Sir Alfred Hitchcock… Stanley Kubrick… Orson Welles… and James Cameron?
The first three directors are often considered “auteur” filmmakers. “Auteur theory” is a school of critical thought, developed by André Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma during the French New Wave, which privileges the director’s persona over all other participants in any given film. Personally, I tend to agree with Andrew Sarris that auteur theory is problematic because the cinematic arts are a collaborative medium between director, screenwriter, cinematographer, cast, and scores of others – it oversimplifies the filmmaking process to value one person above everybody else.
However, I would argue within the parameters of auteur theory that James Cameron is just as qualified to be an auteur as, say, Ingmar Bergman, or Federico Fellini. He is the “author” of his own filmography in a way that nobody else ever could be. Just like James Patterson is the brand readers buy into even though he coauthors many of his novels, Jim Cameron’s personality provides the unifying element between his films.
He has made a variety of them – science fiction (The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Avatar (2009)), action (True Lies (1994)), and historical drama (Titanic (1997)) – but they are still more similar than they are different. Although Cameron has been involved in films outside of these, this analysis shall include only the feature-length ones he has directed. This is to the exclusion of the embarrassing Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) because Cameron’s directorial style is so absent from it that he does not even remember it as his first feature, and his documentaries, Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005), are not as significant to his artistic ego as his fictional endeavors are.
Just like Hitchcock is known for his obsession with his blonde leading ladies, Cameron has his own personal connections to his colleagues. Gale Anne Hurd, his second of five wives, produced The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss. His fourth wife, Linda Hamilton, played Sarah Connor in The Terminator and T2, his current wife, Suzy Amis, played Lizzy Calvert in Titanic, and his third wife, Kathryn Bigelow, was his competitor for Best Director at the Eighty-Second Academy Awards, the year Avatar came out.
(P.S. I’m glad Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Director – really, I am. This sausage fest of an industry needs more of that. But am I the only one who thinks that The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2013) are overrated when compared to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015), and the Academy only gave Bigelow a chance because The Hurt Locker is a “masculine” film?).
As for his platonic relationships, Cameron is also infamous in that arena. Titanic star Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater) has been very vocal about Cameron’s explosive temper on set, and, except for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver, no other major stars (Bill Paxton doesn’t count) have worked with Cameron in more than one movie outside of a sequel, which I think is telling. Cameron is inarguably a perfectionist, even going so far as to alter a shot of the night sky in the 2012 Titanic 3D rerelease when Harvard astrophysicist Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson presented him with a historically accurate constellation map from 4:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, when the actual RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.
But that perfectionism pays off – big time.
Big Budgets And Bigger Profits
T2 was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. Titanic was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. Avatar was rumored to be, at the time, the most expensive film ever made, but it still ranks among the thirty highest production budgets of all time, and there’s still an undeniable pattern going on here.
The pattern doesn’t stop there. Avatar is the highest-grossing film ever released, Titanic was before it, and T2 made four hundred thirty-four percent more money than The Terminator. Positive word of mouth undoubtedly played a role, especially when one considers that Titanic was in theaters for two hundred eighty-seven days, which means that, despite Cameron’s polarized critical appraisals, the ticket-buying moviegoer is in love with him.
Though Cameron wears many hats for his works, such as “producer” for T2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar, he has either written or co-written all seven of them. Many are quick to criticize Cameron’s writing – the old joke about how many times Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose say each other’s names in Titanic is clichéd by now, and there’s a reason “Best Screenplay” wasn’t one of the eleven Oscars it won – but there are a few diamonds in the rough. The Titanic line, “I’m king of the world,” made the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes,” and so did “Hasta la vista, baby” from T2, and “I’ll be back” from The Terminator.
Strong Female Characters
Another James Cameron trope is his use of the strong leading lady. Sarah Connor kicks some ass in The Terminator and T2, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) does the same in Aliens, Doctor Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a scientist in The Abyss, Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis) fights her way out of being held hostage by terrorists in True Lies, Rose rescues Jack in Titanic, and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) wages war in Avatar. In fact, Ripley’s commanding characterization in Aliens is a major upgrade from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), where Tom Skerritt gets top billing over Sigourney Weaver.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, in 1954, James Cameron moved from Canada to California in 1973 to study physics, switching to English before dropping out altogether in 1974. He is self-taught in special effects, studying film technology at the University of Southern California library. His love of science, writing, and filmmaking combined in 1977 when he first saw George Lucas’s Star Wars and became inspired to move to Hollywood.
Science is important to all of Cameron’s films. Science fiction is obviously his favorite genre, since five out of the seven are sci-fi, and Titanic was more of an excuse for him to showcase his deep-sea exploration of the shipwreck than it was to tell the tale of Jack and Rose (or the ballad of Jack and Rose, if you will). Aquatic sciences, specifically, are a fascination of his, as is apparent with The Abyss and the liquefied cyborg antagonist, T-1000 (Robert Patrick), in T2.
The visual effects team for The Abyss spent six months perfecting seventy-five seconds of CGI in the film. T2 won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and so did Titanic in 1998. Avatar, of course, is responsible for much of the digital and 3D craze we see today.
Cameron is so committed to crafting the imagery in his films that he waited twelve years after the release of Titanic for the technology to catch up with his vision for his follow-up, Avatar. Once more, perfectionism benefitted him greatly – Avatar compensated for its unoriginality in plotting with its innovation in filmmaking, and it made Cameron a multimillionaire. This is ironic, considering his…
…Mistrust For Big Business
Skynet is more the villain in The Terminator and T2 than any of the time-travelling robot assassins, and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation clashes with Ripley in Aliens. The Navy SEALs represent the military-industrial complex in The Abyss, and a stereotypically sleazy used car salesman named Simon (Bill Paxton) tries to get with Helen in True Lies. Rose is suicidal over the prospect of marrying steel heir Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) in Titanic, and the Resources Development Administration terrorizes the Na’vi in Avatar.
Cameron, his wife, and their children eat a vegan diet, and his leftist ideologies and preoccupation with the natural sciences are perhaps influenced by the 1960s-1970s countercultural hippie movement of his youth (yes, even Canada had hippies). Again, this is ironic, considering his relationship with former conservative Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.
An actor is as good as her (or his) director, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver have the careers that they do thanks to James Cameron. Schwarzenegger starred in The Terminator, T2, and True Lies, and Weaver appeared in Aliens and Avatar.
Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have become governor without his acting career, and his acting career wouldn’t have been so prolific without James Cameron. He is the only actor to appear on AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains List” as both a villain and hero for the same role, the T-101 in The Terminator and T2, respectively.
As for Weaver, Cameron’s focus on Ripley in Aliens made for a protagonist which will be Weaver’s legacy. Aliens was the first of three Oscar nominations Weaver would receive throughout her career (so far).
Cameron must have stimulated some prime improvisational skills out of his actors, too, since Leonardo DiCaprio ad-libbed “I’m king of the world” in Titanic and “Game over, man, game over” was improvised in Aliens.
Even Sigourney Weaver thinks Aliens is better than Alien, and almost everyone agrees that T2 is superior to The Terminator. Cameron clearly has a knack for sequels, which makes the Avatar trilogy all the more eagerly anticipated.
Long Live Jim Cameron
Endless comparisons can be made between James Cameron’s films – his love of James Horner’s musical scores (Aliens, Titanic, and Avatar), his use of popular music to promote his films (Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” for Titanic, Leona Lewis’s “I See You” for Avatar), and his penchant for romance (Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator, Doctor Brigman and Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) in The Abyss, Harry (Schwarzenegger) and Helen Tasker in True Lies, Jack and Rose in Titanic, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri in Avatar). Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker done so much to change film history with so few films (seven for Cameron, sixteen for Kubrick), and not since Orson Welles has a director’s pride been so monumental (it took the self-anointed “King of the World” himself to compete). James Cameron has fought for and earned every success in his lifetime, through his pioneering technological advances as well as pure entertainment value.
That is cinematic genius, and that is what it takes to be an auteur.