Friday, July 01, 2011

Starting Next Week: The Cameron Curriculum

"I spent all my free time in the town library and I read an awful lot of science fiction and the line between reality and fantasy blurred. I was as interested in the reality of biology as I was in reading science fiction stories about genetic mutations and post-nuclear war environments and inter-stellar traveling, meeting alien races, and all that sort of thing. I read so voraciously."

As longtime readers of this blog will recall, every summer I like to focus on the work of one particular film director. 

In 2007, my subject was the under appreciated William Friedkin.  In 2008, I gazed back (with many fellow bloggers) at "later" era John Carpenter efforts.  In 2009, my focus was on the maestro, Brian De Palma.  Finally, last summer, I took a brief detour into the murky cinematic terrain of David Lynch (Dune, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire).

Starting next week, I intend to focus the summer of 2011 on the films of James Cameron, director of The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, T2, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar.   I have selected Cameron not only because I deeply admire his films, but because he works frequently in the genre, and reviews of The Abyss and Avatar are amongst the most oft-requested by readers who visit here.

When I endeavor to survey and study the career of a particular director, I always attempt to seek out thematic and technical consistencies.  In the case of Cameron, there's much to gaze at on both fronts. 

Technically, he is frequently an innovator of developing effects techniques (The Abyss and CGI; Avatar and 3-D).  Like De Palma, he is a tinkerer, as Cameron once noted:  "I was always fascinated by engineering. Maybe it was an attempt maybe to get my father's respect or interest, or maybe it was just a genetic love of technology, but I was always trying to build things.."

In terms of theme, Cameron often returns to a set of familiar obsessions. Among the commonalities we can detect in his storytelling, Cameron films often feature:

1. "Fish out of water" characters who, despite (or perhaps because of...) their unfamiliarity with the terrain at hand, are able to navigate dangerous or critical situations with clear eyes.  Ripley in Aliens (57 years out of her time period) the Terminator in T2,  Helen Tasker in True Lies, Jake Sully in Avatar, and even Rose (Gloria Stuart) in Titanic are all virtual "aliens" in the worlds they inhabit, whether that world is the future, the past, Pandora, or the spy business.

2.) A debate about militarism.   In Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar, protagonists both collaborate with and battle against the military establishment.  Aliens showcases a brilliant "fog of war" approach to futuristic combat, and reveals "grunts" at the mercy of inexperienced, arm-chair superiors. 

But all three of these efforts also showcase Cameron's deep uncertainty about the application of military might in our future, and on alien terrain (LV-426, underneath the sea, and on Pandora).  If you throw in the anti-nuke messaging of The Terminator and Terminator 2, Cameron's fears about our war-making potential are quite evident.

Of interest, however, is the fact that Cameron is no pacifist. His characters do not shy away from war or fighting.  Ripley actively becomes a soldier in the finale of Aliens, and Jake Sully assumes a place of leadership in the tribe in Avatar.  Similarly, John Connor (of the Terminator series) becomes the human leader of the resistance against Skynet. 

So while some critics may claim that Cameron is staunchly anti-military, the truth is much more nuanced.  He readily acknowledges that war is sometimes necessary, but in these films the causes must be categorized as just in his eyes.  Ripley fights for a child's life in Aliens.  Sarah Connor fights to save the future of mankind itself in The Terminator films.  And Jake Sully in Avatar fights to save a natural (though alien...) way of life from human corporate avarice and strip mining. 

It is this last example that tends to send some into conniption fits; the idea of a human turning against his people to preserve an alien way of life.  Ironically, the same people tend not to complain in films such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, when outsiders defeat humans who -- through criminal and immoral acts -- have forsaken our shared moral values.  This may be an unsettling sign that such moral values are no longer shared as universally as we had hoped.

3.) A concern about the rising power and influence of corporations.  Cameron's 1986 film Aliens introduced the world to the "space yuppie" through the character of Carter Burke (Paul Reiser).  The screenplay for that film judged Burke and his ilk (corporate cronies, essentially...) as worse than the titular monsters because "at least you don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage." 

Avatar goes after the same target, only with the some of the details updated to include our contemporary culture (such as the presence of mercenaries in war zones).  Avatar also reflects the way that corporate and economic interests now always seem to dovetail with national matters of "security."  Closely related, perhaps, is Titanic's focus on class warfare aboard ship; an unjust system which prioritizes some human lives over others.

4.) Female characters of extraordinary wisdom and courage, such as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Lindsey Brigman, Jamie Lee Curtis's Helen Tasker, and Zoe Saldana's Neytiri.   In virtually all  such cases, these characters fight for long-standing Western ideals, including the defense of family and the hearth.  The women in Cameron's films are viewed as equal to men, and sometimes (certainly in the case of Ripley...) superior to them as well.

5.) Alien life forms of unique, mysterious and fascinating proportion.  This is one director who isn't afraid of world building, or of visualizing unknown but compelling (and believable) life forms.  This makes Cameron a personal favorite for me. The aliens, alien machines, and alien worlds in his films are splendidly, meticulously realized creations.

There's much more to write about, but this brief likely suffices for today (on the cusp of a holiday weekend).  I plan to review Aliens right here, next week, between Wednesday and Friday as time permits, and then pick up with The Abyss the week after that.  I'll review one Cameron film a week, until we're done, or until the readers shout uncle.

If you can, re-watch Cameron's films and join in the discussion. Next week: Aliens (a film on the verge of its 25th anniversary).


  1. What a great subject to take on for the summer, John. Really looking forward to this. Thanks.

  2. Hi le0pard13:

    I think it's going to be a lot of fun, and I hope you'll join us here for the retrospective.

    We start soon with ALIENS!

    Have a great holiday weekend, my friend.


  3. These themes you mention are quite pronounced in his work including Avatar, no question.

    I look forward to your coverage here.

    To this day, stepping back from Cameron's work, I would have to say Aliens and The Abyss remain my all-time favorites. Best, sff

  4. Count me in. I can't wait for this! My two fave Cameron films are ALIENS and THE ABYSS so I am stoked to read your views on 'em, JKM. Hopefully, they'll spark some lively debate.

  5. Ha, the perfect summer topic! Great intro to the philosophies and multi-faceted interests of Mr. Cameron. If there are higher expectations from an audience than those of the next Cameron film, I don't know who that director would be.

    Can't wait for the Aliens breakdown!

  6. I, too, look forward to your series on Cameron. I greatly enjoy his work, although again I haven't seen it all. Much to my surprise, I don't think I've seen any of his projects more than once--although they are certainly worth the effort and then some! The Terminator(1), Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic. (I noticed that the seven titles you chose to mention and placed in bold font...all have either Ts or As prominent in the titles. As these are the films he is most remembered for far and away, I found that an interesting coincidence.

    Eagerly awaiting this article series! I'm certain it will be fun and very thought-provoking for you and for us on this side of the screen!

    Gordon Long

  7. "Aliens" was my favorite movie of all time until it was recently passed by "Millers Crossing" (I can't tell you how underrated that movie is, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, by the way). I wrote a college theme paper on Aliens, based on the idea that an over reliance on technology doomed the Marines. Looking back on the paper, I think I got some things right, but I think now that it wasn't so much a condemnation of technology as it was an allegory of how ineffective superior technology was in Vietnam. But I do think the paper still holds up in many ways.

    In any case, I really look forward to this John. I've read your takes on Aliens and Terminator in your '80s book, and I'm consistently impressed with your insight. This should be fun.

  8. Hi everyone,

    It's great to read all your insights and thoughts about James Cameron, the subject of our summer director's project here this year.

    SFF: I'm with you about Aliens being an all-time favorite, and the Abyss too. I have to admit, I also really love Avatar. I didn't expect to feel that way, but I think it's a great film. I'm glad you're a Cameron aficionado too.

    J.D.: Two more votes for Aliens and The Abyss!!! Yes, those films truly are exceptional. Like you, I hope all these reviews spark some lively debates. Glad to have you along for the trip!

    Chris: I agree with you that there are high expectations for Cameron. Rarely, if ever has he let us down, I feel (the closest being, for me, True Lies). The attention to detail (especially technical detail...) in his films is often staggering. Glad you're in!

    More to come...

  9. PDXWiz: Excellent! I'm happy to have you aboard as well. You are right, all of his films do begin with A or T. I hadn't thought of it. But (Aliens, Abyss, Avatar) and (Titanic, True Lies, Terminator, Terminator 2) definitely fit that patten. I wonder if there's some deeper meaning there.

    BT: Aliens is one of my all-time favorite films as well. I have not seen Miller's Crossing in years, but I better add it to my queue, it looks like. Thanks for the kind comments about my work in Horror Films of the 1980s as well. I'm hoping to start from there, and expand and develop those ideas further...

    All my best,

  10. John -

    I'm looking forward to this! I'll be joining you a week late on ALIENS -- the New Beverly Theater in L.A. is showing the film on July 16. (I have never seen ALIENS on the big screen, so I'm stoked.)

    I blogged about THE ABYSS a few weeks ago... that one is also a personal favorite. I'd also be interested in hearing your take on RAMBO and STRANGE DAYS.

    Hope you had a great holiday weekend!

  11. Hi Joe,

    Enjoy Aliens on the big screen, my friend. I remember how amazing it was. I saw it in the theater three times back in 1986.

    I need to re-read your Abyss review!

    Hope you had a great July 4th.