A Cameron Cornucopia – The Value of James Cameron

Published 5 years ago by , Updated December 15th, 2009 at 10:24 pm,

sr cameron cornucopia A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron

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.

pirana 2 image A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron 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.

term c image A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron 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 c image A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron 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.

abyss c image A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron 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.

t2 c image A Cameron Cornucopia   The Value of James Cameron 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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  1. Wow. Way to suck up to every Cameron movie ever. Seriously though, T2 is magnificent, but “if there were any American movie to see, this is it”???? No Citizen Kane? No Casablanca? No Once Upon A Time In America? Jeez, give me a break. I’d like to see some actual criticism here. Also, True Lies an 8? More like a 7 for me, just because it’s 20 minutes too long. Thanks for not dumping on Titanic though. I love that film.

  2. @Rishi

    Well, you better email every critic averaged by Rottentomatoes and tell them they don’t know squat about aci-fi and for them to stop reviewing since Aliens is one of the few sci-fi action movies to have a 100% average… I guess they are all wrong, and you’re right, those morons! :-D

    Doesn’t it suck to be the only sane person in an insane world? I mean, seriously! :-P

  3. @ DrSamBeckett

    Sorry to you dude, but the space marine behaviour is clearly influenced by Starship Troopers (the book, obviously). Aliens is the first thing that comes to mind while reading it.

    Again, we can go back and forth and argue whether Aliens has any merit, but it won’t change anything. This is all subjective. My only grouse is that Mr. Wilkerson issued such a blanket statement about Aliens saying it’s “impossible” to deny it’s the best in the series when clearly there are many people (a majority?) who feel differently.

    @ Rishi

    rishi85? from Reelviews?

  4. @KoT

    Movie snobs really love to cite Citizen Kane. I think it makes them seem more sophisticated if they say they consider that the best movie in the world instead of a sci-fi action film like Terminator 2. Go watch Citizen Kane again and tell me that you’d rather watch that than Terminator 2…

    But regardless, this is an editorial, it’s Mike’s opinion. Obviously it’s not going to be agreed upon by everyone, but it’s not like he’s expressing something really outrageous like saying Battlefield Earth is better than… well… anything… :-D

    Cameron may be a complete a-hole, but he makes great movies, as much as I make fun of his attitude and his real-life personality, there’s no way I can argue with his movie-making skills, the guy’s talented, what can we say?

  5. You know, has anyone ever considered that maybe the Space Marines behavior, the Starship Troopers behavior, and all of these types of characters that are full of wise cracks, are influenced by… REAL LIFE TROOPS?? I’m sorry, but while most of the time it’s an exaggeration, real military people *ARE* wise-cracking people with each other, but it’s actually a good thing, they have to keep their humor about them. Doesn’t mean that when it comes time to lay it down that they won’t be able to. They know when to be serious and when to play a prank on their fellow Soldier, Marine, Airman, Sailor, or whatever they may be.

    But yes, it’s an exaggeration, sometimes their wise-cracking antics in Aliens borderlined insubordination, but it’s not really that far fetched. They did have the types of people you do find in the military. You got the serious take command types like Hicks, you got the ones that b**** about everything like Hudson, then of course those that think they are the most bad-ass people to have ever walk the earth… And they did kind of address the insubordination with the Sgt. calling Hudson down after the briefing, lol.

  6. @Ed

    A majority of people disagree? Hehe, maybe a majority of the people who are speaking out against it while reading it, while a lot of people who agree with it aren’t saying anything, haha. Almost ALL of my friends and family I know for sure love Aliens more than Alien since that topic has come up several times. In fact, I am having trouble thinking of anyone I personally know that like Alien more than Aliens. I know I remember one of my friends saying that when we were talking about those movies, but I can’t remember who it is now… But regardless, that’s one out of everyone I’ve asked…

    But yah, it’s all subjective, but I can see how it can be controversial since there are a lot of hardcore fans of Scott’s original Alien movie and a statement like that is like he just stomped on your toes, lol. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to “offend” anyone by it, it’s just his opinion, but maybe I’m just being nice because it’s an opinion I share, lol. :-D

  7. Really great insight into Cameron’s films, Mike. I too am a BIG fan of JC’s work, though I haven’t gotten the chance to watch The Abyss yet, both the theatrical and the director’s cut. Really want to, though.

    And T2 and Aliens, in my opinion, are the best sequels ever made. The first Terminator’s also a great piece of sci-fi filmmaking. And True Lies was fun, fun, FUN! And as for Titanic, I’m actually one of the few people in the male populous that actually likes that movie a lot. Sure, it’s a bit corny at times, but all the characters, the performances, the overall emotion from the story, as well as that masterfully done climax, keeps me going back to it. And as for his docs, I haven’t seen Ghosts of the Abyss, but I absolutely loved Aliens of the Deep (Hmm, I just noticed. Both those docs have the titles of 2 of his previous films in their own “The Abyss” with “Ghosts of the Abyss”, and “Aliens” with “Aliens of the Deep” :P). I thought it gave a brilliant insight into our world’s most uncommonly known ecosystems, and what’s there is really something to behold.

    I seriously can’t wait for Avatar. Though the story may sound somewhat unoriginal, it’s really just how it’s all executed what makes me excited to watch it. Cameron has yet to let me down, and I doubt Avatar will be what does that.

  8. Let me just say that I’m not really a fan of James Cameron. And I guess this list epitomizes what I don’t like about him. Your write-ups focus solely on the films’ technical aspects. Special effects are brilliant, scores are brilliant, acting is brilliant, etc. But what are these films really about? Baseless adjectives thrown at some aspects of the film-making process don’t offer much insight. More interesting, at least in my opinion, is what a film is about thematically. There’s no mention in this article about Vietnam parallels in Aliens, feminism in Terminator, or genre conventions in True Lies, etc. There’s no talk of anything related to what makes these films good art. The problem is, I’m afraid I can’t blame you. My problem with Cameron is that there isn’t that much there in terms of theme. And if there is, it’s generally too didactic and simple like the anti-war message in The Abyss. I find most of his films to be really fun, but ultimately very shallow. More like roller coaster rides than works of art. Granted, that’s fun and all, but I’m hesitant to put him up with the all time greats. Aliens is the only film of his I really love. But that’s just me. Cue the “you’re just a snob” type insults, if you’d like.

  9. @Matt

    Movie snob! 8)

    Actually while I do like the occasional “arty, meaningful” movie I’m far more of a fan of movies that just plain entertain me. And on that level, Cameron delivers.


  10. @Matt

    You’re just a snob, shut up! lol, just kidding. :-D

    The thing is, if Mike was to actually list everything that makes every one of his movies great, this article would be a dissertation… For me to describe one scene in Terminator 2 picking out all of the little details and nuances and the emotions he brings out of his characters either through dialog or expression, it will basically be a short essay just to do that.

    Good movies is about good story telling. I’m sorry, but a movie doesn’t HAVE to have parallels or a “message” to be a good movie. In fact, message movies are usually crap, because the focus of the movie maker is simply to pass on their own political message instead of where the focus SHOULD be, and that’s to make a good movie with good story telling.

    And I don’t even know what the complaint is about since Cameron’s movies do tend to have a message behind them, but he simply doesn’t focus on that and throws together some completely incoherent story just to have that opportunity to throw that political message out there *cough*Rendition*cough*. Or when they try to indoctrinate people while they are young with messages in kid’s movies, Ferngully, Happy Feet, Wall-E…

    No thanks, if a movie has to have parallels or messages to be good movies, consider me someone who only likes bad movies. Thanks.

  11. Matt, to be fair to Mike he did state specifically at the top of the page that the purpose of his article was to “showcase how (Cameron’s films) suceeded, and what those trends mean for Avatar”, rather than examine them thematically.

    The Vietnam parallel to Aliens is slightly tenuous, other than overconfident marines getting picked off by an unseen enemy, and it being released in the midst of the Platoon/Hamburger Hill/Full Metal Jacket wave of Vietnam movies. Feminism in Terminator? What’s there to say? Woman discards pink dress, does some press-ups, puts on black combat gear. Cameron is more concerned with the kinetics of storytelling, and the fact that the protagonists in two of his best action films are women is remarkable only in historical terms. When Alien 3 came out I remember some critics trying to claim it as some kind of feminist parable (no guns, Ripley kills herself in supposedly “empowering” Thelma & Louise style), instead of a pointless mess made by committee, shot in a sewer, featuring lots of English skinheads shouting “F***” a lot. What feminism they saw in the dubious and misleading tagline “The b**** Is Back” escaped me, I have to say. I’m off on a tangent there, but I think you answered your own point: most of his films ARE like roller coaster rides, but some of the most finely-crafted ever made. Just because they’re visceral rather than cerebral doesn’t mean they can’t be seen as “good art”. That there’s clearly brain as well as heart in there too is the reason we’re not talking about Michael Bay like this.

    I’m not that keen on The Abyss either, though. The Director’s Cut is better, but I found the characters stereotypical, the storyline predictable, and the aliens rubbish.

    Ken, I totally agree about the extra footage on T2. Although it’s all watchable (I particularly like the T-1000 “glitching” after he reforms), the only scene I thought was vital was removing the CPU from the T-800 and John stopping his mother from destroying it.

    Alien vs Aliens: I can’t bring to mind another second instalment that’s as faithful to its original and yet as completely different. Ridley Scott’s creature ended up looking too much like a man in a suit for me, and I actually prefer the way Cameron shot his – coming at you from all angles. No matter what their respective merits (and I love ‘em both), the Director’s Cut of Aliens is one of the all-time great sequels, no question.

  12. Make that “three of his best action films”.

  13. @Dentist

    Great comparison of the original Alien to Cameron’s Aliens.


  14. @The Big Dentist

    Good point about Michael Bay, it’s a good point to make to rebut Matt’s assertion that we’re just praising someone for big action set pieces…

    James Cameron movies are the furthest from those types of shallow action movies…

  15. I hope I don’t come down to hard on Cameron, because I do like his films. They are fun, undoubtedly. Other than Spielberg, I can’t think of a single other director as talented as Cameron in creating really visceral, entertaining, and impressive escapism.

    I’d also like to say that I hate obvious and overtly political films as well. Like Rendition or Redacted (Wall-e is absolutely brilliant, however, and more complex). But there’s no shallow/profound dichotomy in films. There are different levels of a films’ engagement with their own themes. I think all films have themes, no matter what the artist intends. It’s just that some films have interesting themes, and some don’t.

    I guess I just have a problem when Cameron is mentioned as one of all the all time great film artists. I like him, but wouldn’t put him up with Kurosawa, Ford, Herzog, Fellini, Scorsese, Leone, Hitchcock, Kubrick, etc. He’s very good, but I don’t think he’s in the pantheon of all time greats.

    Okay, one more thing. The whole feminism in Alien thing. It’s definitely there, regardless of authorial intent. There are so many phallic and vaginal images, it’s almost comical. And the interplay between the two, I find really interesting. There’s a great paper to be written on that, but alas, I haven’t the time.

    Good points by all, however.