The James Cameron Reassessment Part I: 1981-1989

UPDATE: Click here for Part II

So far this year, on a whim, I’ve chosen a specific director’s filmography to go through each month. Pre-blog January was my Quentin Tarantino month. February was my Kevin Smith Retrospective. Going into March, however, I decided to go with someone whose work I’ve never really liked. James Cameron.

That’s right, I’ve never been a big James Cameron fan. A part of me is put off by the fan boys. Here are a couple examples of James Cameron fan boys at work.

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Being a master of visual effects and huge action set pieces does not make you a cinematic god. It makes you Michael Bay with a plot. What kills me is the post on the left poses a ridiculous question and then goes on to completely negate the position they’re taking. It’s this kind of fan boy hero worshipping that makes me go into every James Cameron movie with a much more critical eye than with any other filmmaker.

I’ve always thought Cameron was the most overrated filmmaker working today. So March was all about reassessing his career. Did my opinion change? Read on to find out.

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Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981) – (Buy it on Amazon)

Technically, Piranha Part Two is not James Cameron’s movie, but I’m counting it anyway. I’m really struggling to find anything good to say about it. It’s a complete mess from start to finish. In fact, the audio in the last 10 minutes of my copy became incredibly out of sync and it wasn’t until four minutes had passed that I even noticed.

The plot follows a beach resort terrorized by genetically modified piranhas. There’s a story and some characters but the important thing to know is that these piranhas can fly. The monsters in James Cameron’s first movie are flying piranhas. It also features Lance Henriksen as a sheriff and every time he was on-screen I just felt bad for the guy. I felt bad for every actor on-screen, actually.

The one really memorable scene in the movie involves a morgue worker being attacked by a piranha that flies out of a victim’s chest, followed by a shot of the piranha flying out of a window. There, now you don’t have to watch it.

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The only remotely positive thing I can say about Piranha 2 is that its production has an interesting story. James Cameron was fired after a week of shooting by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis. The producer completed filming and wouldn’t allow Cameron to access the footage he shot.  James Cameron eventually broke into the editing room and cut his own version of the movie, but he was caught and Assonitis re-cut the movie.

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To this day Cameron disowns the movie. The only reason Cameron’s name is on it is because it was contractually obligated to have an American name on it. I have a feeling that’s what kept the movie from joining the ranks of the storied filmography of Alan Smithee. The movie was the worst movie I watched last month and it will take something truly horrendous to dethrone it as my worst first viewing of 2013.

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The Terminator (1984) – (Buy it on Amazon)

There are three things that I love more than just about anything: space, zombies and time travel. Since The Terminator has time travel at its heart and the franchise is widely regarded as one of the biggest and best sci-fi series ever, it stands to reason that I should love it. Right?

I had seen The Terminator once before, about a decade ago, and was unimpressed. I liked the character of Kyle Reese and his interactions with Sarah Connor, but I felt like it was a little hokey and hadn’t aged well.

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Upon reflection, I still have the same feelings. But I did enjoy it more this time around. I found myself appreciating it a lot more without being too critical. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to watch The Terminator in a packed theater on opening weekend. I would certainly enjoy it more in that setting.

Maybe the third time I see it, I’ll fall in love with it. It’s one of Cameron’s better written scripts in that it’s not 7 hours long and doesn’t carry an awkward, on the nose political message that he shoves down your throat in the third act. The action is also very well executed, especially considering it’s his official directorial debut.

Overall, The Terminator is one of Cameron’s more solid, enjoyable enough experiences.

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Aliens (1986) – (Buy it on Amazon)

I wrote about Aliens in my review of the Alien Anthology blu-ray set. If you haven’t bought it yet, by the way, buy it right now.

Aliens is another Cameron movie I had only seen once before. In fact, now that I think of it, the only Cameron movie I saw multiple times before this whole endeavor was Titanic.

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I first saw Aliens last year in preparation for Prometheus after watching Alien for the first time. Aliens is interesting because I watched it days after first experiencing Alien. So Aliens had some hurdles to overcome. It had to do right by a predecessor that instantly became one of my favorite movies and it had to do that under the guidance of James Cameron, who I felt very sour toward.

Despite these obstacles. Aliens was a great movie. It showcased Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser in ways I’ve never seen them before and it successfully defied the stereotype that a sequel should be more of the same. James Cameron took what Ridley Scott began and created something with his best assets. Cameron created a combat film that advances Ripley’s character to her next logical progression.

My only real issue is pacing. I don’t have a problem with slow pacing in general at all. In fact, I love it as long as it’s used for character development. It takes an hour in the theatrical cut for the first Alien to pop up. In that hour we learn Ripley has PTSD, there’s an android and Marines are macho. In other words, Cameron spends an hour on what could be summed up in a scene’s worth of dialogue.

That’s the theatrical version. The special edition is, surprisingly, a different story. The special edition packs on an additional half hour to the theatrical cut and it surprisingly helps the movie a lot. There’s important exposition involving Ripley that isn’t included in the theatrical release that gives the movie’s climax more of an emotional impact. It’s really great.

With Aliens, Cameron had the benefit of an established universe to play with. He successfully made the only worthy sequel in the Alien franchise and he did it in his own way.

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The Abyss (1989) – (Buy it on Amazon)

Oh, The Abyss. Yet another James Cameron movie that I had seen only once. Honestly, I should have counted this viewing as a first viewing. The first time I watched The Abyss was while I was tired. Since James Cameron never learned the word “cut” (except when it applies to actual character development in Aliens, apparently), The Abyss is a 3 hour movie. So the first time I watched it, I slept through most of it.

Going into The Abyss with a fresh and well-rested state of mind was obviously a much more enjoyable experience. In fact, one of the biggest complaints I have about the movie is that it isn’t available on blu-ray and the DVD is appalling. The lack of anamorphic widescreen is a major issue in itself. The lack of high definition is just irritating. The way Cameron uses light in the underwater scenes really deserve to be seen on blu-ray.20130317_011056-2

As for the movie itself, I would probably say it’s my favorite James Cameron movie. The story is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind only it’s set underwater. A civilian deep sea mining crew is enlisted by the Government to search for a lost nuclear sub. When they reach it, however, they encounter an alien species while dealing with a madman in their midst.

I watched the director’s cut which runs around 3 hours long, of course. I liked it a lot. It features one of Ed Harris’ best performances I’ve seen and makes good use of the environment and atmosphere of a deep sea vessel. Seeing as “screenwriting god” himself wrote the script, there are some hokey moments. Namely the use of a “which wire do I cut” bomb defusing scene. And, as I said before, the movie feels a lot like Close Encounters.Screenshot_2013-04-04-15-34-52-1

There’s also a moment at the end where it got extremely preachy about the nature of war and how horrible humanity is. It could have been a powerful sequence if Cameron could properly utilize things like subtext and metaphors. But 1989 Jim Cameron apparently couldn’t, so we’re left with the theme of the movie being spelled out for us. It’s still my favorite though. Whenever it does see the light of day on blu-ray, I will definitely be buying it.

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That’s it for part one of my James Cameron reassessment. Cameron in the ’80s was surprisingly better than I remembered (or even expected) him to be. Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on Jimbo’s career from the 1990s to the present.

In the meantime give me a follow on twitter @ObsessiveViewer and like the blog on Facebook so you can keep up with more of my ramblings as they happen.

UPDATE: Click here for Part II

5 responses to “The James Cameron Reassessment Part I: 1981-1989

  1. It’s interesting to hear you come just short of berating James Cameron, yet all of these reviews (save for Piranha) were positive. Perhaps you just don’t like James Cameron the man not James Cameron: The Director.

    P.S. I don’t know how to spell Piranha without help.

    Pirhana
    Pharanha
    Pirahna

    Like

  2. Pingback: The James Cameron Reassessment Part II: 1991-2009 | The Obsessive Viewer

  3. Pingback: The John Hughes Re-Education | The Obsessive Viewer

  4. Pingback: OV’s 2013 Movie Stat Breakdown | The Obsessive Viewer

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