In our latest beginner’s guide, Tom Jolliffe looks at the career of James Cameron….
Like many of the top directors, it didn’t happen overnight for James Cameron, now dubbed The King of the World (possibly by himself?). He worked in visual effects, and as an assistant director before getting his break in B pictures. It didn’t go so well the first time around, with Piranha II: The Spawning. He was quickly replaced during the shoot by an experienced producer (very much in the Roger Corman ilk) and not allowed in the editing process. Rumours have circulated in years since that Cameron broke into the editing suite to try and salvage his own vision. As you might expect from a film called Piranha II, it’s not brilliant, but Cameron has far from scrubbed it entirely from his memory banks or conversation.
A robot killer from the future would follow next, for Orion Pictures. In every conceivable way this could have felt like any old Roger Corman film. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. As Cameron said of Piranha II, it’s a film best enjoyed at a Drive-In after a few too many beers. Look at any of the slew of cyborg killer video specials that followed in the years after The Terminator, and you will see the key difference between the expected, and above and beyond. Cameron’s low budget action, horror and sci-fi blend probably remains his greatest work. It’s iconic. We find ourselves 35 years down the road and two of the leads from the original film, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are reprising their roles (again) for the sixth film in a canon that has also spawned a TV show and countless merchandise and video game spin-offs.
How the film worked was by Cameron’s astute and perfectionist approach. On one hand he knew his limitations. He set it predominantly at night to give the film inherently more interesting cinematography. Likewise, some of the plot’s complexities involving time travel may unravel (as any time travel film can) when over picked. That’s fine, we’ve all sat and tried to fathom the ins and outs of Back to the Future Part II. The worst thing that can happen in a sci-fi film is when this happens during the film. As an example in Terminator: Genisys. Such is the screaming lack of logic and over-complication, combined with plodding pacing and dull characters, that the audience is left with nothing else other than to wonder, ‘what the fuck is going on here!?’ In the original film, Cameron opens with a text scrawl and some neat miniature FX that sets out a scene for 2029. We are then brought back to 1984 where the film takes place. From then on the pace progressively builds up to a crescendo and a nightmarish finale.
The Terminator was born out of nightmare, based on something Cameron envisioned in a fevered dream. Rather than stop to focus on the time travel logistics, he simply keeps focus on the chase between the future warrior tasked with protecting the future of mankind. Sarah Connor, our heroine also brings us along for a ride. She doesn’t buy the story, she takes convincing, so we get convinced along with her, and all within the chase. So invested in the chase that we don’t get the time to sit back and begin unthreading. In any case, as far as these films go, Terminator has a level of logic tie off that’s well above most (with the exception of paternity matters of course). There’s great action in The Terminator, but mostly it’s a horror, and it manages to not make the robot seem silly (even despite some dated animatronics). That’s also testament to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physical presence but somewhat overlooked performance. Yes he’s big and granite jawed, with a kind of mechanical accent, but (and we’ve seen more failed attempts at recreating this kind of mecha-menace in years since, than success) he perfectly creates a nightmarishly soulless and calculated performance. When we see that Terminator red screen P.O.V with the formulations and code running, it’s not a surprise – we’ve already seen that within Arnold’s performance and that’s what makes his villain iconic. It would have been all too easy to overplay it, or even underplay it. It’s more than just looking blank.
Cameron, riding off a success, then took on the unenviable task of following up Ridley Scott’s iconic space horror, Alien. Given a pretty good budget to realise the vision, he turned intimate, one setting space horror into an expanded action combat film, which still had the horror and claustrophobia of the original. Debate will long rage over whether Alien or Aliens is best. It’s a toss up for me, though I perennially lean toward the original. Aliens in many regards is probably Cameron’s most complete film. Many consider it his best. He expands on the character of Ellen Ripley, adding extra layers (which resulted in an Oscar nomination for Sigourney Weaver). It would be one of two iconic female action heroine turns overseen by Cameron. The film doesn’t let up, and in every technical department, it’s first rate. Cameron certainly also had a gift for creating memorable side characters, each with their own stamp, and none more so than bringing Michael Biehn over from his Terminator universe to this, as Hicks. Every kid my age who saw either film thought Michael Biehn was the coolest mofo in cinema. Note to anyone reading, tied to a studio, can we please get Michael Biehn back on the big screen? Come on, enough is enough. Bring back Biehn!
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