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.
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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