In defence of James Cameron

Feature Ryan Lambie 12 Sep 2012 - 07:04

Is James Cameron a victim of his success? Ryan comes to the defence of the Avatar director...

In 1977, a 22-year-old man walked into a movie theatre as a truck driver, and walked out a budding filmmaker. For the young James Cameron, seeing Star Wars on the big screen was the moment when he decided, once and for all, that he wanted to make movies.

Cutting his teeth first on a ten-minute short called Xenogenesis (1978), then a stint on low-budget movies such as Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), Galaxy Of Terror (1981) and Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) - Cameron finally broke through with his 1984 film, The Terminator (1984).

Cameron would, of course, go on to helm a series of hits, including Aliens (1986), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1993), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Although not the most prolific filmmaker working in Hollywood, few directors have been quite so consistent in their success.

Over the past few years, though, something rather unusual has happened. In the wake of Titanic and Avatar’s box office dominance, the public opinion of Cameron and his films appears to have cooled. Any mention of Avatar in an online forum will inevitably prompt lots of jokes about Ferngully and Pocahontas. Look beneath a news story about Cameron’s various Avatar sequels, and you’ll find plenty of comments variously railing against Avatar’s failings and casting doubt on the creative chances of its successors.

On Monday, it was revealed that Cameron, although embroiled in “the Avatar business” for years to come, may still find time to develop the adaptation of Battle Angel he’s had in the planning stages since at least 2009. The response to that piece of news was one of apathy. One commenter on this site wrote, damningly, “No one cares what this man does anymore.” It appears to be not an unusual view.

So what happened? How did the director of some of the most beloved genre movies of all time become the focus of so much cynicism?

Hype

James Cameron’s fall from geek favour arguably began with Titanic. After more than a decade of genre work, the director decided to turn his hand to a mainstream picture, and he used his considerable industry clout to put together an expensive and lavish recreation of history’s most famous sunken ship.

The making of Titanic was not a pleasant experience. The originally planned budget of $100 million swiftly doubled. Journalists visiting the set wrote of Cameron’s fury, of the miserable, soaking wet actors and demoralised crew. Rumours began to circulate that Titanic would be one of the biggest financial failures in Hollywood history; Cameron even said to a friend at the time, “I made a $200 million chick flick where everyone dies. What the hell was I thinking?”

Then Titanic made just short of $2 billion (its 3D re-release took it over the $2bn mark at the box office earlier this year). Glowing reviews rolled in, followed by no fewer than 11 Oscar wins, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron. By turning away from sci-fi and action, the filmmaker had found the mainstream approval which had long eluded him.

After a lengthy hiatus, Cameron then began work on Avatar, a movie he’d originally began work on in the early 90s. Technically ambitious yet inspired by the pulp sci-fi fantasy novels he’d read as a youth, Avatar would see Cameron return to genre filmmaking. When the project was initially announced in 2006, the overarching response from Cameron’s fans was one of excitement. After the soppy romance of Titanic, could Avatar be a return to the spikier, more action-oriented glories of Terminator and Aliens?

Although some had predicted disaster for Avatar, the movie proved to be an even bigger smash than Titanic was. Released in December 2009, it quickly eclipsed the success of Avatar at the box office, and its current earnings stand at just over $2.7 billion in cinemas alone. Critics loved it, and reviews were almost overwhelmingly positive; “Watching Avatar, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Star Wars in 1977,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. Writers praised its special effects and use of 3D. Just over 30 years after Cameron first saw George Lucas’s defining blockbuster, he’d finally made an event movie of his own.

Gradually, however, attitudes towards Avatar began to cool. After the first wave of reviews, which were written under the dazzling glare of its release-day hype and shimmering special effects, some began to point out the movie’s flaws. Its flat dialogue and dull characterisation were singled out, as were its familiar story line, and its overbearing ecological messages. Others criticised its “white fantasy” depiction of a Caucasian man leading a group of natives to victory.

As Avatar’s profits soared, hostility towards it appeared to grow. And then those internet jokes about Ferngully and Pocahontas began in earnest.

Avatar

Like so many recent blockbusters, Avatar was a victim of its success. Had an unknown director used the same script to shoot a low-budget version of the same script (a bit like Princess Of Mars, a direct-to DVD movie designed to cash in on Avatar), few would have complained. Some may even have laughed indulgently at its references to silly fictional materials called Unobtainium, or the notion of aliens that can plug themselves into trees with a sort of organic USB port. Instead, Avatar made billions, and its widespread popularity seemed to infuriate its most vociferous detractors all the more.

It could be argued that James Cameron brought some of this on himself. Although Avatar contained its moments of explosive action, its romantic scenes were almost as numerous as those in Titanic. Fans may have wanted more of T2 or Aliens’ pace and violence, but what they got was closer to 1989's less successful The Abyss - an adventure movie with anti-war and anti-corporate themes.

It’s also fair to say that Cameron’s public image isn’t one of overwhelming warmth and humility. The director’s formidable on-set reputation was widely reported during the making of The Abyss and Titanic. When filming on the latter wrapped, Kate Winslet reportedly said that she’d never work with Cameron again unless she was given “a lot of money.”

Compared to, say, Joss Whedon, who currently has the world at his feet following the success of The Avengers, Cameron seems somewhat aloof, with his expensive hobbies (which fly in the face of his fascination with ecology somewhat) and, shall we say, 'confrontational' approach to filmmaking.

The future

With Cameron committed to making two sequels to Avatar and then a possible prequel, is it fair to say that the director’s best movies are behind him? Should we care about what Cameron makes in the future, whether it’s the rest of the Avatar franchise, or his adaptation of Battle Angel?

For this writer, the answer’s yes. Avatar was a deeply flawed film, and memorable mostly as a technical exercise rather than as a piece of storytelling, but neither is it the travesty that some have suggested. Yes, its characters and plot are dull for the most part, but to dismiss it all is to ignore the things the movie gets right.

Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch, is a great, steely-eyed villain. He oversees the destruction of entire acres of forest (not to mention its inhabitants) while sipping from a mug of coffee, and in one scene, runs around in a robot suit (or Amplified Mobility Platform) while wielding a giant knife.

Then there's the action - when it finally comes - which is epic in scale and typically well shot. Cameron may be a very different filmmaker these days, but he still knows how to put together an action sequence.

Avatar wasn’t the sequel to his earlier work that everyone was expecting or even wanted, but with it, Cameron set out what he wanted to achieve; he made extensive use of motion capture which was pioneering at the time, and managed to employ 3D in a manner that was vastly superior to previous efforts.

As for the sequels, there's a chance that Cameron could take on board some of the criticisms levelled at the original, and deliver a follow-up that’s vastly superior. After all, he isn’t rushing to get Avatar 2 finished - by the time it comes out in December 2014 (assuming it isn’t delayed), its predecessor will be five years old. The reason, it seems, is because Cameron’s designing some sort of deep-sea ecosystem for the movie, inspired by his longstanding hobby of exploring the ocean.

Admittedly, the thought of sitting through another three hours (or six, if you add Avatar 3, which will be shot back-to back with Avatar 2) of thudding environmental allegory leaves me with a slight sense of dread, but again, there’s a possibility that Cameron’s obvious interest in ecology will be toned down in his sequels.

Then there’s Battle Angel. Right now, it’s unlikely that Cameron will get round to making it until at least 2017, if not later. Even so, this adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 manga about a female cyborg in a dystopian future, sounds like a perfect fit for Cameron, and a return to the obsessions he had in the early 80s, before his interest in exploring the world’s waters took over.

Cameron directed some of the finest genre movies of the 80s and 90s, and from his humble beginnings, working on Corman movies, he fought his way up the industry ladder. It's possible he'll never make another movie of Aliens or The Terminator's calibre again - that he’s become too obsessed with the technology of filmmaking (something that’s always fascinated him), that he’s become too keen to push messages rather than tell stories, or that he's no longer the young firebrand he once was.

But then again, it’s also possible that his next few movies could be absolutely captivating. Until they're released, I'm more than willing to keep an open mind. 

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Hear hear. I have my own theory as to why Avatar has attracted subsequent criticism. Besides it's obvious flaws mentioned above, it is a love story about primitive, annoying eco blue cat people. Think about that for a bit it and the inherent uncoolness of it all dawns on you. Not of course that you realised it at the time, oh yes it was great on release - the realisation only sunk in weeks afterwards; Cameron made you watch a love story about hippies and you enjoyed it! You eventually realised it was rather more Titanic than Aliens and now you are embarrased. You feel shame and are angry at him for pulling a fast one. The bastard!

How can anyone be excited for Battle Angel? I used to read a magazine called Manga Mania many MANY years ago. They used to talk up Alita via Cameron back then. OK, he has the FX now. Still, it's been more than ten years - maybe even longer than that. We still have as much as five years to wait. And you think it's strange that people react apathetically to his producer saying 'oh yeah, still gonna make that.....someday'.
He also used to claim he was gonna make AKIRA (long before anyone else was attached).

Avatar shares a great deal with Titanic, it is a long film (probably too long), much of the first 2/3rds is a rather unconvinicing love story about 2 poor characters and the last 1/3rd is a quite spectaucular sequence.

The last third of Avatar proves that cameron has still got what it takes to excite, that battle is absolutely incredible. It is a flawed film but I have seen many highly rated films that are much worse since Avatar came out.

I think there's a better explanation for why Avatar was badly critically received: it's terrible. The characterisation is paper-thin, the setting is nowhere near as imaginative as it's made out to be, the story is too long, and most of the narrative is taken wholesale from other science fiction stories (including the entire middle of Dune- Jake manipulates prophecy/fulfills prophecy to become leader of indigenous people to fight off better equipped invaders?)

I still stand by this
Titanic - Romeo & Julett on a boat
Avatar - Pocahontas in space
I dislike the films for the pure un-orignality of them. Cameron is capable of so much more.
Avatar had no orginal ideas - Floating islands can be found in most anime/manga and computer games that came well before he thought of it in the 1990's hell play any Final Fantasy games for a start.
Thats just one of the things I've picked on but there is so much more! It wouldnt be so bad if the filler such as back drop, weapons and such had been done before if there was some orginality to the over arching story was a bit more of an orginal idea.
Cameron needs to be brave and use his holywood clout and find a talented writer and say I want to make this! I dont want to do a proven product, a story that has been told before or remake anything you have to offer!
If Christopher Nolan is brave enought to do this with Inceptions then the likes of Cameron, Ridley and ther other greats should.
The reason I have gone of Cameron is he is lazy

But Avator was not received badly by critics upon release, a fact backed up by the scores achieved on the likes of Rotten Tomatoes, IMdb and Metacritic. In fact quite the opposite. One of the points of this article is that the negative criticisms seems to be more recent and at odds with the reception upon release.

Inception of course is totally original and owes nothing whatsoever to The Matrix. It also has no gaping plot holes, isn't style-over-substance and also makes perfect sense to everyone who watches it. Oh wait...

the reason romeo and juliet is said to be about 'star crossed lovers' is because it inspired by a mythical tale. so not original. still compelling. Inception is the ultimate mcguffin-riding spy story ever, and has the flattest least interesting dream sequences ever filmed. it's as if Nolan felt dreams were rehashed james bond set pieces.

originality is overrated. a good story is always good. audiences responded to avatar. was it a complex 19th century psychological novel? no, and it didn't have to be. there may very well be a reason ferngully and avatar are important stories that people feel drawn to.

it's quite likely too that the reason it was so well received and moved enormous audiences all over the world is because it was terrible. i think you are onto something there.

people like action, but they generally don't remember the flics that are third act action from start to finish. the other annoying 2/3 of a movie are to get you to care about what is happening and not just grinning and saying "shiny things".

for the purpose of film, love stories generally don't have to be convincing. they need the protagonists to have charisma and chemistry. granted dicaprio has more of this sort of quality/ability in his left ear than pastyface from Avatar, but the principle remains. most great screen love stories are ludicrous, farfetched and curiously content free. thats not the point in film. filmis not cerebral, it is emotive and evocative. it is manipulative--that's its job. i think some people feel jaded because movies like avatar distill this essence to purely.

Yep and I did state this as an opinion, the fact you like it great fine but I prefered his more orginal stuff
Nothing is truley orginal I agree as every story has been told when you get down to the bones of it.
I just didnt think Titanic or Avatar changed it enough from obvious source matter.
Inception did change it enough in my opinion, was it perfect no but it was completly different from the matrix in my opinion which I did like but ultimatley thought was a porr mans Ghost in the Shell which the matrixs is a reverse of

I LOVE James Cameron, but i'm fearing we will never get to see the James Cameron who made Terminator, T2, Aliens or even True Lies. Thank god for Chris Nolan, but as much as I love Chris Nolan, he can't direct action as well as James Cameron. I love Inception and his Batman films, but Cameron has the edge with Terminator films and Aliens. My big wish would be Cameron to write a new terminator but with Nolan directing. And of course, the big man Arnold in it, using CGI to make him younger. I would rather see that than 10 Avatar sequels. I can only dream!!

I think you can blame the Star Wars prequels as much as anything for the angst against Avatar. George Lucas sold his storied franchise down the river in order to embrace technology at the expense of characters and story and sacrificed the personal, emotional struggles of the timeless characters of the original films at the altar of political correctness, turning his films into a rather juvenile attempt to make some grander political statement about democracies and capitalism. Avatar represents the exact same ideal wrapped up in a 250 million dollar film. As was pointed out, Avatar was far more concerned with what James Cameron could do with these new 3D cameras of his and in making some grand and yet still juvenile statement against the evils of capitalism. It's therefore little wonder that the characters and the plot were standard paint by numbers fare. As far Avatar being the highest grossing film of all time - I'd still love to see those number adjusted to take into account the extra 15% people paid for those plastic 3D glasses. Had Avatar been released during the summer without the benefit of the extra revenue it would have generated nowhere near the box office returns.

Ultimately the Avatar franchise will be fawned over by a new generation of people whose childhood it defined in the same way that Star Wars does at the moment. I'm expecting that after a couple more films there will be an extensive Expanded Universe as evidence of its position in our culture.

What you didn't mention - and I do think this is critical - is his spectacularly ill-judged Oscar speech in '98. Standing up there, hollering 'I'm King of the Worrrrld' to a mostly dumbstruck and vaguely appalled crowd? THAT is the moment people started to think he was an arrogant blowhard. I'm not sure he's ever fully recovered. I love the guy, but come on. People have had the knives out for him ever since.

He's more than a film maker. Even if his recent films aren't the most deeply original and inventive in terms of story and character development, I find that his drive to advance the technology behind the camera (and in front of it) inspiring.

His movies could be seen as F1 racing I suppose. They may not be most entertaining at times and a little predictable, but they're the pinnacle of the science of film making and what he pioneers will trickle down to what others will be using in a few years.

You gotta give him credit for that, regardless of his artistic choices at times. He's certainly no Lucas, not until he returns with Aliens X, with a tame face-hugger as a pet and domesticated Alien as comic relief. Ugh.

Wow, even a James Cameron fanboy is being overly critical of his recent work.
I think it's time everyone stopped being fanboys and haters and critics, and just enjoyed what they enjoy. I for one have no problem with Cameron's subject matter or the way it's handled. But hey, this is Den of Geek, so...

See I agree with this, my point earlier wasnt slagging cameron off I love his films I just dont like Titanic or Avatar

Has everyone forgotten that Cameron's track record with sequels is thus far 150%? This is the most exciting element of Avatar 2.

Whilst I loved Avatar, and actually still love Avatar, I feel much of the criticism has come down to the fact that it doesn't measure up as well on DVD, Blu Ray or even 3D. It was amazing at the cinema, but without all the special effects to woo you on a smaller screen I feel the story reveals itself to be a bit lame. Just my opinion however.

I'm in agreement with you on Titanic and Avatar, i didn't like them either, they were well made films, but those movies gave him more mass and critical (like Oscars) recognition, which Cameron never got from his other classic sci-fi films (well apart form us geeks and real film lovers). I think T2 was his true masterpiece, T2 is far superior to Titanic and Avatar in every way. T2 can still hold its ground to modern summer movies, which shows true testament on how good that film is and what a talented film maker Cameron is. He even got Schwarzenegger to properly act! Not many directors can do that. I just wish he would make movies like he once did. I remember in 1999 just before Titanic, it was billed as a flop and disaster by the film industry. He was gonna direct T3 with Schwarzenegger, as Arnold was going to buy the rights, when they came up for sale. But when Titanic became the huge success it was, Cameron convinced Schwarzenegger not to buy the rights for T3 and turn his back on his legacy. Shame, I would have love to have seen that film. And his version of Spiderman and Planet of the Apes. Or even True Lies 2. Maybe one day he'll get out the Avatar/Titanic business!

"here here"

So, Avatar proved to be a bigger smash than Avatar, did it?
D.O.G maintaining it's usual editorial standards. Seriously, do any of your articles get proof read before they go live?

i'm in the minority, but for me, his masterpiece is The Abyss. Titanic seemed like a great movie that I simply had little interest in, but enjoyed when i was cornered into watching it. i constantly forget it is part of his oeuvre. the original terminator comes out slightly ahead for me over the sequel. I think of T2 as more fun, and the first as more visceral, more compelling.

of course, i thought piranha 2 was a grand and silly romp, so, my opinion is questionable at best.

Settle down, typos happen.

That's not a typo though, is it?

I agree: The Abyss is my favourite Cameron film. I generally don't like long movies, but I can watch the director's cut of The Abyss and be hooked from start to finish. Still waiting for the damn thing to come out on blu-ray, since the DVD release wasn't in anamorphic widescreen and looks pants on an HDTV...

Considering the fact that everyone was crowing for him to fail during the filming of Titanic, I can see why he reacted in that way...

I second - or is that third? - that motion on 'The Abyss' being Cameron's best film to date, the extended edition is nothing short of dazzling, and would be great to see it on the big screen someday.

I've lost interest in all things Cameron because, quite frankly, he's just become a self-important caricature of himself, the fact he's also a bully and an overall nasty piece of work to those working for him sure doesn't help either. I'm not some nerd-boy who likes to diss the work of others online for chuckles, but 'Avatar' was easily Cameron's worst film to date, technically it was a landmark and brilliantly realized visual spectacle, but the script was shoddy, cliched, hackneyed, and overall a half-baked affair with no subtlety, nuance, or emotional resonance, but plenty of heavy-handed eco-waffle and pantheistic agitprop that literally has you leaping for the 'stop' button just to make the pain go away, just my opinion anyway...

Whether Cameron eventually makes 'Battle Angel' or not, truth be told, I simply couldn't care less, the man's a total buffoon and has brought the negative stereotype many in the genre fanbase community share about him upon himself, if he wants to make 'Avatar' films exclusively from now on, then fair play to him, I'll not be there though, I simply can't stand the man anymore, ugh...!

I can't keep an open mind in the face of two Avatar sequels. Terminator 2 is one of my all time favourite films and has been since I first saw it when I was 9 or 10. I've loved that film for 18 years.

When I heard that he was making Avatar, I was so excited about a new Cameron sci-fi film. My mate bought me a ticket for IMAX 3D for my birthday that year. We all went down early, bought our sweets, got pumped and then... I spent two hours bored siltless.

I didn't need Avatar to be an r-rated big ideas action spectacle. I wanted it to tell a good story well with characters I cared about. I wanted a hero to root for and an intimidating villain. It had none of these. I genuinely can't believe you refer to the villain as a strength. He looked like an old version of Christian from Eastenders and completely lacked charisma. He was a cardboard cut out military prick. Maybe a Tim Roth or Alan Rickman could've brought something to this role but Stephen Lang is not a patch on them. This is the director that brought us the T-1000 and since we get Billy Zane and an infirm Guile from street fighter and Phoebe's brother from Friends (although I actually think Giovanni Ribisi is excellent with the right material).

You can cite the special effects or the quality of the 3D all you want, but it's absolutely worthless when it's telling a dull as dishwater story with a bunch of lifeless characters. I for one will not be returning to Pandora for the sequels.

Oh, and we all know Sam Worthington is crap now right?

Interesting comments in this article but it seems to be based on the assumption that comments in online forums indicate the overall views of the general public. But is this the case or do comments on online forums merely indicate the views of the kinds of people who comment in online forums?

I think a lot of the anger towards 'Avatar' is because it is the pinnacle of what Hollywood now represents. It sits on top of a very tall mountain of cynical, money grabbing, moronic, Hollywood cr*p. Gone are the days of watching a truly memorable "movie event" like 'Back to the Future', 'Raiders' 'Ghostbusters' or 'Die Hard'. Now, they may not be 'The Godfather' or 'Citizen Kane' to some, but they do all have one thing in common... a decent script! I'm afraid that the glory days of Hollywood are long gone. Somewhere in the late 90's Hollywood discovered the "magic formula" for "getting bums on seats", and the least important ingredient is a well written script. Hollywood Blockbusters have descended to the level where they simply appeal to the lowest common denominator by hitting them with a constant stream of special effects and fast-paced editing.

Quite simply, true movie fans do not respect 'Avatars' success because it was not a well made movie. Released when the appetite for 3D was at its peak, its success was more down to its perfect timing. 'Star Wars' was in a similar situation when it was released. Just when the cinema going audience were hungry for something different to the gritty realism of 70's cinema. Although 'Star Wars' is a far superior movie.

Does ‘Avatar’ deserve the hatred that it receives? No. But it certainly doesn't deserve the acclaim that it has garnered either. We live in a world where teenagers sit in their cinema seats txting friends about how awesome 'Transformers 3' is while they are watching it. Now, If it was a truly "awesome" movie and they were fully engrossed in the story unfolding on the screen before them, would they really be sat there txting their friends…?

(Ryan…Thanks for the thoroughly interesting and insightful article).

I'm sorry but I have to disagree on how you're generalising teens as the reason bad films are made, I'm 17 and since going to the cinema was basically the only thing to do in my town when i was younger, me and my friends have been going at least once a week for the past 4 years more or less, and just because we were younger it doesn't mean we like the crap that hollywood churns out every year. Like everyone else, I was dazzled by the visuals of Avatar, but when I went to see it again, me and my friends walked out because that was the only good thing about it. I'm not saying that I haven't seen any awful hollywood film since then but I can recognise that they are horrible. Teenagers can have a good taste in films too and that isn't the minority. Oh and also, out of the 100+ times I have gone in the past few years, I have only seen someone regularly texting during the film once or twice and one of those was an adult, in fact it's mostly adults that I see using their phones during a film, because generally people my age are considerate enough to lower the brightness of our phone so we don't distract anyone. All I'm saying is is that it's unfair to generalise teenagers and blame them for the problems of hollywood, we can recognise good and bad films, the only age group that sometimes can't is children under 12, who are more impressionable, but even when I was that age I knew good films from bad, and I'm sure the majority of others did. It's not right to blame one age group for bad films, there are people of all ages who flock in to the cinema to see the latest awful film in the latest awful franchise.

I generalise, but I don't blame your age group. I blame Hollywood for insulting people's intelligence.

There seems to be a generation of critics who are more concerned with fitting in than they are spouting there real opinion, either that or they never see the movies they review in the first place. The reason I stopped buying Empire magazine was its 5 star review of 'Avatar'. I guess when studio's throw gift bags, perks, limo's and "special screenings" for reviewers, then they can buy any review they want. The whole system stinks. (as you can see, it is something I am very pasionate about).

Lets be honest, it is time Hollywood stopped blowing smoke up its ass with box office grosses. Since when is it fair comparing the box office grosses against a film released in 1939 to one released in 2009?

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