clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I Miss the Movies James Cameron Made Before He Got Obsessed With the Ocean

Before ‘Avatar’ and its resulting cinematic universe, Cameron made blockbuster films that surprised, awed, and delighted. Will he return to that style some day?

Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

“I’m Jim Cameron, and here’s the deal,” Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron says in the opening 10 minutes of Aliens of the Deep, a 2005 documentary about the ocean which he codirected. “I love this stuff: exploration. Real, honest-to-God deep ocean exploration. This is way more exciting than any made-up Hollywood special effects.” This Disney-produced documentary is centered on some dry (but still compelling) research about the ecosystems that exist around hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and how they might form the basis for possible life in the universe. But Aliens of the Deep doubles as a vehicle for James Cameron the Ocean Explorer to clash with James Cameron the Big Shot Hollywood Director.

In the documentary, Cameron is somewhat dismissive of some of the ideas and research he’s presented with—namely the theory that microbial life could exist on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that has a subsurface ocean. At one point he straight up presses a NASA scientist, who definitely has a PhD in this area, to imagine more sophisticated extraterrestrial lifeforms that mankind could communicate with. Anything less just isn’t cool enough. So Aliens of the Deep ends with Cameron creating this bizarre piece of fan fiction where a NASA space submarine (?) makes contact with an alien race on Europa that apparently has a Tron: Legacy–like aesthetic.

Buena Vista Pictures

The irony of Cameron ending the documentary with some made-up Hollywood special effects notwithstanding, Aliens of the Deep serves as a sort of inflection point between Titanic and Avatar, the only two non-documentary movies the director has released in the past 25 years. The film made obvious the fact that, despite being one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers—Avatar and Titanic are still the second- and third-highest-grossing movies of all time, respectively—Cameron now prefers to be identified as a deep-sea explorer. That may sound silly—and it kind of feels like an extension of the time-honored tradition of a rapper wanting to be an athlete, or vice versa. (We all agree you deserved to win the 2020 dunk contest, Aaron Gordon, but this is just torture.) But to Cameron’s credit, some of his other oceanic pursuits have been lent more credibility: In 2012, he became the first person to make a solo descent into the Marianas Trench, traveling down over 35,000 feet in a submersible. (I’m sure he was equally thrilled about being referred to as an official National Geographic explorer-in-residence, rather than the guy who directed Titanic.)

But while Cameron is well within his rights to spend the back half of his career expanding the scope of Avatar’s Pandora (four sequels are on the way) and going on actual deep-sea dives, in doing so, he deprives the rest of the world of a rare and valuable resource: that of a blockbuster filmmaker who knows how to deliver breathtaking, coherent, and technologically innovative action set pieces. Here’s the deal: I miss the James Cameron of old.

Perhaps the most surprising element of The Terminator, which launched Cameron’s filmmaking career in 1984, is how much the movie belies its paltry budget. For something made for $6 million and change, The Terminator really doesn’t show it: It’s a lean, mean action flick that’s aged about as well as anything can under such constraints. The tech-noir vibe that Cameron establishes is such that the nightclub where the Terminator first crosses paths with Sarah Connor is literally called “Tech Noir.”

Cameron isn’t much for subtlety; then again, it’s hard to be subtle with a presence like Arnold Schwarzenegger at a film’s center. Ruthless, taciturn, and nigh-indestructible, the hulking Schwarzenegger brings something to the movie’s namesake that is incalculable from a production standpoint: a figure far more terrifying than any vague allusions to a dystopian future when machines rise from the ashes of nuclear fire. The limitations of Cameron’s budget are most apparent when the Terminator loses its Schwarzenegger meat suit and a stop-motion effect is utilized for its skeletal frame in the film’s climactic set piece. It’s a quirky artifact of working under such financial constraints that’s nevertheless endearing. There’s no need for a software update: The Terminator rules just the way it is.

But as is tradition when an up-and-coming filmmaker punches above their weight on a small budget, Cameron was subsequently able to level up in a big way. He followed The Terminator with a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which initially seemed like a tantalizing but potentially catastrophic proposition. (See: What happened when David Fincher took the reins of Alien 3.) But Cameron’s success with Aliens, which has the rare distinction of being a sequel that’s arguably just as admired as its predecessor, was impressive in part because he wasn’t afraid to take the nascent franchise in a completely new direction.

Rather than continuing with the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship as a setting, an ill-fated blue-collar crew as his protagonists, and a single xenomorph as his villain, Cameron’s answer on Aliens was essentially “more is more.” More humans—many of whom were Marines—more firepower, and many more xenomorphs, including the Queen. The inclusion of hapless, shoot-first space Marines getting wiped out by an eerily camouflaged enemy on a foreign planet made Aliens’ Vietnam War allusions hard to miss, but subtext aside, what’s not to love about emerging action hero Sigourney Weaver calling a giant alien a bitch?

Aliens’ resounding critical and commercial success led to Cameron making what might be his most divisive movie. For someone whose early filmography featured killer robots, killer aliens, and killer fish (shout-out Piranha II: The Spawning), you’d be forgiven for assuming that a movie set deep in the ocean with an ominous title like The Abyss would continue a trend. Instead, The Abyss is less Underwater Aliens and more Close Encounters Under the Sea. (The real horror, it seems, was reserved for the film’s notoriously difficult production, which helped bolster Cameron’s reputation as an egomaniac and led to Ed Harris likening the treatment of the cast to human guinea pigs.)

Perhaps because the film subverted expectations—mild spoiler: the ending is quite saccharine and the alien lifeform turns out to be benevolent—The Abyss is an underappreciated gem in Cameron’s body of work. It also might be his most on-brand movie; at least by the standards of a dude who’d end up actually taking a submersible down to the Marianas Trench. Imagine the childlike wonder and awe Spielberg ingrained in every frame of Close Encounters or E.T., and then translate it to someone with an endearingly weird reverence for the vastness of the ocean. As effectively as Cameron examined the dangers of artificial intelligence and corporate greed, the filmmaker never felt more at home than when he basically proclaimed that the sea is dope. (Especially when there are aliens involved.)

But after The Abyssmiddling performance at the box office, Cameron returned to his original sandbox and spared no expense. At the time of its release, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the most expensive film ever made. Even with massive expectations, though, Cameron’s sequel lived up to the hype. The visual effects utilized for the T-1000, an upgraded Terminator composed of Future Liquid Metal (real scientific term), were a legitimate breakthrough for computer-generated imagery that’s aged exceptionally well—as has the director’s decision to portray the sequel’s antagonist as a member of the LAPD.

And Cameron didn’t lose his fastball in staging action sequences, either. Judgment Day’s bike-truck chase through an aqueduct remains an all-timer, and the violent rapport between Schwarzenegger’s one-liner-loving T-800 and Robert Patrick’s steely-eyed T-1000 feels like some kind of next-level performance art. Linda Hamilton, meanwhile, didn’t skip a beat in her pivot from traumatized waitress to hardened action hero, a thrilling extension of Cameron’s blockbusters headlining strong female characters.

But any goodwill Cameron built upon the badass trajectories of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor was immediately wiped away with his next release, True Lies. This 1994 film has a premise that seems downright quaint in the age of superheroes and cinematic universes: an action comedy about a spy (played by Schwarzenegger) struggling to balance his job and his marriage. The best part of True Lies is that Harry Tasker’s wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), just accepts that a guy built like Arnold Schwarzenegger is a boring computer salesman—the funniest sight gag since Total Recall made the actor a run of the mill construction worker.

As for what hasn’t aged well, um, I suppose we can start with the casual misogyny? This is a film where “women: can’t live with ’em; can’t kill ’em” is a punch line, and the middle third is spent humiliating Helen rather than the person who’s been lying to her their entire marriage. Even the moments that could’ve endured—like Harry saying “you’re fired” before hurling a terrorist attached to a missile at a helicopter carrying more terrorists—were decried for Islamophobic inclinations, something that’s still prevalent in Hollywood. True Lies certainly has elements of Cameron’s glorious blockbuster excess, but fewer of the satisfying (or rewatchable) payoffs.

Which leads us back to Titanic and Avatar, two mammoth releases that solidified Cameron’s reputation as Hollywood’s surest bet prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The forthcoming Avatar sequels have been met with a heavy dose of skepticism; the idea being that Cameron is quadrupling down on something that nobody asked for because the original film barely left a mark on the culture. But in his defense, Titanic went through its own production woes before becoming an Oscar-winning sensation, and enough curiosity was piqued with the original Avatar that the film grossed over $2.8 billion. As silly as Avatars 2 through 5 sound, I wouldn’t bet against the guy who already made two of the greatest sequels of all time, and has broken box office records throughout his career.

But it’s unfortunate, still, that Cameron the Big Shot Hollywood Director has been largely absent in the 21st century. Avatar remains his only non-documentary release from the past 20 years—he’s spent the rest of the time on documentaries and trying to become a real-life Ocean Master. (Speaking of Aquaman, Cameron wasn’t a fan.) Assuming the next four Avatars are released as planned, Cameron will be into his 70s by the time he’s done with that universe, having completed what 20th Century Fox called the most expensive movies of all time. We’re leagues removed from the days when a young and unproven Cameron sold his Terminator script for $1, stunts were filmed without permits, and its own star lamented that it’d be “some shit movie.”

It’s probably wishful thinking that a guy who’s so deep into the technological innovations of Pandora and the literal depths of the ocean would want to return to his comparatively understated roots as a filmmaker. (Only James Cameron could make films as explosive as The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Judgment Day, and True Lies feel understated.) In fact, Cameron once boasted that Titanic made him feel like the king of the world, so maybe it’s only natural that he’s exploring the Marianas Trench and a sophisticated, interconnected alien ecosystem of his own creation. But if there’s another phase to his superlative career post-Avatar, let’s hope that Cameron rises to the surface—perhaps in his one-of-a-kind sub—and once again makes kickass blockbusters more grounded in reality.