The world of James Cameron | Daily News

The world of James Cameron

Women and workers

The man who made two of history’s highest grossing films was born in a town that until recently described itself on its website as “The Wilderness Destination – Naturally.” There are some who think Cameron was born in the US, but he wasn’t: Kapuskasing is in Ontario, and that’s in Canada. From an early age he developed an interest in technology. At the age of eight he discovered a pamphlet on how to build a civilian shelter from nuclear fallout on a coffee table at his family’s living room.

There’s always a hero who’s either working class or female, or sometimes both, and an antagonist in the form of a technologically advanced entity, in the films of James Cameron. In The Terminator (1984) you see all three elements: Sarah Connor is a diner waitress, while the Terminator is, well, an android.

At a time when mainstream Hollywood thought of technology, the world of computers and androids, as benign, Cameron dared to think differently. There had been films made before about the perils of scientific advancement and artificial intelligence – just think of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – but Cameron was the first to humanise the theme and present it in such stark terms. In 2001 all we get of the antagonist is his voice; the antagonist in The Terminator, by contrast, doesn’t speak. He just goes for the kill.

By pitting working class heroes against futuristic villains, I think Cameron is trying to tell us something. His own biography provides some clues: before he entered the movie industry he worked as a machinist, a lorry driver, a mechanic, and a precision-tool engineer. In the films of his we can identify as really his – and there has been one film so far which doesn’t fit this description, True Lies (1994), a remake of a French comedy made four years earlier – technology tends to be upended by heroes engaged in similar employment.

All hearts and flowers

And yet there’s no sentimentality about how they triumph over cyborgs and androids: he doesn’t bandy about their virtues. Sarah Connor, right down to the most recent Terminator movie, is never all hearts and flowers. She’s crude, she’s vicious, and she’ll do anything to get back her former life. Schooled by her first encounters with the cyborg, she gradually grows to respect it. The franchise in that sense less is about John Connor versus the future than it is about Sarah Connor versus the rest of the world.

His second work Aliens (1986) sees Cameron shapes material taken from another film into its sequel, and the way he does it shows how, in the hands of one auteur, the themes from a film of another auteur can substantively change. In Alien (1979) Ridley Scott turned Ellen Ripley into a heroine only after it was evident that every other character had been scripted in as food for the villain. There’s nothing plucky about her: smooth, efficient, and calm, not until the last few moments does she turn into a raging kill machine.

Aliens, on the other hand, has her moody, introspective, and fiercely attached to those she loves from the word go. She appears less clean shaven, almost working class. Even the music points at the difference: whereas Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the first film suggests creeping, underlying horror, James Horner’s score for the second suggests the dizziness and the frenzy of a military boot camp. Ellen’s transformation wasn’t lost on audiences, nor on critics: it got Sigourney Weaver, who played Ellen, her first Oscar nomination. With it Cameron redefined the ideal of movie heroines: featured until then as second fiddles to the heroes, they began to assert themselves more. Ridley Scott depicted this new female protagonist in Thelma and Louise (1993), the definitive feminist movie of the 1990s; he caught a glimpse of it in the first Alien film, yet it was left to Cameron to expand on it further.

But Cameron is neither a woman’s director nor a working class director. His preoccupation has always been the perils of technology; he doesn’t preach or sentimentalise. Yet movie audiences who’d grown tired of middle-class heroes and villains couldn’t be more thrilled about the change he brought about; not even in Steven Spielberg’s or George Lucas’s films did the heroes turn out to be so crude and at the same time so sincere. With movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E. T. (1982), you’re limited to the American suburbs: clean, refined, and dignified. With The Terminator Cameron changed all that: he took us to the underbelly of those suburbs, the lifeblood of the American middle-class. No better contrast could have existed for cyborgs hell-bent on conquering the world.

Submerged object

How he plays around with this conflict – the underclass of the present versus a ruling class from the future – in his subsequent work provides an interesting insight into how a director tends to evolve. In The Abyss (1993), the hero is the foreman of a submarine sent to retrieve a submerged object in the Caribbean, while his ex-wife is the scientist in charge of the whole operation; the plot unravels against the backdrop of the Cold War.

A broken romance and marriage isn’t the ideal counterpoint to a sci-fi thriller unfolding beneath the sea, yet Cameron manages to compel our interest. Like The Terminator and Aliens, it shows, at the end, how miniscule the presence of humans is when confronted on the one hand by the immensity of technology and on the other by its powerlessness in the face of nature. Like Avatar (2009), it offers a critique of how we use the world’s resources. These two themes form the bedrock of every work he’s done since then.

The man who made two of history’s highest grossing films was born in a town that until recently described itself on its website as “The Wilderness Destination – Naturally.” There are some who think Cameron was born in the US, but he wasn’t: Kapuskasing is in Ontario, and that’s in Canada. From an early age he developed an interest in technology. At the age of eight he discovered a pamphlet on how to build a civilian shelter from nuclear fallout on a coffee table at his family’s living room. The year was 1962, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Decades later he would remember it as the first time he came face to face with the threat of total annihilation: “As the world turned out so far,” he told a biographer, “it was a bit paranoid. But there’s still plenty of time to destroy ourselves.”

He moved with his family to California after turning 17. “To move to LA,” he later recalled, “was to go into the belly of the beast.” The Vietnam War was raging, his brother was sent there, and the full horrors of all-out conflict began to intrigue him. While all this was going on, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg were attending film school and making amateur shorts. Cameron remains the only mainstream director to emerge from the aftermath of what critics called “New Hollywood” not to follow a course on directing at any school or university. But New Hollywood certainly shaped him: he was 23 when he saw Star Wars (1977), and that pushed him into toying with the idea of making sci-fi flicks. He got his chance with Xenogenesis a year later, in 1978.

Low budget

Xenogenesis was funded, of all people, by a group of Mormon dentists. He intended to join the low-budget film industry through it, and succeeded, having secured employment as an art director and effects artist at New World Pictures, run by Hollywood’s foremost exponent of low budget horror, Roger Corman. Piranha II: The Spawning followed four years after his first work: considered to be his directorial debut, it is now largely forgotten. Indeed, despite it attaining cult status, Cameron disowned it, though in later years he confirmed it as his first work. The Terminator would come two years later.

Cameron expands on The Terminator in its sequel, Judgment Day (1993), which gives more space to Sarah Connor. If you see what had been until its sinking the world’s largest ship as a symbol of the future, Titanic (1997) is pretty much about how the underclass, submerged by the upper class, triumphs over the perceived infallibility of technology. Avatar enmeshes these dynamics and conflicts within a larger theme: the environment.

Given his activism off-screen, environmental conservation continues to interest him tremendously: both his upcoming projects are sequels to Avatar: the first slated for release in 2022, the second in 2024. Yet his concern for women and workers remains: the hero of Avatar, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-Marine, while the heroine is the daughter of the leader of the “citizens” of another planet. Sully’s outmanoeuvring of his seniors on board their spaceship, sent by a mining company to check on what they can extract from the planet and go for the kill, revives the thematic strands that binds Cameron’s films together: then as now, in his world the future is eventually conquered by virtual nobodies, from an uncouth diner waitress to a naively brave disabled ex-soldier.