The James Cameron Reassessment Part II: 1991-2009

Yesterday I posted the first part of my James Cameron Reassessment. I covered his movies from the sorrowful Piranha Part Two: The Spawning to the impressive, yet preachy, The Abyss. James Cameron in the 1980s was better than I originally gave him credit for. But how does he stack up in the 90s and into the new millennium? Read on to find out…

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Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)(Buy it on Amazon)

Heralded as one of the best sequels ever, T2 was another Cameron movie I never got into. I had only seen it once before after an admittedly poor first viewing of The Terminator.

I went into this viewing of T2 with a more open mind, though and I was almost blown away. It receives high praise for the special effects that were, at the time, groundbreaking. However, the first time I saw it I thought it looked dated. The blu-ray definitely alleviates that problem. The special effects come across great.

Screenshot_2013-04-05-13-23-32-1The story is just ok, though. Skynet sends another terminator to assassinate a teenage John Connor while future John Connor sends back the original terminator to protect him, despite Sarah Connor only knowing Arnold to be an evil terminator. Why Skynet chose to send their second terminator to a time when its target is a wily teenager and not, say, a defenseless infant is anyone’s guess.

Like any good sequel, T2 expands the universe and delves more into Skynet, which is cool. There’s also the classic time travel scenario of creating a paradox by trying to do the right thing. It’s done in a way that showcases how Sarah Connor has been affected by the first movie.

Edward Furlong is great. Between T2 and American History X, I found myself wishing his career would have popped more. Linda Hamilton is also good in it. Much like Ripley in Aliens, Sarah Connor is much stronger in her sequel. Albeit, she’s a little on the crazy side.

Arnold’s Terminator being the protector instead of the antagonist in this installment rides the line of being gimmicky to me. But it’s ok because the action is well done and the scenes between Arnold and Furlong are good..

Overall, T2 is better than I remembered it but I’m not head over heals for it. Like most of Cameron’s movies, it runs a little long and isn’t paced well. I wish Robert Patrick‘s T-1000 would have had more screen time. At the least, his screen time should have been parceled out better. It almost seems like he bookends the movie with long stretches of sometimes passable character development.

 

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True Lies (1994)(Buy it on Amazon)

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

True Lies was James Cameron’s fun spy thriller with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Bond-esque superspy Harry Tasker. Harry works for The Omega Sector. The Omega Sector is a clandestine anti-terror organization you know is very powerful since it’s clear their generic name and motto (“The last line of defense”) were survivors all the way from the script’s first draft.

Harry takes down terrorists all over the world with his team that includes the scene stealing Tom Arnold. Harry’s wife, Helen and their teen daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and Eliza Dushku), however, think he’s a boring salesman.

This was my first time seeing True Lies and I had little to no expectations going in. I thought it was a fun movie that made me want to go through my Bond collection faster. Bill Paxton as sleazy used car Salesman Simon was the best part of the movie as he tried to put the moves on Helen. However, it also contributed to the worst part.

Harry, suspecting Helen of cheating on him, enlists the resources of The Omega Sector to not only follow her but to traumatize her and the car salesman with a full fledged raid on Simon’s small trailer. From there, Harry anonymously interrogates Helen and then orchestrates an elaborate hoax that leads to her performing a strip tease for him while he’s in the shadows using a disguised voice.

omega-sectorThis is all presented in good humor but I couldn’t help hating Harry a little bit for the undertones it conveyed. What killed me about the movie is when Helen finds out Harry has been lying to her about being a secret agent, she gets mad at him. Yes, your husband having a secret life full of secret missions and danger is something that should tick you off a bit. But the fact that he spied on you, had armed men grab you, interrogated you and then coerced you to fully humiliate yourself in his presence gets a pass because he’s pretty much a super hero, right? It’s a borderline sociopathic approach to the spy/action genre.

If I swallow some Tylenol and force myself to ignore that major flaw in the story, then True Lies can be a fun two-hour movie. Except it’s not a two-hour movie. Like the vast majority of Cameron’s work, True Lies is a bloated movie. The plot is resolved around the two-hour mark with a nice scene that sums up the ridiculous nature of the movie. But after that, we get 20 minutes of Arnold playing with a harrier jet and saving Eliza Dushku.

The struggle with James Cameron is that the harrier sequence is amazing to watch. But it’s such a superfluous scene in an overall uneven movie that it had me checking the remaining time every couple minutes. This is a small sample of what Jim would do on a much grander scale with 1997’s Titanic.

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Titanic (1997)(Buy it on Amazon)

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

There’s something I haven’t mentioned in this post yet that I’ve been saving for this section specifically. With the exception of Piranha Part Two, every James Cameron movie I watched for this post took me around twice as long to finish. Aliens and The Abyss included. Titanic, with a runtime of 3 hours, 14 minutes, is by far the biggest culprit.

Screenshot_2013-04-05-13-19-00Everyone knows Titanic. Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose on the ill-fated ship’s maiden voyage. Rose is engaged to Cal, played by Billy Zane. Jack is an artist who won his ticket with a lucky hand at poker. They meet, strike up a romance and then the ship hits an iceberg.

The love story is a great study in overstretched clichés. Rose is upset with her lot in life, so she considers suicide. Jack sees her and rescues her. Jack the peasant is treated to an inside view of the upper class of Cal and his cohorts as a reward for saving Rose’s life. Naturally, Jack shakes up the rich blowhards and charms his way closer to Rose.

The two spend the few days they have on the ship together nearly inseparable. Jack shows Rose his lower class friends and, in that moment, it seems like she is falling more in love with that lifestyle than with Jack. It’s moments like this where the poor writing really bleeds through the screen. The fact that we’re delivered this hackneyed love story over more than two hours of screen time makes it hard to take the movie seriously.

Even when the Titanic finally starts sinking, the movie doesn’t get much better. The archetypical villain Cal has the diamond that present day Bill Paxton is so hard up for planted on Jack. He has his henchman take Jack away because, in that moment, he has absolute authority over anything and everything on the doomed ship, apparently.

As Jack is being hauled away, he pleads with Rose. “You know I didn’t do it, Rose! You know me! You know I didn’t do it.” That line just makes me laugh. A more accurate line for the scene would be, “You know I didn’t do it, Rose! I mean, we’ve only known each other for three days and in that time I got you to put out and let me draw you naked. But you know I didn’t steal your fiance’s diamond!”

After the faux-tension of Jack being handcuffed in a room is resolved with a lucky ax strike by Rose, Cal chases Jack and Rose through the sinking ship while firing a gun. It’s the most ridiculous scene in the movie. It plays out as if Cameron felt he needed more action to appease the male demographic without realizing people were going to go see such a massive, special effects laden spectacle regardless of contrived action scenes.

20130324_074541But the part everyone complains about with the end of the movie is that there’s room on the door for Jack to lay with Rose. That’s not my complaint, though. Cameron addressed that when Jack tried to climb on it briefly and it almost capsized. My complaint is that they’re sitting in the sea for hours and he makes no attempt to find another piece of wood to await rescue on in a sea of debris. Then Rose actually delivers the line “I’m so cold.” I’m sorry the door you’re laying on isn’t warm enough for you, Rose. Maybe you should ask Jack to swim through the freezing North Atlantic that he’s currently up to his neck bobbing in to try to find you a blanket.

Screenshot_2013-04-05-13-19-12Jack dies, old Rose throws away the diamond instead of selling it and ensuring her relatives live comfortably for the rest of their lives, before she dies in her sleep. The movie is over and James Cameron pulls off the biggest filmmaking con of the 1990s by earning millions of dollars and endless acclaim for a movie the making of which he only had to concern himself with the (admittedly stunning) visual effects.

It’s easy to understand why someone drugged the crew during the production of the movie.

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Avatar (2009)(Buy it on Amazon)

Avatar is easily James Cameron’s most polarizing movie. It was his first feature film in over a decade and had the hype machine that only a nearly quarter of a billion dollar budget could afford.

The movie takes place on Pandora, a distant planet that humans have occupied in pursuit of the appropriately and ridiculously named mineral Unobtainium. The planet is inhabitated by giant ponytail smurfs called Na’vi. The movie follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine whose dead brother was a scientist creating “avatars” of the Na’vi. By transferring a human’s consciousness to the avatar, the human has complete control of the alien body. Jake is sent to replace his dead brother on a mission to infiltrate the Na’vi and lead the humans to the unobtainium.

Screenshot_2013-04-05-13-20-31It’s a story that audiences have seen many times in the past and the only ground Cameron breaks with the movie is, big shock, solely technological. He pumps his endless bankroll into making the movie (an innovation of 3D technology) the best-looking thing possible. He succeeds on that front. It is a visually stunning movie but, like Titanic before it, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of just about every other aspect.

Besides using one of the most derivative plots available, Cameron plays it safe with plot devices and character models that are as clichéd as they come. From Sigourney Weaver’s hard-ass scientist whose sole purpose is to convey distrust for the military to the seasoned veteran antagonist who commands the military into insanity (played to cartoonish levels by Stephen Lang), the movie is replete with all manner of poor storytelling and weak characters.

There’s also the Na’vi, of course. The deeply spiritual creatures who reside on Pandora are expected to garner our sympathy on principle despite only one member of the tribe getting decently developed. That’s not to say we don’t get a good look at the Na’vi way of life and their customs. We do. It’s only delivered through the eyes of Jake’s avatar and his Na’vi girlfriend played by Zoe Saldana.

20130330_031622What we’re shown is that the Na’vi are giant smurfs with long ponytails used to form deeply intimate, even erotic, connections with each other and the animals they use for transportation. There is a moment where Jake is being shown how to forge a bond with a giant alien bird through use of his Na’vi ponytail. It’s an intense scene showing that he is being accepted into the Na’vi tribe and beginning to lose himself in the romance of their way of life. The scene loses it’s impact, however, when you realize you’ve just watched a man essentially raping a bird into submission with his alien ponytail sex organ.

I first saw Avatar in the theater. It was actually the first movie I saw in 3D. My initial reaction wasn’t good. I thought the visuals were jaw dropping and the 3D was utilized very well. But the story was horrendous and boring.

This time around, my opinion actually changed a little. I still think it’s a great view of what Jim Cameron can do with $230,000,000 worth of toys to play with. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being, but it is very far from being anywhere near where the hype machine and rabid fan boys place it.

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There you have it; my reassessment of the work of James Cameron. I went into this expecting agony and came away mostly indifferent, with some surprises and a few reaffirmed beliefs along the way. I still think Cameron is one of the most overrated filmmaker’s alive. Part of me feels like the praise he earned in the 1980s went to his head. The other part of me thinks he honestly believes bloated budgets and innovative special effects are suitable substitutes for quality screenwriting.

It took me twice the time to watch most of Cameron’s movies. That means it took me six full hours to watch Titanic alone. This isn’t due to an attention problem on my part. I’m pointing the blame at a total lack of engagement on Cameron’s part. I complained throughout this project that James Cameron’s movies are over long. I have no problem with lengthy movies.

I can watch a two and a half hour long Christopher Nolan movie and be begging for more by the end. It’s because he creates his world with the perfect ratio of special effects and great writing. That’s simply something that present day James Cameron (who is devoting his time to the Avatar sequels) is either incapable of or completely resistant to.

That reason alone is why it enrages me to me see people liken him to a cinematic deity. He is very far from it.

So what’s your take on James Cameron? Comment below and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ObsessiveViewer for live-tweets about movies and shows I’m watching and keep up with the blog on Facebook for all the latest posts and blog news.

10 responses to “The James Cameron Reassessment Part II: 1991-2009

  1. Pingback: The James Cameron Reassessment Part I: 1981-1989 | The Obsessive Viewer

  2. It’s funny you mention Christopher Nolan. I view him in much of the same way you view James Cameron. I find him to be an extremely overrated and a pretentious director. I like some of Nolan’s work. Memento is one of my favorite films. I like The Dark Knight trilogy, but don’t think they are the cinematic masterpieces that people claim they are. I watched all three films in a row on New Years, and they lack some coherence when viewed as a trilogy. Christopher Nolan, in my opinion, lacks a distinct visual style. He is too dialogue heavy. He relies way too much on dialogue to explain every facet of his story. I like more of the Alfred Hitchcock style, who believed you should show the audience rather than tell them.

    That being said, it was interesting to read your thoughts on James Cameron. I don’t find him to be the greatest director either. I love Terminator 2, which I think is one of the best science fiction/action films of all time. It’s one of the few action films where all the characters develop and change, starting somewhere and ending somewhere different. I also really like Aliens, although it is a bit too long. The rest of his films I find to be average or subpar. I agree 100% with your opinion on Avatar. I enjoyed it in the theater for the visual style and 3D, but the story and the characters were one-note and didn’t stand out.

    Anyway, interesting post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment, Frank. I’m starting to think I subconsciously made the Nolan comparison because I know how similar he and Cameron’s detractors are. As far as Nolan’s writing, it’s not perfect. Inception is one of my favorite movies but I won’t hesitate to admit the script overly simplifies the plot. The kicker to that is people were still confused despite what had to be 60% of the dialogue being devoted to explaining the plot.

      I’m really hoping Interstellar will be a chance for Nolan to grow.

      It kills me that Cameron is working on sequels for Avatar. I think he’s planning on retiring after them, too. I would love to see him direct someone else’s script, for a change. But I think his ego would get in the way of that.

      As I’m going through the James Bond movies, I’m more and more glad he never got his hands on that franchise. Especially after my mixed feelings on True Lies.

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  3. Pingback: How Jurassic Park Confirmed My Hatred of 3D | The Obsessive Viewer

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Cameron is all visuals with story being secondary or almost nonexistent. Too bad his ego won’t allow him to work with a talented screenwriter so his movies can have both visuals and story.

    Like

  5. Joseph Van Buren

    maybe Cameron’s not a genius or his movies are masterpieces, but I find them a bit more entertaining than the works of supposed geniuses like Terrence Malick or the Coen brothers

    Like

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