Few filmmakers have achieved the commercial success of James Cameron—and few likely ever will. Whether it’s his combination of classical archetypes with cutting edge visual effects that wins people over, or the fact that he gives audiences what they want before they even know they want it, there’s no arguing against James Cameron’s huge influence over Hollywood. He’s responsible for the two highest grossing films of all time. He’s as much a pioneer of modern commercial filmmaking as Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. But Cameron is no mere populist, although his films transcend boundaries and appeal to all audience demographics. Cameron is the explorer as filmmaker. He makes movies that constantly push forward filmmaking technology, ushering in new eras of technique and style. He is constantly pushing towards the new, even though he has an affection for the old. James Cameron is a perfectionist and master filmmaker, combining the newest filmmaking technology with universal stories that remain timeless.
Cameron was born in Ontario in 1954. He grew up in Ontario before moving to California with his family when he was 17. He spent a few years in college studying physics and English before dropping out and working odd jobs. During this time he taught himself special effects by going to the library at the University of Southern California and reading graduate student theses. By the time Star Wars (1977) came out, he decided to quit the odd jobs and pursue a career in film. He made the short film Xenogenesis (1978) as a test of his talents.
Cameron plied his trade in the design department on films like Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). He also worked as a miniature model maker at Roger Corman Studios. Cameron got his first gig as a feature director on Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981), after the original director dropped out and Cameron was promoted from special effects director. Unfortunately, Cameron was fired before the film’s completion and had no influence on the film’s post-production, although he did try to break into the editing room to offer his own cut on the film.
The first real show of Cameron’s talent was The Terminator (1984), a low budget science-fiction action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as its titular robot assassin sent back in time to kill a woman so she never gives birth to the future leader of the human resistance, John Connor. The humans of the future send Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time to stop the terminator from killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and what follows is a race against time as the man and the robot try to find Connor first. The Terminator is high concept, but the film itself couldn’t be easier to comprehend. It’s essentially a distillation of the action movie down to its core elements: the damsel in distress, the scrappy hero, and the invincible villain. However, instead of a cruel gangster or a deranged criminal, the villain here is a homicidal robot, which allowed Cameron to play with special effects to create a character audiences had never seen before. The character’s glowing red eye and metal endoskeleton became hallmarks of sci-fi gadgetry. Design is as integral as story in Cameron’s films, as he conceives of both simultaneously while developing the films. The character of the terminator also took advantage of Schwarzenegger’s Austrian flatness better than any film before or since, as his limited range and hulking physique played to the character’s terrifying inhumanity. The Terminator is an example of a great idea using limited resources in ingenious ways. It cleverly combines miniatures and stop-motion technology to depict the terminator and the post-nuclear future where machines hunt humans.
However, The Terminator is more than just interesting design. It’s also a riveting action film and moving love story. The sequence where the terminator marches into a police station to kill Sarah Connor who’s been taken into protective custody highlights Cameron’s knack for action scenes. Few sequences in modern cinema showcase a villain’s danger better than the terminator mowing down waves of police officers as they try to bring him down with a hail of bullets. As for the film’s romantic qualities, it predicts Titanic’s doomed lovers as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese become lovers brought together through time to fulfill a love that ends up saving the world. Even in his first Hollywood movie, Cameron combined ingenious design and world-building with classical storytelling that struck a nerve. The film was a surprising hit for its studio, Orion Pictures, and made Cameron a star on the rise in Hollywood.
Cameron lobbied The Terminator’s success to secure the directing bid for Aliens (1986), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror movie, Alien. Instead of trying to replicate the first movie’s isolated horror, Cameron turned the sequel into a feminist action vehicle where Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley returns to the planet from the first film with a platoon of marines to wipe out the alien xenomorphs. It’s the first example of Cameron’s love for tough female protagonists, as the film’s female characters with machine guns, taking on aliens in a blockbuster action movie, was something of a first in mainstream Hollywood. Aliens’ militaristic futurism also inspired countless science-fiction franchises to follow, from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers to the video game series Halo to Cameron’s own Avatar.
After Aliens, Cameron directed another science-fiction adventure, The Abyss (1989), about deep sea oil riggers who find aliens at the bottom of the ocean. The film starred popular stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn, but it’s most famous for its pioneering use of CGI. In a scene late in the second act, an alien pseudopod tentacle comes out of the depths and investigates Harris and the other riggers. Never before had CGI been such an integral part of a film. The Abyss also pushed forward filming techniques as most of the film was shot underwater in abandoned nuclear cooling stacks replicating the deep ocean. The intense shooting process almost drowned Ed Harris, but it resulted in a film that is convincingly aquatic, even if it lacks the urgency of Cameron’s other pictures.
In 1991, Cameron returned to the property that made him famous with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This time the plot followed a terminator (again played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to protect the adolescent John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a new liquid metal terminator (Robert Patrick) sent back to kill him. Although the plot resembles the first film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day or T2 never repeats what made the first film so successful. Instead, it builds and expands upon the first film’s template, again revolving around a series of chases between fragile humans and unstoppable machines. Instead of the romantic focus of The Terminator, T2 shifts its focus to paternal love as Schwarzenegger’s terminator becomes a surrogate father to John Connor, growing emotions throughout the film and learning to comprehend human attachments. It remains Schwarzenegger’s best performance. Also, true to Cameron form, T2 again pushed forward visual effects technology. After proving that CGI technology was competent enough to incorporate into The Abyss, Cameron relied on it even more in T2 as Robert Patrick’s T-1000 shape-shifts and the necessary effects could not be accomplished through special effects. The now-famous scene of the T-1000 emerging from a burning semi-truck in liquid metal form before molding itself back into human form changed everything about blockbuster filmmaking. There was no going back. Everything from Jurassic Park (1993) to The Matrix (1999) to The Lord of the Rings series (2001-2003) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a result of T2’s success.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day ended up being the biggest film of 1991, again cementing Cameron’s magic touch in Hollywood. He followed up the film with another Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, True Lies (1994), a romantic action comedy about a spy (Schwarzenegger) who keeps his espionage career secret from his mousy wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). He also co-wrote the science fiction film, Strange Days (1995), for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.
In 1997 Cameron released the biggest film of all time, Titanic. A retelling of the famous 1912 sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, the film focused on a fictional love story between a rich girl, Rose (Kate Winslet), and a poor boy, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), who fall in love during the ship’s doomed voyage. The first half of the film follows Jack and Rose’s courtship and the class conflicts that their romance stir up, while the second half is devoted entirely to the sinking of the ship, depicting its fall into the Atlantic in real time as the various passengers struggle to survive. Titanic is cutting edge technical filmmaking in service of unabashedly old-fashioned storytelling. It’s a sweeping romance and the biggest disaster movie ever made. It also happens to be Cameron’s crowning achievement.
Cameron’s perfectionism is on full display in Titanic. An exact replica of the ship was created to act as the set and it replicated every conceivable detail of the sunken ship, from the wallpaper to the chinaware, aside from the engines. Cameron even dove to the bottom of the Atlantic to film the Titanic’s wreck, the footage of which he ended up using in the film’s frame narrative. However, Titanic is no mere technical achievement, although its success in that department is mind-boggling even today. The final hour of the film is a masterclass in crosscutting, as Cameron resolves the various tensions between the characters while keeping track of the ship’s descent into the water and the efforts of the crew to get the passengers to safety. Even if the film’s story was a dud, it’d still be a film worth celebrating as its climax is too thrilling to resist. One shot frames the lifeboats in the foreground and the ship’s rudder and propellers rising into the air in the background, achieving a sense of scale that is truly awesome and conveys the ship’s size better than any other.
But the film’s heart is with its romance, which is one of cinema’s best. It helps that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are both embodiments of beautiful youth, but their performances are also electric. Their chemistry is undeniable and their performances are archetypal enough to allow us to posit ourselves onto them, while specific enough to ring as true to the character and their circumstances. Cameron gets a lot of flak for being an ornery director to work with but he’s capable of coaxing great performances from his actors. As well, the doomed nature of their romance amplifies the doomed nature of the ship. It only magnifies the film’s already powerful emotions. For, as the ship fully sinks into the water and it becomes clear that Jack is not going to make it out of the film alive, the viewer is helpless against the tide of feeling. Cameron is a director known for his technical prowess, but he’s also a master at conjuring grand emotions and moving his audiences to tears.
Titanic became the highest grossing film ever and racked up 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron wouldn’t make another feature film for 11 years after. Instead he produced the television series Dark Angel and worked on deep sea research, which he chronicled in documentary films like Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), where he further investigates the Titanic wreck, and Aliens of the Deep (2005), which examined strange life forms living on the ocean floor. In 2009 Cameron returned to feature filmmaking and science-fiction with Avatar, a sci-fi epic and environmentalist fable about a crippled marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who arrives on the alien planet Pandora, occupies a surrogate alien body and falls in love with the alien princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Avatar drew upon a Pocahontas narrative and imbued it with imaginative wonder; it was another example of Cameron wedding modern filmmaking with classical storytelling.
As Cameron had done before with T2 and Titanic, Cameron changed the blockbuster landscape with Avatar. The film started the 3D filmmaking craze as its pioneering use of 3D allowed viewers to immerse themselves in the storyworld and mirror the avataristic experience of the film’s main character. Just as Jake Sully enters the body of his alien avatar, 3D allowed audiences to enter the world of Pandora. Avatar was also seen as the saving grace for theatre going, bringing people to the theatres in droves in a time when at-home viewing was threatening to unseat the traditional filmgoing experience. Avatar ended up breaking Titanic’s records becoming the highest grossing film of all time, a record it holds to this day.
James Cameron is currently working on three sequels to Avatar, which he intends on releasing in 2017, 2018, and 2019. It’s possible these films will lack of the freshness of Avatar and disappoint audiences, but as we’ve learned over the years, it never pays to count Cameron out. He is endlessly inventive, inventing new technology or shepherding existing technology past its conceivable limits in order to achieve staggering feats of imagination. He’s a filmmaking pioneer, pushing the limit of what we can experience when we go to the movies, but also drawing upon classical storytelling archetypes that make these experiences universal. Few filmmakers are as reliable at combining the new with the old, or as equally both storytellers and stylists.