It’s a little bit perverse to write a Top Five for someone with such a small filmography, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot recently, and James Cameron 1984 – 1994 is one of those great classic, flawless runs of cinema that a few directors have (I’m thinking of Walter Hill 1978 – 1984, John Carpenter 1976 – 1988 etc.) So something like The Abyss (1989) is only left off this list because of my arbitrary numbering system, and not because of any concerns about its quality.
- Avatar (2009)
The closest precedent we have to Cameron in cinema is the career of Stanley Kubrick. They’re both detail-obsessed, technically proficient directors who began their careers producing a number of big-budget films before slowing down their output rate. In the twenty years since Titanic (1997) Cameron has only produced one film. It is likely that his career will be capped by the now almost mythical Avatar sequels – sequels who have been close to filming for a decade now. There are mutterings on the internet that these are sequels that nobody wants, and that the cinematic landscape has moved on since Cameron released what was, once again, the most successful film ever made. But memories are short; these mutterings were happening before True Lies, Titanic and Avatar, and were proved to be incorrect then. Also, are we really not wanting to see a sequel from the man who made both Aliens and T2?
Which is not to say that the frustrations of Avatar are irrelevant. It was not a film I liked when I first saw it. But the achievements of the film have only grown in my mind in the intervening years. It is an ecologically progressive action adventure story. It is the pinnacle of one of the main reasons we go to the cinema – for the opportunity to visit other places and peoples and worlds and see things we would not otherwise get to see. And it is an obsessive masterpiece from a visionary director; the lessons of Avatar (give a director free reign to create something special) were not learnt, and cinema became bogged down in easy, creatively bankrupt, retrospectively 3D’d superhero films. Their action sequences are incomprehensible and their CGI is lazy. Avatar’s sequels will become our last stand if we want to have a still vital, interesting populist cinema scene.
- True Lies (1994)
In For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen), Ernst Stavros Blofeld is dropped down a chimney shaft from a helicopter. In Spectre (2015 – Sam Mendes), he is James Bond’s adoptive brother who has been plotting for years to bring about his downfall. There is a perception in contemporary cinema that the latter is better; that convoluted cod-psychological origin stories are somehow more interesting than spectacle. But funny, family-friendly big budget action cinema is essential (of which the Roger Moore Bond films are canonical), and it is increasingly neglected in the cinematic landscape. Part of the appeal of James Cameron is that he stands in opposition to these prevailing winds. True Lies has some extremely shabby racial and sexual politics, but is a gloriously entertaining synthesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action and comedy careers.
- The Terminator (1984)
When we talk about the great car chases in cinema, we forget to ever talk about the one in The Terminator, largely because it is only one small accomplishment in an exquisitely designed love story that made a ridiculous Austrian bodybuilder the biggest star on the planet. And it is a love story, regardless of the thrill of the gunfights and apocalyptic futures – one where a man risks his life to travel back in time to meet a woman he fell in love with when he saw her in a photograph. It is a Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock) level of obsession, and one that grounds the film amidst the horror movie thrill of watching innocents flee from an unstoppable killing machine.
- Aliens (1986)
I consider Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott) to be an almost perfect film. It certainly is one of my favourites. I have a library of books on the making of the film, posters of it on my wall. I have bought and rebought the film many times over. It is quite extraordinary in the way that very few films are. And every now and then I think of Aliens, and remember a film that is so different and one that satisfies a whole different part of my brain. How can Alien be so good, when there is a sequel that is just as good, yet in such a different way?
To take on Ridley Scott in his prime and in some ways surpass him is an extraordinary feat, and yet it is just another achievement we can add to a man who has done almost everything. Here he takes the creeping psychological horror of Alien and transforms it into thrilling spectacle. Cameron knew that sequels had to have a purpose; for him, they were a chance for his protagonists to return to a site of trauma. For Ripley, the film is a tunnelling exploration of motherhood; the loss of her own child, destruction of the malevolent mirror image Alien Queen, and eventual adoption of Newt. Within this journey, she will reject the patriarchal frameworks of industry and military power, and come to peace with the perpetual walking nightmare that seeks to impregnate all. She will operate alongside a memorably diverse supporting cast, who provide some relief from what would otherwise be an emotionally testing film. If only all sequels were all like this.
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
After making one of the most astonishing sequels ever made… he went and did it again! T2 is a wonderful film, that takes the love story of the first film and shifts it into a more mature exploration of a constructed family. This transfiguration was reflected in the physique of Linda Hamilton. Cameron has quietly created a body of work where women are strong and capable as many of the men they share the screen with (if not more so!) And yet, the muscle and attitude protects a woman struggling deeply with trauma – the moment where she sees the T-800 for the first time in 11 years is a moment of almost transcendental horror captured on celluloid. It is here that we see Schwarzenegger as an icon; an awkward behemoth capable of pummelling through anything in front of him. For the first time, Cameron was free to revel in spectacle; without boundaries, he crafted a picture of almost relentless drive, where the only possible hope of survival was to keep moving.