Before He Was the King of the World
So James Cameron has a new movie out and I'm not even interested enough to blog its name.
It may be because US$500 million is a big budget for a movie that demonises the kind of industry and technology that make such a movie possible.
It may also be because someone who directs a Da Vinci Code-ish documentary like The Lost Tomb of Jesus can't expect to have any credibility left.
And yet . . . there was a time when all you had to say to get me to watch something was that James Cameron had been involved in its production . . . though, given that he had been involved in so few movies for someone who had been in Hollywood for twenty years, I probably would have seen it already.
My Top 5 James Cameron Movies
1. The Terminator
In this movie, a Resistance warrior from the future travels back to 1984 in order to save the mother of the future's greatest general before the cyborg sent by a self-aware computer system can kill her and thus "retroactively abort" her son. It's one of the most gritty and realistic movies I've ever seen!
Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd coined the term "Tech Noir" for what was then a new theme in the SF genre: the dark and dehumanising side of technology. Then they refused to give audiences a happy ending, instead assuring them that, in the future, machines would launch a nuclear war against their human creators and imprison the survivors in labour camps. The Terminator is a dark movie with a grim ending . . . and yet it has one of the most optimistic messages in the world.
Perhaps it is because Sarah and Kyle are recognisable as "types" of Mary and St. Joseph, which makes the story of John Connor a kind of evangelium. Indeed, I can still recall the sense of wonder I felt after watching this movie for the first time. It was as if it were 1984 again and the future had just opened up for me the way it had suddenly opened up for Sarah. Anything was possible; anyone could change the world; and as yet the only mistake Cameron had made was writing, "The future is not set," when all serious time travel theorists know that it is the present that is never set.
(If you're into FF, you might like to read my slightly cheesy Terminator Fic Nox Natalis.)
Years after Cameron's development of the character Ripley helped earn Sigourney Weaver an Academy Award nomination, she blithely badmouthed him as the only one of all three Alien franchise writers who didn't quite get Ripley's character.
Of course, I happen to think the twist he created was an act of genius. Ripley as a mother standing up for her child? Ripley going mano-a-mano with the alien queen, also a mother standing up for her children? She may be strapped into a power loader rather than clothed with the sun, but she is the movie's mediatrix of all things good. So how is that not a WIN?
There have been other protestations. Aliens often seems a loud and rowdy middle child, embarrassing to both the restrained Horror that is Alien and the return to darkness that is Alien3. I mean, check out the marines . . .
Years later, Cameron would apologise to real-life marines for portraying them as whiny, undisciplined meatheads. I hope I don't ever have to apologise for enjoying the whiny, undisciplined, slightly meaty Private Hudson so much. Cameron has also since observed that Hudson has proved to serve an interesting function, blurting out exactly what viewers are thinking at significant points of the film--from "Game over, man! Game over!" to "How can they cut the power? They're animals!" (LOL)
So Aliens is loud and rowdy. It also boasts a solid ensemble cast, a story with heart, action sequences which stand up twenty years later, and more quotable one-liners than even The Princess Bride. Again, let me ask: How is that not a WIN?
3. True Lies
There's something really fun about a movie that asks the question, "Just how well do you know your spouse?" and then unfolds the scenario with the greatest likelihood of machine gun fire and random explosions. In other words, Helen Tasker "married Rambo" and didn't know it.
True Lies lacks the classic sheen of Cameron's previous blockbuster hits, primarily because he didn't also write the script. Yet another significant reason is that the heart of the whole film--the scene Cameron poured the bulk of his SF sensibility and detail-oriented perfectionism into--had nothing to do with Harry and Helen Tasker's marriage. I mean, of course, the scene with the Harrier.
A more logical climax would have been the nuclear explosion, which they don't really notice because they're kissing . . . but I guess that a daddy has to save his daughter, too. Hence the high budget Oscar-nominated visual effects that give us the Harrier. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less of a non sequitur.
Cameron was making serious plans to film a sequel that would have reunited the main cast members when the Twin Towers in New York were attacked. He immediately abandoned the project, saying that it had become impossible to make Middle Eastern terrorism funny. I'm still not sure how I feel about that.
4. The Abyss
Cameron's last movie from the 1980s made this list primarily because it has a better love story than Titanic does. (Ah, that blue hand!)
So is there anything special about a setting so deep underwater that just getting there can make some people psychotic? That point, at least, is more than the mere plot driver it seems when one character ends up with "the shakes." For as we later discover, the survival of the whole planet may just depend on the rag-tag representatives of humanity who actually thrive under such unnatural conditions.
The Abyss marks the end of the Cold War's grip on Hollywood's imagination. Spotting a Soviet conspiracy is no longer part of the hero's skills set, but a symptom of the villain's psychosis. Another character attempts to draw out a moral by gushing that we have to start seeing things with "better eyes." Well, when you have pink, twinkly aliens who can keep all of humanity safe from nuclear warheads, then I guess it's safe to have "better eyes."
I'm obviously not as impressed as I should be, but there was no way I was going to put a Leonardo di Caprio movie in one of my Top 5 lists.
5. Rambo: First Blood Part II
This movie was directed by George P. Cosmatos. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay with Sylvester Stallone, who has been tweaking scripts ever since he got that Oscar nomination for Rocky.
I think this unlikely triumvirate worked together very well and that the movie they made together makes an unusually picturesque story, given that it's also about betrayal, bullets, blood, and badass 80s excess.
It probably shouldn't be on this list, though, as I would have watched it with or without Cameron's involvement. (You'll understand why someday, when I do my Top 5 Stallone Characters.) It makes the list because it's something else better than Titanic.
Image Sources: a) The Terminator poster, b) Aliens poster, c) True Lies poster, d) The Abyss poster, e) Rambo: First Blood Part II poster