Sigourney Weaver threatened to derail the whole thing. Even when Aliens started to roll, the obstacles kept coming — Cameron’s difficulties with his uncooperative crew are the stuff of legend — but by the time the sequel reached audiences and returned more than $130 million on the studio’s $18.5 million investment, not to mention seven Academy Award nominations, it was pretty clear Cameron had known what he was doing all along. At 100 percent on the Tomatometer, Aliens has earned plenty of praise from top critics like Walter Goodman of the New York Times, who called it “A flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-’em-up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics.”

In case you were wondering, here are Cameron’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day — 96%
2. Aliens — 96%
3. The Terminator — 95%
4. The Abyss — 90%
5. True Lies — 85%
6. Titanic — 81%
7. Ghosts of the Abyss — 72%
8. Aliens of the Deep — 60%
9. Piranha II: The Spawning — 21%

Take a look through Cameron’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Avatar.

Finally, here’s Xenogenesis, Cameron’s first film, from 1978: