Asking James Cameron to relent from pushing cinema’s techno- envelope is a bit like begging the scorpion not to sting the frog: he can’t help it, it’s in his nature. And given his last two movies were box-office behemoths Avatar ($2.8bn) and Titanic ($2.2bn), it’s not like he hasn’t got the stats to support his vision.
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What’s more, Cameron’s obsession with computer effects and bending the form of his chosen medium to his iron will has provided modern cinema with some of its most indelible images: the face-mimicking alien water tentacle in The Abyss; the T-1000 reconfiguring with liquid grace in Terminator 2: Judgment Day; the vainglorious steamship upending and being sucked into the ocean in Titanic; Sam Worthington going full Smurf in Avatar. Why deny ourselves?
Because, aside from immersive 3D that was (almost) worth the headache, Avatar was exceedingly average; and Titanic, for all of its 11 Oscars and Leo-mania, wasn’t much better. And even if you disagree with me on those two points, are you really that stoked for Avatars 2, 3, 4 and 5 that are taking up space in the Disney Fox movie schedule? It feels like Cameron’s on the verge of going a bit Colonel Kurtz in Pandora’s bioluminescent jungles...
For me, the Canadian auteur’s best film is still 1984’s The Terminator, a lean, mean, well-oiled action machine in which the effects (think 2029 Los Angeles) are actually its weakest element, displaying all the hallmarks of a filmmaker who cut his teeth under Roger Corman’s stewardship.
What The Terminator has that Cameron’s later movies don’t is a tight, tense, terrific script, rough-edged, interesting characters, buckets of atmosphere (the Tech Noir shootout, night-time chases lit by streaking sodium lamps) and momentum. It is a movie that absolutely will not stop, ever, and it allows Cameron to showcase his genius for choreographing in-camera action as fluent as it is muscular.
His other masterpiece? Aliens, again inhabited by compelling characters, again dripping in atmosphere, and again relying on practical effects – including gymnasts and dancers in creature suits. So I say throw out the computers and go back to basics. Or is it just me?
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