Total Recall: James Cameron Movies

We take a look at the career of the visionary director of Avatar.

James Cameron

He got his start as a miniature model maker at Roger Corman Studios, and promptly went on to establish himself as one of the biggest directors in Hollywood -- both in terms of his staggering box office grosses ($3.5 billion worldwide and counting) and his seemingly limitless appetite for epic storytelling. Like a lot of filmmakers, James Cameron's imagination has often outpaced the available technology -- but unlike most of his peers, when confronted with those limits, he simply spurs the invention of new technology to get around them. Cameron's latest effort, Avatar, required the development of a whole new 3-D camera, and rode the bleeding edge of CGI's outer limits. After years of buildup, Avatar is finally here -- but before we witness what's being hyped as the future of filmmaking, why don't we look back at James Cameron's past?


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9. Piranha II: The Spawning

Say what you will about low-budget horror movies, but they've proven themselves to be a strangely fertile breeding ground for future stars -- from Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun to Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, countless young Hollywood professionals have paid their rent by toughing it out in a low-budget slasher. Few success stories have had humbler beginnings than James Cameron's, however -- the Roger Corman graduate was promoted from special effects on Piranha II after the original director took a hike. To Cameron's chagrin, the promotion was largely ceremonial; he ultimately wasn't even allowed to see his own footage, and according to legend, he broke into the studio's editing facility to try and create his own cut of the film. Though it's tempting to wonder what a Piranha II director's cut would look like, it's hard to imagine any amount of editing making an appreciable difference in the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction; Empire's Kim Newman offered one of the kindest reviews, gently dismissing it after the fact as "for curious completists only." To his credit, Cameron has shown a sense of humor about the whole thing, referring to Piranha II as "the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made."


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8. True Lies

Cameron closed out a decade as one of America's preeminent action directors with True Lies, a reunion with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who starred as double life-leading secret agent Harry Tasker) and Brad Fiedel (who provided the score, as he had for the Terminator films). The death knell had sounded for the big, dumb 1980s action movie with 1992's prophetically titled The Last Action Hero -- which, fittingly, also starred Schwarzenegger -- but Cameron helped revitalize the genre with a light, funny, fast-moving thrill ride that boasted likable performances from not only its well-muscled star, but a crackerjack supporting cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and Tom Arnold at his funniest. (Yeah, yeah, we know -- insert your favorite Tom Arnold insult here.) Though it was heavily criticized for being misogynist and racist, True Lies combined with Speed to make the summer of 1994 feel a little like the 1980s never ended, and took Cameron's reign as a Hollywood action king to its logical conclusion. Three years later, he'd resurface with the ultimate chick flick of the decade -- but in the meantime, he was still earning the begrudging praise of critics like the Globe and Mail's Rick Groen, who wrote, "However high your ranking on the culture scale, I defy you to watch this and leave the theatre without a whistled 'Wow' followed by a grudging 'That's entertainment.'"


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7. Ghosts of the Abyss

What originally drew James Cameron to Titanic wasn't the chance to tell the story of the most famous shipwreck in American history -- it was the opportunity to take a diving tour of the real-life wreckage. And since Cameron never does anything small, the end result was not just another movie, but a 3-D documentary -- Disney's first! -- filmed with specially created cameras and beefed up with nifty CGI that let the audience see what the ship might have looked like during its seafaring days. Presented in IMAX 3-D, Ghosts of the Abyss functioned as a sort of delayed footnote to Titanic, albeit one with plenty of the sort of gee-whiz special effects Cameron would eventually use to create Avatar -- and for some critics, that footnote was even more compelling than the main article. As Jeff Vice of Salt Lake City's Deseret News wrote, "When James Cameron got a second chance to make a Titanic movie, he actually managed to make a better one."


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6. Titanic

Yes, it's over three hours long, and yes, royalties from its soundtrack will keep future generations of Celine Dion's family comfortably ensconced in gated communities for centuries to come -- but don't believe the post-backlash conventional wisdom that says James Cameron's Titanic is a watery, overlong mess that only sentimental saps ever really liked. That's just the backlash talking, and for proof, just look at the staggering $1.8 billion it grossed -- Titanic was one of the last truly unifying pop culture phenomena, the Thriller of 1990s films. (Which sort of makes Billy Zane the filmic equivalent of "The Girl Is Mine," but we digress.) Such great rewards didn't come without equally impressive risks; at the time, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, and its astronomical $200 million budget, coupled with post-production delays that bumped the film's release date back by almost six months, had many people predicting a Heaven's Gate-style disaster. The rest, as they say, was history; commercial kudos aside, Titanic won 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and made Cameron enough money to keep him from working another day in his life. It was so unavoidably huge that it's easy to understand why it became hip to dismiss the (first) movie that gave us Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as young lovers on the brink of certain doom, but its 82 percent Tomatometer doesn't lie -- and neither did Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile when he wrote, "You will walk out of Titanic not talking about budget or running time, but of its enormous emotive power, big as the engines of the ship itself, determined as its giant propellers to gouge into your heart, and as lasting as the love story that propels it."


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5. Aliens of the Deep

Two years after taking audiences on a deep sea expedition with Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron dove even further for Aliens of the Deep. As with Ghosts, he used 3-D technology to take audiences on his journey -- but this time, instead of exploring a sunken ship, he ventured to the hydrothermal vents of the Mid-Ocean Range, where an otherworldly ecosystem (hence the film's title) supports a variety of unusual organisms. Part of a three-dimensional holding pattern between madly hyped tentpole features? Perhaps. But as David Hiltbrand of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "The experience is so immediate and immersive that you actually feel as if you are swimming with the krill."

Comments

vitajex

Mike M

'Avatar'? Never heard of it...

Dec 16 - 03:50 PM

Seth T.

Seth Thomas

are you serious??????????

Dec 16 - 06:56 PM

zotrablue z.

zotrablue zotrablue

thats the new one dude!

Dec 16 - 11:14 PM

moserw

Rajiv Abraham

Wow! From Mars? But Avatar is a great watch on 3D, do watch it if you can.

Jan 8 - 11:01 PM

Movies Inn

Daniel Diaz

i hope he directs a james bond film one day

Dec 16 - 03:58 PM

manwithoutfear19

Daniel Raimondi

that would be great

Dec 16 - 07:36 PM

Nickolas M.

Nickolas MacKay

true lies essentially was a james bond/007 film.

Dec 17 - 07:45 AM

TombstoneLawDog

Daniel Klein

I don't agree with this. James Bond is, at least in the more recent incarnations, MUCH more dour and straight-laced. There are moments of humor, but the premise is the lonely world of a killer punctuated, occasionally, by moments of irony or mirth.

'True Lies' was a vastly different exercise. If you look at it thematically, it's a sales pitch for the American dad" "Yes, you CAN have it all, including the coolest job in the world and a happy family."
If you look at it, stylistically, it's James Cameron *taking* the traditional spy film and going "This is what's wrong with it, this is what would be cool, and THIS is how *I* would tell a story about living a double life"

Dec 17 - 07:55 AM

JUDGE DREDD

idle one kenobi

I rarely agree with the RT tomatometer. But here, I'm glad Aliens & Terminators scored massive.

BUT, I LOVE True Lies! Wish that was up in the 90s. One of Arnies BEST roles, and Bill Paxton's sleazy car salesmen/fake spy/ladykiller, well he deserves his own spinnoff movie series! Comedic genius!

Hey, theres a pitch! Whats Paxton up to these days?

True Lies should be at least 4th on the list.


Dec 16 - 04:12 PM

The Stunner

Tiago Paulo

don't know why T1 is higher than T2.

Dec 16 - 04:16 PM

BatsInTheBelfry

Derek Meadors

Agree with the top four completely, and in that order. It's a tough call as to whether T1 or T2 was better, I give a slight edge to T1, but they're both great movies, it doesn't matter which one is slightly better. Hopefully Avatar is good. I'll admit that I was one of the people not sold on it, but as the release date approaches, I find myself really excited for it.

Dec 16 - 04:37 PM

The.Watcher

The Watcher

Because T1 is BETTER than T2.
T2 is more of the same, just 'Bigger! Faster! Stronger!', T1 is a true masterpiece.

Dec 16 - 05:28 PM

Mike L.

Mike Luciw

not at all, T2 brings emotion and science into it. T1 is basically a slasher flick =P

Dec 17 - 03:54 PM

BlueLobster

Aaron Dean

I always personally like T2 more than T1, I just felt the story to be richer and more emotional. Plus its funner.

But I absolutely agree with number 1. Anybody who doesn't like Aliens needs to get their head checked. Its literally a family tradition at my house, and its one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time. If not my actual favorite of all time.

And despite all the hypocritical and ridiculous backlash against it, Titanic is an amazing movie, and one of my top 50. Yes, it is bloated, and yes, it can be corny at times- but its all part of what makes Titanic so epic. Its probably my second favorite Cameron movie, tied with T2.

I haven't seen The Abyss in forever, and I'm really anxious to check out the director's cut and its Watchmen-esque ending.

Also- I always really loved True Lies- no doubt a dumb movie, but it takes complete pride in the fact that its big and stupid. Kind of like Arnold himself. Its not my favorite cameron movie, and I would definitely rank it lower than all of his other movies save for Piranha II (I just love pointing out the fact Cameron directed it!) and maybe the documentaries.

I have no idea where I'll place Avatar, but the more I think about it, the more I'm sure I'll love it. I'm betting it'll bomb, though. Or at least break even.

Dec 16 - 05:47 PM

Kenster102.5

Ken Sullivan

I must agree as well I love T2 better then T1, it was much more interesting to see a bad character turn semi-good.

Jan 21 - 07:49 PM

Rob D.

Rob Davis

Err, The Terminator is still Cameron's best movie.

Dec 16 - 06:09 PM

MADDAZ

Darren Anderson

Err dont think so. Aliens is his best movie.

Dec 16 - 06:57 PM

Rob D.

Rob Davis

Aliens is too cheesy and has many annoying characters. Outside of the special effects, The Terminator has aged better than any of his other films because it's a far more serious/straight forward flick compared to his later films that are filled with stock characters and cheesy one-liners.

Dec 16 - 07:28 PM

BlueLobster

Aaron Dean

REALLY? You don't think Terminator is cheesy at all? I mean, come on, the romance in Terminator is just as cheesy as the romance in Titanic, and miles more implausible. And there are some pretty ripe lines (but awesome, as per most bad lines in Cameron movies). And annoying characters? HELLO! Sarah's friend was the epitome of obnoxious. Not to mention some of the other random people in the movie- and Linda Hamilton didn't become truly awesome until the end of the movie. I prefer the crazy mom out for revenge Sarah Connor of T2.

Dec 17 - 01:27 AM

Seth T.

Seth Thomas

are you serious??????????

Dec 16 - 06:56 PM

MADDAZ

Darren Anderson

Err dont think so. Aliens is his best movie.

Dec 16 - 06:57 PM

Rob D.

Rob Davis

Aliens is too cheesy and has many annoying characters. Outside of the special effects, The Terminator has aged better than any of his other films because it's a far more serious/straight forward flick compared to his later films that are filled with stock characters and cheesy one-liners.

Dec 16 - 07:28 PM

BlueLobster

Aaron Dean

REALLY? You don't think Terminator is cheesy at all? I mean, come on, the romance in Terminator is just as cheesy as the romance in Titanic, and miles more implausible. And there are some pretty ripe lines (but awesome, as per most bad lines in Cameron movies). And annoying characters? HELLO! Sarah's friend was the epitome of obnoxious. Not to mention some of the other random people in the movie- and Linda Hamilton didn't become truly awesome until the end of the movie. I prefer the crazy mom out for revenge Sarah Connor of T2.

Dec 17 - 01:27 AM

Alexson Philip

Alexson Philipiah

im gettin nervous of avatars box office as i think it might only earn abt 500 mill world wide. which really means itll earn 300 mill world wide as not a lot of ppl know about avatar, and its trailers dnt look amazingly appealing but u never know,

Dec 16 - 06:59 PM

Lee K.

Lee Kirby

Don't worry about the Box Office. I predict this will be the fastest movie to a BILLION ever. It's that good!

Dec 19 - 12:11 AM

Lee K.

Lee Kirby

Don't worry about the Box Office. I predict this will be the fastest movie to a BILLION ever. It's that good!

Dec 19 - 12:12 AM

ryanjm

Ryan James

Pretty amazing that one guy can make so many classic, awesome movies. The top 3 are all tied in my book as some of the best movies ever made.

Dec 16 - 07:24 PM

Gert J.

Gert James

The only other directors I can think of that can make so many good movies and keep it coming, is:
Steven Spielberg
Ridley Scott

Ridley though relies less on CGI than Steven and James.

Dec 17 - 11:47 AM

TombstoneLawDog

Daniel Klein

You know, I wanted to respond, mentioning all of the other directors of equal quality-- and I couldn't. You may really be on to something. I'll have to think about it. I'd rank the short list Cameron, Spielberg, Scott.

Dec 17 - 12:16 PM

Sinister Minister

larry mcmichael

Have you guys heard of Martin Scorsese? I hear he's pretty good.

Dec 17 - 02:33 PM

Rob D.

Rob Davis

Aliens is too cheesy and has many annoying characters. Outside of the special effects, The Terminator has aged better than any of his other films because it's a far more serious/straight forward flick compared to his later films that are filled with stock characters and cheesy one-liners.

Dec 16 - 07:28 PM

BlueLobster

Aaron Dean

REALLY? You don't think Terminator is cheesy at all? I mean, come on, the romance in Terminator is just as cheesy as the romance in Titanic, and miles more implausible. And there are some pretty ripe lines (but awesome, as per most bad lines in Cameron movies). And annoying characters? HELLO! Sarah's friend was the epitome of obnoxious. Not to mention some of the other random people in the movie- and Linda Hamilton didn't become truly awesome until the end of the movie. I prefer the crazy mom out for revenge Sarah Connor of T2.

Dec 17 - 01:27 AM

inactive user

Jared King

T2 is the true champ.

Dec 16 - 07:29 PM

Chris A.

Chris Alderman

he;s created the 2 greatest sequels of all time, i guess the jury's out on Avatar 2 (can't wait for Avatar!!)

Dec 16 - 07:35 PM

manwithoutfear19

Daniel Raimondi

that would be great

Dec 16 - 07:36 PM

manwithoutfear19

Daniel Raimondi

Terminator is his best
and then True lies

Dec 16 - 07:38 PM

August M.

Agustin Macias

His Avatar sounds a lot better than that crappy, anime wannabe, Star Wars rip-off Avatar from Nick. That show would have been good if the characters were more serious about their situations, than to break into silly moments.

Dec 16 - 07:42 PM

AntonChigurh

Chris Scharlau

Aliens will always prove why cg effects of today simply cant compare to the old fashion techniques of yesteryear. How is it a series of miniature sets are more convincing then an entire computer generated landscape? As for Titanic it's okay and still is, but LA Confidential which came out the same year was such a superior film and its a shame how overlooked it got.

Dec 16 - 07:51 PM

markbart0305

Mark Bartoszek

AntonChigurh, I completely agree with you about your assessment of modern CGI versus old-fashioned animatronics and make-up effects of the past. They just can't compare! No matter how detailed and eye-popping today's CGI can get, they just lack the natural and unpredictable look of finely-constructed models and miniatures. That's not to say CGI can't be effective, as Cameron himself has proved it can be in such films as "Terminator 2" and "Titanic." It's just that many of today's filmmakers rely upon it too much to the point where it can become a distraction (Peter Jackson's "King Kong" comes to mind).

Dec 17 - 02:42 AM

James T.

James Tallman

I thought T2 was great, but I also liked True Lies too. James Cameron has shown that he is a very good director. Avatar may not be his greatest film, but it still might be good anyway.

Dec 16 - 08:28 PM

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