Where to begin with James Cameron

As Avatar: The Way of Water touches down in cinemas, we plot a path through the career of the man behind two out of three of the most successful films ever: James Cameron.

12 December 2022

By Josh Slater-Williams

Aliens (1986)

Why this might not seem so easy

It may seem silly to construct a guide to exploring a filmmaker who directed two of the three highest-grossing movies ever made, and also created one of the most successful science-fiction media franchises of the last 40 years. When it comes to James Cameron, it seems much of the globe has already begun. Yet since his real-life-disaster-inspired romantic melodrama Titanic conquered the world a quarter of a century ago, his directing jobs have been rare. An 18-year-old today would have been five when the last Cameron film – 2009’s alien planet war-epic Avatar – came out.

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
© Disney

Excluding his documentary efforts, Cameron’s nine feature filmography – including his new film Avatar: The Way of Water – presents several valid starting points. Where you may struggle is with The Abyss (1989) and True Lies (1994). Although high-definition versions play on TV broadcasts, neither film has made its way to Blu-ray, digital purchase or consistent streaming, their last home media releases being on DVD. Cameron was apparently set to approve new Blu-ray remasters a few years back, so it’s possible the acquisition of the 20th Century Fox library by Disney held up both titles while he’s been in production on the Avatar sequels. There are now, however, finally signs that The Abyss will surface.

Canadian-born Cameron’s career is one of the more interesting Hollywood success stories of the past 40-odd years. Reportedly inspired to enter the film industry after seeing Star Wars (1977), he quickly quit his truck driver job, having previously learned basics on film technology during college. He worked his way up the ladder in production assistant, model maker, art direction, production design and special effects roles, before moving into writing and directing his own material. After his low-budget, independently made sci-fi thriller The Terminator (1984) was a smash hit, Cameron entered a winning streak of increasing creative control. With the exception of The Abyss, every non-doc feature he’s directed since 1984 has been a significant commercial success, with the production budgets afforded to them increasing every time.

Titanic (1997)

It’s safe to say you shouldn’t bet against Cameron, but why should you watch his movies? From a film history point-of-view, most of Cameron’s works have been major milestones in terms of visual effects craft and technological innovations: from mainstreaming the blending of tactile practical effects and production design with CGI in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) to giant leaps forward with motion-capture and 3D filmmaking with Avatar.

Even with the foregone conclusions of many of his stories, such as in Titanic, he’s also a master of suspense. He has a considerable flair for spectacle, his editing and framing of set-pieces favouring clean, classical modes that’s allowed them to endure the test of time against the increasingly hyperactive editing of Hollywood blockbusters. He operates in broad strokes, but they almost always succeed at achieving their intended emotional targets.

The best place to start – The Terminator

As Cameron’s filmography cumulatively reflects major shifts in American genre filmmaking, going in chronological order from his breakthrough onwards is a smart route. Legitimately scary, The Terminator is also a great starting point for other reasons. It’s Cameron’s own creation: the story of a cyborg sent back in time to assassinate the mother of the future leader of the human resistance against an AI invasion, before the latter is born. It’s his last film with a smaller budget. It’s his first great example of world-building – something he excels at. And it established some key recurring collaborations: producer (and later ex-wife) Gale Anne Hurd and actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Linda Hamilton (also later an ex-wife).

The Terminator (1984)
© Park Circus

What to watch next

Best to progress in chronological order from The Terminator onwards, though make sure you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) before viewing Cameron’s sequel Aliens (1986), which melds horror with action-movie to glorious effect. If you’re somehow unaware of Terminator 2’s plot turns, avoid watching trailers. If you can, see Avatar in 3D.

The Abyss (1989)

The first of his expensive, arduous productions concerning vessels in distress at sea, The Abyss is something like Cameron’s version of Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with a dash of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in its story of a close-knit blue-collar workforce facing life or death during both a storm and an encounter with “non-terrestrial intelligence”. Like Titanic, it’s one of the most impressive technical achievements in film history, though the more narratively coherent, emotionally raw, 30-minutes-longer ‘special edition’ is the superior version.

Throughout his career, Cameron has also been on screenwriting duty for other directors. Long-gestating manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel (2019) was eventually directed by Robert Rodriguez, while by far the best of his screenplays for others is Strange Days (1995), co-written with Jay Cocks for director Kathryn Bigelow (another ex-spouse). A commercial bomb, the dystopian conspiracy theory thriller has gained a sizeable cult following over time.

Where not to start

More straight-faced than its parodic, Jaws-riffing predecessor, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) was made with none of the main creative team behind the Roger Corman-produced original. Cameron, previously a special effects artist for Corman, was initially hired for a similar role and then promoted to director. Executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis then exerted an unusual amount of creative influence, with some reports suggesting debut director Cameron wasn’t present for all principal photography. Cameron tried to have his name removed from the final edit but was blocked. While he doesn’t deny the film’s existence, for a long time he preferred to consider The Terminator his true debut. Piranha II was simply a painful lesson on the importance of creative control going forward.

True Lies (1994)

A remake of French spy farce La Totale! (1991), True Lies features genuinely stunning action sequences alongside questionable approaches to gender politics and other matters. Cameron’s scripts often thrive on smart use of archetypes, but here it’s more very uncomfortable stereotypes, particularly concerning the Middle East.

Made between Titanic and Avatar, Cameron’s deep sea documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005) are only really notable for his early flirtations with IMAX 3D. That said, the former does include the memorably surreal moment when Bill Paxton informs Cameron about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as he’d been underwater exploring Titanic wreckage while the news was breaking.

Finally, while you should absolutely prioritise the longer cut of The Abyss, and the ‘special edition’ of Aliens reinstates many worthwhile scenes for valuable texture, the additions in extended versions of Avatar and Terminator 2 zap narrative momentum. Stick with the better theatrical cuts.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas from 16 December.

Further reading

The Terminator came to me in a dream: a new interview with James Cameron

James Cameron recalls the inspiration behind one of the definitive sci-fi action films, how he turned down O.J. Simpson for the lead, and why he was ready to tell the crew that casting Arnold Schwarzenegger would “never work”.

By George Bass

The Terminator came to me in a dream: a new interview with James Cameron


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