The salient sense one takes away from a revisit (or, in some less essential cases, first visit) of James Cameron’s filmography is that less-is-more. Which isn’t only a judgement on his predilection for overdoing every element, least flatteringly when this exposes shortcomings in areas such as romance, philosophy and comedy, but the cumulative fatigue of a body of work that isn’t an especially prolific, yet rapidly becomes repetitive in its only-to-himself fascinations and shamelessly cartoonish narratives and characters.
After a while, Cameron’s great strengths (namely, as a master technician of action cinema) begin to pale in the face of the more bare-faced general conceit of bringing the auteur sensibility where it barely merits it. Under which guise he scribbles increasingly rote, bloated screenplays, and is then thrown gazillions of dollars to make them.
So here is Jim Cameron ranked, on the basis of writing and/or directing gigs. I don’t think I could face producing credits as well. And admission time; if you’d asked me at the end of the ‘80s who my favourite filmmaker was, I’d have probably plumped for old Jimbo.
17. Piranha II: The Spawning
Cameron likes to distance himself from this, his first movie, which is understandable enough since he was unceremoniously dumped off it and it turned out fairly wretched, all told. Piranha II isn’t even close to one of the worst ten movies ever made, as some lists would have it, however. Conversely, The Spawning (or The Flying Killers, which is more ludicrously fitting) only occasionally crosses into “So bad, its good” territory, mostly when the flying fishies begin feasting on someone, which entails leaping through the air and attaching themselves to a victim’s neck, amid jets of the old red stuff.
Setting the store for Jimbo’s future career, the underwater photography is accomplished, while the attempts at comedy are risible. There’s also a headstrong female protagonist (Tricia O’Neil) who pays little heed to collateral damage (not quite the T2 Sarah Connor, but from tiny acorns). The highlight is Lance Henriksen’s waterlogged police chief, the actor bringing effortless cool to a rare hero part (albeit one where he’s required to behave like an idiot for a spell so his missus can do the detective work).
16. Rambo: First Blood Part II
“To survive a war, you gotta become war.” Cameron’s dry run for Aliens, with a jaded hero forced out of retirement to revisit the scene of an old crime and confront his nightmares. And, like Piranha II, this is another picture he’s prone to distance himself from. In this case, it’s the claim that Stallone rewrote the politics, while the action is his. But come on, Jimbo, you came up with Rambo returning to Nam, and you came up with the gooks teaming up with the infernal Russkies. And you had Stallone taking them all out.
I’m still bemused this was as successful as it was, as even asserting audiences loved it through ironic detachment doesn’t tell the full story (movies just don’t become that big a success for such reasons, except in the minds of critics). First Blood Part II was evidently wielding some serious cathartic weight. That, and Stallone’s ridiculous new body encapsulated the vacuous, superficial ideals of a decade when materialism became a badge of pride rather than something to feel apologetic about.
The main problem with Rambo isn’t those elements, however. It’s that it’s incredibly dull, aside from some stunning scenery chewing courtesy of Steven Berkoff, and has zero dramatic tension; as an action movie, it’s inert. While the blame for such should rightfully be placed at the door of George P Cosmatos, we should also be grateful Stallone excised a typically extravagant, action-free introductory passage from Jim’s screenplay.
15. Ghosts of the Abyss
Cameron attempts to show he’s an all-rounder, plunging into the different skillset of documentary making. I’m sure he thought it would be as easy as piddle to make, but his epic romance between Kate and Leo ends up more informative (and engaging!) than this revisit to the wreck of the biggest ship of its day. Poor Bill Paxton comes along for the ride, and is subjected to crude comedy sequences and an enormous upchuck for his sins. Which is nice (mind you, some would say his role in Titanic wasn’t altogether dissimilar). There’s some fetching underwater photography, naturally, but it hardly justifies the time and indulgence surrounding it.
14. Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time
Co-directed with John Bruno, footage from this Universal Studio Park Terminator ride can be found on YouTube. It’s an exercise in shameless convenience and moneymaking, the filmed part mostly devoid of anything you haven’t already seen, aside from Arnie riding around a 2029 future.
Apparently the attraction cost $60m, of which the filmed section, which lasts 12 minutes, came in at $24m. As you’d expect, the result is entirely ungainly, haltingly assembled in order to shoehorn in the necessary action, interaction and spectacle. Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong reprising their roles, or their live stage doubles), interrupt a Cyberdyne systems demonstration, and are attacked by a T-1000 (Robert Patrick, or his stage double) before being rescued by a T-800 (Arnie, or his stage double), on a motorbike (I’m sure that had a stage double too). Who takes John back to the future (Why? I’m blowed if I know), where they become embroiled in some futuristic robotic shit and Arnie takes down Skynet. And dies. Again.
Some will have it that this is the Terminator sequel that should have been. The nature of the beast makes it rather difficult to be definite about its potential, but I’d suggest there isn’t anything remotely interesting enough in the premise to justify a T3, or T2.5 (not that it’s necessarily inferior to what follows), which is basically a string of greatest hits moments and the chance to show a sliver more future. Arnie says “I’ll be back”, but also delivers some entirely incongruous one-liners (“Hey, bucket head!”, “He was my college roommate”, of a Terminator he destroys, and “Let’s bust a move” as they advance on Skynet). The scenes are well-shot, but they aren’t inspired.
More interesting, in a kind of sub-Verhoeven sense, are the Cyberdyne puff pieces prefacing the main event. They illustrate, lest there be any doubt, that humour and subtlety aren’t Cameron’s forte (he co-wrote with Gary Goddard and Adam J Bezark) since the satire is more statement than wit (“Feel safe, feel secure, we’re watching”, and “Skynet will search out hosts on the internet and install itself free of charge”). Nevertheless, it does quite accurately pre-empt the wholesale, ambivalent manner by which we have surrendered our privacy to surveillance technology. Skynet, “where happiness is not only mandatory, it’s policy”, connects the world as never before, and “Soon we can all sleep soundly, knowing Cyberdyne is running the show”. Host Kimberly Duncan is appallingly aggravating, such that I’m surprised visitors didn’t walk out; maybe I saw the solitary show where no one cheered when she was killed by the T-1000.
13. Aliens of the Deep
Jimbo’s final documentary to date sees him aim higher and fall lower, as he shows off for all to see his lack of rigour when it comes to making a robust piece of speculative science. He’s far more invested in how awesome the undersea creatures and landscape are than plying us with interesting information about the same, and also far too enamoured with the pretty marine biologist he pores over in every other shot. And yet, despite of the meagre pickings, even less elucidating when it comes to projecting a similar voyage of discovery to Europa, there is some quite stunning (even more so than Ghosts) photography here. It’s just that you have to wade through all the junk to get to it.
12. Expedition: Bismarck
Ironically, given it’s a TV affair, and awash with cheesy moments and choices, this is the superior of the three Cameron documentaries to date. Mostly because it actually has a kernel of narrative to get its teeth into, and a trajectory of inquiry. True, there’s far too much in the way of poor reconstructions and un-special effects, and its director couldn’t be more at home than when attending the wreck of a once destruction-wielding marvel, but piecing together the opposing takes on what took the ship down (the British Navy or German scuttlers) is the sort of thing that justifies Cameron’s inadvisable pleasure jaunt.
11. Dark Angel
2.21: Freak Nation (2002)
For an introduction to Dark Angel, you might first want to skip to No. 9 on this list. Cameron didn’t write Freak Nation (although he gets a story credit), which makes it an anomaly on his directorial CV. He came on board the Season 2 finale, in part to show Fox what might have been for a third season, but it didn’t pay off and the network cancelled on him, soon after saying they’d picked up it up for another run (“I was pissed!” – you go, Jimbo!)
Anyone hoping for some spectacular sleights of hand will be sorely disappointed, however, as Cameron sticks to the budget and delivers some reined in, static action, or attempts to pull off feats that not only don’t quite work, they’re laughably inept. When Max leaps onto a drone and uses it as a hover board, crashing it into the Jam Pony Express office, you’re left longing for the vastly superior (only relatively) flying sequences of Highlander II: The Quickening.
The office, a standard set for the show, is under siege, being as they’re occupied by a number of transgenics, and obvious mutant ones at that (one’s the spit of a nu-Who Silurian, which means he looks very much like your average ‘90s Star Trek alien). The show appropriates the transgenics from X-Men, not the subtlest of movies in the first place, in a blundering manner, with protesters exclaiming “These mutant freaks are an affront to nature!” while law enforcement shows no compunction in taking them down.
Kevin Durand, looking the spit of Vincent from the Linda Hamilton-starring Beauty and the Beast TV series, only dopier and given to spouting a lot of hippy nonsense when describing his paintings, fails to enliven the proceedings (which is unusual for him). Others are given to meaningless pseudo-profound utterances such as “You gave them freedom, Max. And the thing about freedom is, it’s never free”. And “We were made in America, and we’re not going anywhere”.
Characters fight against a soundtrack of rawk music, go back and forth about the evils of humanity, and how everyone isn’t the same as everyone else, etc., and someone even has to deliver a baby, in case you had any illusions this was other than overstretched TV fare. There’s even a prophecy, so it’s likely the production crew saw some Millennium, or Buffy (“When the shroud of death covers the face of the Earth, the one whose power is hidden will deliver the helpless” – solid gold, that). Perhaps the most Jimbo moment comes at the beginning, as Max comments contemptuously of some human protestors “Two million years of evolution, and this is what we get – you morons!” Before pulling a wheelie and riding full pelt towards them.
More an exercise in achieving and integrating special effects and design work on a negligible budget (financed by some Californian dentists for a tax write-off, it seems) than a short story of artistic merit in its own right, this nevertheless gives a taster of the director’s abiding interests and obsessions at an early stage. It was also a success in terms of its remit, as it got Cameron’s foot in the door with Roger Corman.
A mash-up of archaeology (Rak – William Wisher, co-writer of T2 – and Lon – Margaret Undiel – are searching for a place to begin life anew for humanity) and machine intelligence, Xenogenesis sees two non-descript leads happening across a dead planet in which robot war machines continue posting sentinel. Or acting as cleaning units, at any rate. You can see the basis for Aliens’ power loader in the spiderbot, which moves in synch with its human driver’s arms, leading to a rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot duel. The short makes just enough sense to follow, and Cameron clearly loved designing his sci-fi setting (the intro lasts a minute, showing off concept drawings), but it’s the definition of style over substance. Xenogenesis merits bonus points for being substantially shorter than anything else the director has gone near, though.
9. Dark Angel
Cameron’s tepid venture into series television landed softly via this 90-minute pilot. Mogul-like, he handpicked and launched a major new “star” on the world in Jessica Alba. She plays Max Guevara (yes, I know), Jimbo’s sci-fi equivalent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-by-way-of-anime-heroine, an escaped (as a child), genetically-enhanced super soldier, cycle courier by day and justice dealer the rest of the time, unfortunately prone to very TV-ish one-off stories of the week, and superheroically, and pensively, standing on rooftops (yes, she’s Batman).
He co-wrote the teleplay with Charles H Eglee, an old associate from his winged piranha excursion, and it’s easy to see this as Cameron’s comedown after allowing all that pre-millennial tension to wash over him in Strange Days. The world having unfortunately survived, Jimbo wishes it was all a bit simpler, and so delivers a simple-minded future in which terrorists have rendered the US a third world country by setting off an EM pulse (would that it were so simple). The result is a remarkably clean-and-tidy Fox network-styled post-apocalypse, so comfortably fitting with Max’s observation “The thing I don’t get is, why they call it a depression. I mean, everybody’s broke, but they aren’t really all that depressed”.
Jim’s vision of America seized by financial dread might be seen as prescient, along with his embrace of drone culture (the police have them hovering over every street corner), but mostly it’s just plain derivative. I recall sticking with Dark Angel for about 8 or 9 episodes, and all I took away was how run-of-the-mill everything was. David Nutter directed the $10m pilot, then riding high from successful stints on The X-Files and Millennium, but he’s unable to offer much more than a professional sheen.
The problem with the show isn’t only how utterly generic it is, but also how without spark the characters are. Alba pouts the way a girl must surely pout when she knows she’ll never need botox, but isn’t much cop at anything else, including looking like a kick-ass, and teams up with Michael Weatherly’s blandest-of-the-bland love interests, rebel hacker and broadcaster Logan Hale (somehow he’s still there at the end of the second season, despite possessing no charisma whatsoever), while searching out her former fellow detainee transgenics. Think Mr Robot but with zero traction. This a future of supporting characters with names like Original Cindy, Herbal Thought and Sketchy, where everyone sports designer duds like the world never ended and they’re going to party all weekend. Or ‘til dawn.
Cameron commented, “If we can’t find an audience, we deserve to be off the air. It’s that simple”. Prophetic words, as Dark Angel scraped a commission for a second season (most probably Fox wanting to keep him nominally onside, but it was relegated to Fridays and sunk like a stone). As such, none too dissimilar to Spielberg’s habitually ill-fated forays into TV, where his name somehow got the likes of Seaquest DSV recommissioned, despite pervasive viewer apathy. Even Cameron’s staunchest adherents will probably admit character depth isn’t his forte, so he was bound to come unstuck unfurling paper-thin posturers on a weekly basis. The best you can say about Dark Angel is that it isn’t awful, the worst that it’s completely forgettable.
8. True Lies
Cameron shouldn’t have needed telling he should steer well clear of comedy, particularly comedy that takes in Middle Eastern terrorists and marital infidelity. I’d like to think this was just spectacularly misjudged, but Jimbo’s defence that the picture is “funny, funny, just funny” is about as convincing as his divesting himself of the blame for Rambo II.
Arnie’s Harry Tasker lies to wife Helen about what he does for their entire married lives, then has the gall to act the jealous husband when she seeks a bit of unadventurous adventure. Harry’s approach, like any good patriarch, is to kidnap, interrogate, and then prostitute his dearly beloved. It’s a thoroughly distasteful set-up and follow-through, all in the name of fun-ny, and that’s before we get to Art Malik’s thoroughly evil Arab.
For a Cameron film, perhaps most surprising is that the action never quite comes together, or not as effectively as it had done in earlier outings, certainly. The big climax involving a Harrier jump jet is annoyingly unconvincing, and ill-served by “hilarious asides”. What comedy there is that works is entirely down to the trio of Arnie (yes, really, he’s pretty good generally here, particularly as the vengeful hubby), Tom Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis. If we have nothing else to than Titanic for, it’s that it surely put a dampener on Cameron pursuing a sequel.
I’m no great fan of Titanic, so it’s mid-ranking on this list evidences just how much sub-standard fare Jimbo has tyrannised into existence. Once he left the ‘80s behind, and no one was left standing to say no, or even offer sage advice, Cameron’s ego was on a fast track to nowhere good, complete with a level of output that would make Kubrick think twice (at least Kubrick made films of undoubted artistic merit, so those ever-longer waits meant something).
Titanic is well made – I can’t fault the extended sinking of the ship, which takes up an entire act and then some, just what goes on between the characters during that time – and well performed by a couple of latterly deserving Oscar winners (though maybe not for the performances they got the statuettes for, but ‘twas ever thus), but the entire affair is so ridiculously cornball, so faux-romantic (the way the film above Titanic on this list is faux-spiritual) and utterly cartoonish in every element of escalating tragedy, that it’s difficult to digest how anyone was buying into it for a second. The technical accomplishment is undeniable, but one only has to compare the watery racing around the doomed ship here to the claustrophobic stakes of the also watery The Abyss to see how one just isn’t succeeding dramatically. But… I guess I must be wrong, because untold audiences were thoroughly beguiled and moistened of the eyes.
In which Jimbo saves the (a) planet by wreaking mass-destruction across its environs. Way to go! The eco-message is so earnest, and thick-headed, it’s almost endearing. But only almost. Avatar is the ultimate example of emperor’s new clothes, perhaps, since he hoodwinked an entire global audience that his immersive, CGI-heavy, 3D endeavour really was this amazing new thing (to the extent there were actually complaints when it didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination), when really it was the old story of the white guy riding in and showing the natives how it should be done, just with added blue cat people and touchy-feely Gaia consciousness.
Cameron’s idea of transcendence is head-butting the Dalai Lama and hoping something transcendent rubs off. Hence this entire movie, where “Attack! Kill! Kill!” is the rousing order of the day, with one-dimensional, hissable villains, and, perversely, the kind of pixelated hardware climax you’d never have countenanced from the guy who formerly relished the physicality of his challenges.
Will anyone care about the sequels? I wouldn’t bet against them, despite there being no one out there clamouring (audibly, anyway). It’s quite clear that, for better or worse, people connected with Titanic because the star-crossed lovers affected them. Can anyone say something similar for Avatar, other than unmitigated advocates of 3D technology? And we’re just now seeing a contemporary of Avatar, one buoyed to $1bn+ gross by 3D conversion, spawning a sequel to fervent apathy, which might make Fox and its blank cheque for fourquels a wee bit cautious.
5. Strange Days
Jim’s end of the world angst manifests in typically unfinessed glory. Strange Days is a clumsy, hamstrung love story elevated considerably (much like The Abyss) by sterling performances from leads Angela Bassett (as his de rigueur masculinised woman, as opposed to simply essaying a strong female character) and Ralph Fiennes. The political commentary (LA Riots) feels like the work of someone writing from a gated mansion, while the future tech is suitably ingeniously grisly in places (jacking someone in to witness their own death).
But the whole thing suffers from being unhelpfully over-extended, lacking a sufficiently engaging mystery plotline to supply balance. Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is dependably faultless, but Strange Days, which bowled me over when I first saw it, has aged poorly. It’s a cute-grim cyberpunk vision of then a few years then hence, and has none of the legs shown by the more philosophical and thoughtful Until the End of the World, which wafted in on the breeze a few years prior.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
A sequel too far for Cameron. Even amid the acclaim at the time, which I was swept along with, I was aware of something slightly fatigued in the very existence of T2, but it was expertly disguised by the glittering effects and hugely propellant, enormously explosive action spectacle.
There’s something to be said for turning Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor into a massive loon, but reconfiguring the Terminator as a good guy isn’t really a great twist (something I was sure of from the first announcement, and the finished movie did nothing to convince me otherwise); it’s a neutering of the iconic menace, in reflection of Arnie’s now superstar status.
And, while Robert Patrick admittedly makes for a strikingly unstoppable replacement villain, the real problem with T2 is that it has insufficient reason to be. Cameron’s mostly just rehashing stuff, from iconic scenes and phrases to the fostered family dynamic he developed for Aliens. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and there’s some incredible, heart-stopping action, but by the time Arnie gives his smelted thumbs up I’ve had quite enough of Terminator retooled as syrupy confectionary.
3. The Abyss
In Special Edition form, the form Cameron attested he favoured least, as it detracted from the picture’s heart, this is very nearly great. The Day the Earth Stood Still vision of a world brought low by its premiere occupants, and the warning of global tsunamis poised to strike, packs a punch, somewhat making up for the soggy melodramatics accompanying Bud Brigman’s descent of the titular trench, as his ex-wife Lindsey serenades him with a ridiculously over-indulgent monologue.
This is Cameron evidencing he has little clue when it comes to exploring the hearts and minds of his characters, and that, if he attempts to extend himself beyond the two dimensional and acceptably caricatured, he leaves them stranded.
That said, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio turn in outstanding performances, the central theme, as over-familiar as it is, carries resonance, and most of all the technical achievement is absolutely phenomenal. See the Special Edition if you see only one version, but be prepared to persevere through the decidedly unhurried opening hour. When the action comes, in fits and spurts, it’s more than first rate, and if the picture is unfortunate enough to have the least distinctive supporting cast of any Cameron blockbuster (perhaps in the service of notional realism), it boasts a highly entertaining bug-eyed turn from Michael Biehn, embracing the chance to show he doesn’t just have it in him to play goody-two-shows heroes.
Much celebrated at the time, not least by me, time hasn’t been overly kind to Aliens. Its effects creak, it’s hopelessly overlit, for a movie that supposed to be at least a wee bit scary, and appearance-wise its cast are embedded every inch in the decade it was made. Most damningly, or successfully, depending on where you’re coming from, Cameron has taken the taut, palpable, low-key realism of Ridley Scott’s original, and fashioned a live-action video game from the its principal monster while turning its heroine into a gun-wielding she-Rambo.
The air-punching “Get away from her, you bitch!” was seventh in Empire’s recent 50 greatest sci-fi moments (the chestburster rightly placed higher), but it very much identifies Aliens as pure comic book. Such a scene would have been unthinkable in the original. Encountered on those terms, Alien 3 is very much a return to core principals.
That said, what Cameron does well, he does very well. The onslaught of marines versus Vietnamese, Stormtroopers, I mean xenomorphs, is relentless and ratchets up the tension. The supporting characters may all be 2D, but they’re all memorably so, and performed with exemplary skill by a well-thumbed cast. And James Horner’s score is dynamite. Like The Abyss, I always go for the Special Edition, although the reasons in this case are less convincing. This one does sustain the prolonged build-up, though, because the anticipation of a rematch is everything.
1. The Terminator
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cameron’s best science fiction movie, and best movie, is tonally closer to horror than science fiction. Where Aliens ultimately dissatisfies is that it is, first-and-foremost, an action flick, forsaking the palpable, unearthly dread that infests the original. Dread is Terminator’s constant companion; inescapable, unstoppable, any moment of respite must be held onto for dear life.
Without the luxury of a preceding career pedigree, Jimbo’s required to deliver a movie free from fat, and the result is a taut, relentless B-movie, one where the melodrama is completely in keeping with the apocalyptic foreboding. This very much feels like a picture staring into the (abyss) of nuclear Armageddon, whereas T2, for all the CG carnage of judgement day, was never in much imminent danger, insulated behind an expensive sheen.
In a parallel universe, such as the ones T5 plays with (poorly), Cameron might have continued on with such a honed approach, rather than becoming ever-more bloated in manifesting ever-slenderer premises. Terminator may have the problems of your typical time travel paradox tale in terms of narrative integrity, but that’s inarguably the entire point, and more, it serves an emotional payload that doesn’t feel faked, thanks to the committed performances of Biehn and Hamilton. Terminator started Cameron’s career in earnest, and while the pinnacles of success have grown successively ever higher, he’s never equalled the quality of his first classic movie.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.