We are on the cusp of the debut of one of Hollywood’s most anticipated releases in years, James Cameron’s Avatar. With concern about being the “most expensive movie in feature film history” and its likening to the wars overseas (essentially a movie-inspired take on the conquest of big oil over the small but feisty, native inhabitants of “Pandora”), there is a lot for Avatar and James Cameron to overcome even before its official release. Like most things however, one can find many potential answers from a review of the previous history of just about anything. Whether it’s the potential of a person to pay back money they might receive or the value to be reaped from a multi-million dollar blockbuster, answers can be found in what’s come before.

We’ll take a look at the movie history of director James Cameron to showcase how they succeeded, and what those trends mean for Avatar – a film that could be one of the most ground-breaking films all time or a very expensive, experimental crash-and-burn experience for James Cameron.

If you ask anyone interested in movies to name a film by director James Cameron, the listing is filled with staples in feature film lore. The Internet Movie Database allows visitors to populate a listing of directorial showcases for Cameron that make the mind reel.

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

Those that thought the love affair with between James Cameron and water started with The Abyss clearly didn’t know about Piranha 2: The Spawning, his first film. While it’s easily one of the most off-the-radar films for Cameron, it’s a sample of a horror film he admits he’d like to see made that he refers to in several of the director commentaries in his movies.

The Tantalizing Teaser: Bodies found inside a sunken ship. A new breed of genetically-enhanced flying fish being used as the “ultimate weapon.” The race to destroy this new breed of death before they can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting annual beach-bound fish fry and the world.

What’s to See? Did you miss the part where we talked about “genetically-enhanced flying fish?” While this movie is a bit short on story, the imagination, filmmaking characteristics, and early building blocks of Cameron’s career are all brilliantly showcased here. When the answer to not be eaten was to leave the water in Jaws. Cameron’s solution to ultimate peril is to give the flying flock of death – wings. Cameron’s “Guerilla filmmaking Skill Set” is ultra-present here and a sight to see. You also get to see a very young Lance Henriksen whose hairdo and voice alone is worth the 1hr and 24min run time. Also note that Piranha 3D is currently in post production with friend Scott Buckwald at the Prop Master helm.

The Score: While clearly the most obscure and weakest option included in the Cornucopia, this film earns a made-28-years-ago 4 of 10 score.

The Terminator (1984)

The Tantalizing Teaser: A young twenty-something, who will bear the savior of a post-apocalyptic world is eventually running from a killer robot sent from the future. A lone protector is sent back to help her stay alive, by her not-yet-born son named “John Connor.”

What’s to See: One of the finest science fiction films of all time. When you consider the ground-breaking story, an evolved, gritty, guerilla filmmaking look that everyone now points to as genesis of their careers, the launch of another cornucopia of famous actors and support staff and characters that continue to be approximated in movies today, The Terminator is a must-have on the film collection tool belt. The special effects also upped the ante in Hollywood that people refer back to even in our CGI-laden realm.

The Score: When lumped with the other distinguished stacks of cinema brilliance from Cameron, this earns a 9 of 10 score.

Aliens (1986)

The Tantalizing Teaser: Ripley escaped a doomed ship and was able to blow the remaining Alien out the airlock of her lifeboat spacecraft and was heading back to Earth in space-travel-sleep-induced bliss. Her craft is found by a deep space salvage team and returned to Earth – 57 years later. Gone are her family, life, and reputation. To reclaim it, she must return back to the planet her crew found the Alien eggs on to see what’s happened to the 150+ colonists that have lived there – or HAD lived there? In tow are a pack of Colonial Marines, ultimate badasses to protect her and find out what happened. Will it be enough? Nope.

What’s to See: The Lord of the Rings trilogy provided film audiences with the brilliance of forced perspective. What you and most don’t realize is that Aliens was a tour de force of forced-perspective filmmaking. Add on some of the most revered miniature craftsmanship, a copied-by-almost-all-movies-for-temp-score soundtrack, some amazing acting by people doing their first film, and some of the most memorable lines ever – you have the makings of another whole-hog classic by director James Cameron.

The Score: It’s impossible to not admit that this is the best of all of the Alien franchise films. It’s very likely that this film sits atop Cameron’s skill set as far as a showcase. The Terminator franchise has much more popularity, but this film easily scores a 10 of 10. The director’s cut of this film could easily score an 11.

The Abyss (1989)

The Tantalizing Teaser: An eclectic deep-sea drilling team finds itself sent on a salvage mission to investigate a recently downed US Submarine. Paired with a small team of crack SEALs, they find much more than they bargained for in the deep reaches of the dark confines of the Atlantic ocean – both of the terrestrial, and extra terrestrial kind.

What’s to See: The ladder of computer generated effects was originally begun here inside of The Abyss, with the  famous “water tentacle” scene. It was and still is the base element that so many gurus point to, and it was another how-it-should-be-done concoction from director James Cameron. Another ensemble cast of incredibly gifted actors is featured in The Abyss , as is the love of scuba-diving and underwater research that continues to appear in so many Cameron films.

The Score: The Abyss is a solid piece of science-fiction, reality-based filmmaking that Cameron truly has a sweet spot skill for. The relationships built, the details of the peril, the pace and overall level of talent depicted in this film are another on a very special listing of films that should not be overlooked. We give The Abyss an 8 of 10 score.

Terminator 2 (1991)

The Tantalizing Teaser: We’ve always known that Kyle Reese saved the day and prevented Judgment Day in The Terminator. Or did he? This time TWO killer robots are sent back in time, however each is programmed with a different goal: One sent by Skynet to kill John Connor himself when he was a boy. The other? Sent back by John Connor himself to protect.

What’s to See: There are so very few samples of American movie brilliance to see and revel in, but this is surely on top of the proverbial cornucopia’d list. Brilliant storytelling, career-making acting, non-stop peril, unparalleled practical special effects, and the seeds of what has become today’s CGI movement that is still referred to from the masters of the state-of-the-art CGI studios now. The soundtrack is also something of a staple and turning point where the music actually helps to enhance the story and mystique of characters. If there was a must-see American film, this is it.

The Score: Were someone else writing this up, we would tell them to shut up and give it a 10 of 10 score. A 10 of 10 score it shall be.

Continue to page 2 for Cameron’s more recent movies and what we can expect from Avatar…

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