Whose Film Is It Anyway?
James Cameron
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"Well, I see our potential destruction and the potential salvation as human beings coming from technology and how we use it, how we master it, and how we prevent it from mastering us."-James Cameron

James Cameron knows how to make movies that make money. There's no real question about that. If James Cameron was a board game character instead of a film director, he would be Uncle Pennybags. Yet, for whatever reason, Cameron has forsaken the life of board game mascotery in favor of being an incredibly financially successful maker of motion pictures. His last two films, Avatar and Titanic are the two highest grossing movies of all time, and his other movies are no slouches either. Yet financial success does not an auteur make (nor, by the way, does quality. Many good directors are not auteurs, and some terrible ones can be seen to have consistency throughout their work beyond a dearth of quality). If Uncle Pennybags just turned out giant blockbuster after giant blockbuster with nothing linking them together, there is little chance that he would rate even consideration of his merits as a potential auteur. Yet Cameron's consistent focus on how humanity uses technology, how technology uses humans, and how people behave when pushed to the very edge of their limits in a quest for survival"”well now, that's a little more worth looking into.

The Bill Gates of movies first really dug into this theme on his own terms in 1984's The Terminator. The film, which Cameron wrote and directed, follows the efforts of an average woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to escape the murderous and unstoppable Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with only the help of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier from the future. The Terminator was sent back to assassinate Connor before she gives birth to a son that will grow to be the savior of the human race from the robot apocalypse that has overtaken the near future. The Terminator is a clear fable about the potential dangers of technological advancement, and one of the first in a long line of movies about why we shouldn't let our robots think for themselves (because everyone knows all robots will ever think is "Kill all humans!"). In the future the movie predicts, Skynet, an artificial intelligence system built for defense, becomes self aware, creates a nuclear holocaust and begins building robots to kill of the remaining humans who are a threat to its existence. John Connor is the first human to stand up and teach others to fight back, and so the robots send The Terminator back to make sure he never exists.

Beyond simply being a parable about artificial intelligence, The Terminator is also a look at the human will to survive (don't mistake the fact that the movie looks at the issue for my comparing it to Schindler's List or arguing that The Terminator is a particularly adept examination, just that this is a part of the movie's intended themes). Kyle Reese comes from a future where he has known nothing but war and subjugation, yet he still pushes on to free humanity from the control of the machines. And for someone who began the movie as a clumsy waitress, Sarah Connor quickly proves herself to be a survivor, adapting to the death of pretty much everyone she knows, and even dealing out some ass kicking of her own by the end of the movie.

In 1991 James Cameron returned to the franchise with the far superior Terminator 2: Judgment Day in which the machines have gotten even better at figuring out how to kill John Connor, leasing the new, shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick) on the ten year old (played by Edward Furlong), his mother (Linda Hamilton), and their new bodyguard in the form of a re-programmed T-800 (presumably because Schwarzenegger wanted to be the good guy this time. Because the Daddy Warbucks of film knows exactly how to make a blockbuster, T2 follows the standard sequel rule of doing the first movie over, only bigger, but it also further explores the relationship between man and machine, particularly as John and The Terminator bond throughout the course of the film.


The insanely rich fictional character I'll jokingly call Cameron in this paragraph moves away from his "killer machine" motif in 1994's True Lies to focus more on human relationships in the face of potential death, a theme which Cameron this time explores with a lighter, and somewhat more realistic touch. While The Terminator franchise tends to be extremely melodramatic when things aren't exploding and robots aren't fighting, True Lies actively explores the comedy inherent in watching people on film in life or death situations (making it part of a subgenre of humor I like to refer to as "apocalyptic comedy," which makes fodder of characters reactions to nearly dying or to the end of the world). The film focuses on the double life lead by Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is a family man and also a super-spy, which leads to marital trouble with his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis). In a (very unethical) attempt to spice up his failing marriage, Harry draws Helen into his life of espionage, which she, like Sarah Connor before her, takes to very adeptly. The two work out their marriage while saving America from terrorists with a warhead, because that's just how marriage, and espionage, works.

After True Lies, the biggest fucking movie ever to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as a star-crossed couple who find themselves engaged in espionage, Cameron moved on to make 1997's little heard of, little seen, and little loved Titanic. That movie focuses on a much more attractive pair of star crossed lovers in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) who fall in love even though he is totally poor, and she is James Cameron-level rich. You know they're in love because of how often they say each other's names:

But of course, class is soon not the only thing threatening to tear these attractive people apart. There's also the matter of James Cameron examining the relationship between man and technology again, as man's hubris at building the giant ocean liner, and his stupidity at crashing it into a giant iceberg throw Jack and Rose into a life threatening situation. The movie quickly turns from a pretty tepid love story into a pretty melodramatic examination of the human will to survive, and Rose's refusal to share her cushy spot on a floating door with the man she forever loves (you may be getting the inkling that I'm not a huge fan of Titanic. That's partly because it won 11 Academy Awards in 1997, despite the fact that it was the worst of the five movies nominated for Best Picture, and partly because it's a really shitty movie. It's also the reason Celine Dion has an Oscar for "My Heart Will Go On" and Elliott Smith does not have an Oscar for the insanely better "Miss Misery."). Titanic may not be the best movie (and trust me, it isn't), but it still has at its center an exploration of two themes that pervade Cameron's work in its look at the relationship between man and machine, and its focus on how people behave when they are in a fight for their lives (though, for every "Jack and Rose" tribute on youtube, no one seems to have posted any of the scenes of anyone actually struggling to survive. So here's the stupid scene where Jack dies because Rose won't take turns on a door):

In order to make Titanic as realistic as possible, Cameron designed a new form of camera for shooting underwater. It may seem ridiculous to say at this point, but during production of the film, the studio feared that it would not recoup its budget, and asked to cut an hour from the script. Cameron refused, telling them "You want to cut my movie? You're going to have to fire me. You want to fire me? You're going to have to kill me!" He may not have been making a very good movie, but he was certainly making his own movie.

Cameron spent the twelve years between Titanic and 2009's Avatar developing the technology necessary to make the latter film and making documentaries, mostly centered on the actual Titanic (presumably because he was already under water, building himself a lair like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me), yet his thematic interests have remained the same in the interim. The film focuses again on the evils that can be wrought by technology, only this time it puts a finer point on the human greed that often leads to the technological downfall. It is the zeal of the military to mine the precious unobtanium (I swear, after spending ten years on the script, Cameron still called it that) that leads to their use of technology to create the Avatars of the film's title, and most of the advanced weaponry on display throughout the film. The technology also leads to man's downfall as many of the people selected to control Avatars turn against the military in the film's final battle. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is brought in by the military to control an avatar that will allow him to impersonate the local species, the Na'vi. While undercover, he goes all John Smith and falls for the native Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). The film also explores the reaction of the Na'vi to the impending destruction of their homeland, which in this case, is to kick human ass. The plotline may just be an overwrought, more action-packed version of Pocahontas, but Cameron definitely injects his standard thematic considerations into the mix nevertheless.

In addition to writing and directing Avatar, Cameron spent nearly a decade developing a new form of camera, which he used to mesh live action and CGI environments, as well as film in 3D. He also developed a system for recording the faces of actors so that they could be identically mapped onto their CGI counterparts. Cameron does not have a particularly unique visual or technical style throughout his work, but he is dedicated to transferring his vision accurately to the screen, even if it takes a decade for the necessary technology to catch up.

James Cameron may be richer than God, but he clearly puts more thought into his movies than just figuring out how to make insane amounts of money from them. I don't think that Cameron is a particularly great director (though I do think that T2 and True Lies are both a lot of fun), but he does make each of his movies his own. He may not examine his themes with the depth or originality of other directors featured in this column, and in fact, when he strays from simple survival as a character motivation, he often comes across as melodramatic and cliché. Yet he has consistently focused on the role of technology in our lives and in the way that survival drives us to do things we would otherwise have not thought possible over an incredibly successful three decades making movies. He is passionately committed to making his movies his own way, waiting years, and even over a decade in the case of Avatar for technology to develop in order to properly translate his vision to the screen, and refusing cuts on any of his movies, in spite of their expansive length. Whatever movies James Cameron makes in the years to come, and whatever variations to his themes he devises to inset into them, one thing is certain: When you go to see one of his movies, you know pretty much exactly what you're going to get.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

11/21: Kathryn Bigelow

12/5: Darren Aronofsky

12/19: Frank Capra

1/2: Mike Myers
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