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?
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.
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.
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.