“I spent all my free time in the town library and I read an awful lot of science fiction and the line between reality and fantasy blurred. I was as interested in the reality of biology as I was in reading science fiction stories about genetic mutations and post-nuclear war environments and inter-stellar traveling, meeting alien races, and all that sort of thing. I read so voraciously.”
As longtime readers of this blog will recall, every summer I like to focus on the work of one particular film director.
In 2007, my subject was the under appreciated William Friedkin. In 2008, I gazed back (with many fellow bloggers) at “later” era John Carpenter efforts. In 2009, my focus was on the maestro, Brian De Palma. Finally, last summer, I took a brief detour into the murky cinematic terrain of David Lynch (Dune, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire).
Starting next week, I intend to focus the summer of 2011 on the films of James Cameron, director of The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, T2, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar. I have selected Cameron not only because I deeply admire his films, but because he works frequently in the genre, and reviews of The Abyss and Avatar are amongst the most oft-requested by readers who visit here.
When I endeavor to survey and study the career of a particular director, I always attempt to seek out thematic and technical consistencies. In the case of Cameron, there’s much to gaze at on both fronts.
Technically, he is frequently an innovator of developing effects techniques (The Abyss
and CGI; Avatar
and 3-D). Like De Palma, he is a tinkerer, as Cameron once noted:
“I was always fascinated by engineering. Maybe it was an attempt maybe to get my father’s respect or interest, or maybe it was just a genetic love of technology, but I was always trying to build things..”
In terms of theme, Cameron often returns to a set of familiar obsessions. Among the commonalities we can detect in his storytelling, Cameron films often feature:
1. “Fish out of water” characters who, despite (or perhaps because of…) their unfamiliarity with the terrain at hand, are able to navigate dangerous or critical situations with clear eyes. Ripley in Aliens (57 years out of her time period) the Terminator in T2, Helen Tasker in True Lies, Jake Sully in Avatar, and even Rose (Gloria Stuart) in Titanic are all virtual “aliens” in the worlds they inhabit, whether that world is the future, the past, Pandora, or the spy business.
2.) A debate about militarism. In Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar, protagonists both collaborate with and battle against the military establishment. Aliens showcases a brilliant “fog of war” approach to futuristic combat, and reveals “grunts” at the mercy of inexperienced, arm-chair superiors.
But all three of these efforts also showcase Cameron’s deep uncertainty about the application of military might in our future, and on alien terrain (LV-426, underneath the sea, and on Pandora). If you throw in the anti-nuke messaging of The Terminator and Terminator 2, Cameron’s fears about our war-making potential are quite evident.
Of interest, however, is the fact that Cameron is no pacifist. His characters do not shy away from war or fighting. Ripley actively becomes a soldier in the finale of Aliens, and Jake Sully assumes a place of leadership in the tribe in Avatar. Similarly, John Connor (of the Terminator series) becomes the human leader of the resistance against Skynet.
So while some critics may claim that Cameron is staunchly anti-military, the truth is much more nuanced. He readily acknowledges that war is sometimes necessary, but in these films the causes must be categorized as just in his eyes. Ripley fights for a child’s life in Aliens. Sarah Connor fights to save the future of mankind itself in The Terminator films. And Jake Sully in Avatar fights to save a natural (though alien…) way of life from human corporate avarice and strip mining.
It is this last example that tends to send some into conniption fits; the idea of a human turning against his people to preserve an alien way of life. Ironically, the same people tend not to complain in films such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, when outsiders defeat humans who — through criminal and immoral acts — have forsaken our shared moral values. This may be an unsettling sign that such moral values are no longer shared as universally as we had hoped.
3.) A concern about the rising power and influence of corporations. Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens introduced the world to the “space yuppie” through the character of Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). The screenplay for that film judged Burke and his ilk (corporate cronies, essentially…) as worse than the titular monsters because “at least you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage.”
Avatar goes after the same target, only with the some of the details updated to include our contemporary culture (such as the presence of mercenaries in war zones). Avatar also reflects the way that corporate and economic interests now always seem to dovetail with national matters of “security.” Closely related, perhaps, is Titanic’s focus on class warfare aboard ship; an unjust system which prioritizes some human lives over others.
4.) Female characters of extraordinary wisdom and courage, such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Helen Tasker, and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri. In virtually all such cases, these characters fight for long-standing Western ideals, including the defense of family and the hearth. The women in Cameron’s films are viewed as equal to men, and sometimes (certainly in the case of Ripley…) superior to them as well.
5.) Alien life forms of unique, mysterious and fascinating proportion. This is one director who isn’t afraid of world building, or of visualizing unknown but compelling (and believable) life forms. This makes Cameron a personal favorite for me. The aliens, alien machines, and alien worlds in his films are splendidly, meticulously realized creations.
There’s much more to write about, but this brief likely suffices for today (on the cusp of a holiday weekend). I plan to review Aliens right here, next week, between Wednesday and Friday as time permits, and then pick up with The Abyss the week after that. I’ll review one Cameron film a week, until we’re done, or until the readers shout uncle.
If you can, re-watch Cameron’s films and join in the discussion. Next week: Aliens (a film on the verge of its 25th anniversary).