(On Cable TV, May 2018) When AMC started bombarding viewers with the promise of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction event series, I programmed my DVR to record the series but kept my expectations low: While there is some interest in watching Cameron chat about Science Fiction with fellow directors such as Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas and Ridley Scott, what level of in-depth discussion could we reasonably expect? Worse yet was the idea of hearing actors talk about it—for all the good that I think about Will Smith, Zoe Saldaña, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger, what could they possibly say about SF that wouldn’t be scripted platitudes? Oh well; at six forty-minutes long episodes, it would at least be entertaining. Such series (and there was a similar BBC effort a few years ago) are meant as introductions to a general audience, not advanced lectures for jaded reviewers such as myself. On that level, at least the series does not disappoint: A blend of talking heads and illustrative footage revolving around one theme by episode (Aliens, Space, Monsters, Dark Futures, Intelligent Machines and Time Travel), this is a series that zips by. No amounts of lens flare have been spared in presenting older archive footage, and the overall feeling is one of slick presentation. The chats between Cameron and other genre directors/actors are presented so quickly that there’s little time for boredom—they’ve been distilled to their purest essence and a handshake right before the end credits. Surprisingly, though, there is more substance than I expected from the series: The interviews and talking heads go beyond directors and actors to genre critics (including Locus’s rock-solid Gary K. Wolfe) to actual written SF writers (who, as a group, look far less white males as the other groups interviewed—I mean: Nalo Hopkinson, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Chiang, and N.K. Jemisin!) The actors may be saying scripted platitudes, but they sound good—even really good in the case of the ever-likable Will Smith. The budget of the series allows for some truly odd and inspired guests, such as musicians, special effects artists and screenwriters. Of course, it all races by: While the series hits its best moments when it slows down to focus on a specific movie or series (helped along by interviewing the people who wrote, directed, performed or otherwise contributed to the result seen on-screen), much of the time it’s a reference-every-five-second kind of documentary. The substance is there—not particularly deep, but much of what is showcased is reasonably accurate and even insightful. Most episodes of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction do rise up to the level of a good SF convention discussion panel, and that’s pretty much the level I demanded from such a series. There may or may not be a second season (these things are expensive, and AMC’s similar 2017 comics series doesn’t have a follow-up so far) but I’ll be there if ever there is. Frankly, it is rather cool to hear, even in blips and ten-second clips, Cameron and his colleagues talk shop, laughs knowingly about their craft and look like they’re enjoying their conversations.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, July 2010) I hadn’t seen True Lies since it was first released in theatres, and while it has visibly aged since then, it hasn’t lost much of its appeal. Beginning like a competent James Bond clone featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film soon takes a then-unusual turn in portraying a secret agent dealing with matrimonial issues. While this trope isn’t so fresh now after such films as Mr and Mrs Smith (and was adapted from French film La Totale in the first place), it’s still rich in possibilities that True Lies exploits relatively well. Unfortunately, what seems more obvious now are the pacing issues: There’s a mid-film lull that more or less coincides with increasingly unpleasant harassment of the lead female character by her husband, and even the reversal/payoff later in the film doesn’t completely excuse the bad feeling left by the sequence. On the other hand, the action scenes are almost as good as they could be despite some dated CGI work: True Lies may be among director James Cameron’s lesser work, but it shows his understanding of how an action scene can be put together and features mini-payoffs even in the smallest details. The last half-hour is just one thrill ride after another, culminating in a savvy Miami high-altitude ballet. In terms of acting, it’s fun to see Eliza Dushku in a small but pivotal pre-Buffy role as the hero’s daughter or Tia Carrere as an evil terro-kitten –although it’s no less strange to see Jamie Lee Curtis get a few minutes of screen time as a sex symbol and I can’t help to think that Schwarzenegger, however great he is playing up to his own archetype, is singularly miscast as a character who should look far meeker. Uncomfortable mid-film harassment sequences aside, True Lies nonetheless holds up fairly well more than a decade and a half later, thanks to a clever blend of action, humor and married romance. What really doesn’t hold up, though, is the bare-bones 1999 DVD edition, which is marred by a poor grainy transfer and a quasi-complete lack of supplements. We know about James Cameron’s reputation for excess during the making of his movies: There’s got to be an awesome documentary somewhere in this film’s production archives.
Crown, 2009, 273 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-46031-8
Admitting that James Cameron is one of my favourite directors is endangering my movie-reviewing license and exposing myself to endless mocking. Somehow, the more successful his films become, the most acceptable it is to dismiss his achievements. But as someone whose mind was blown away by Aliens and Terminator 2, someone who still likes Titanic and Avatar despite the faux-chic scorn they attracted, it was hard to pass up Cameron’s latest biography, one that picks up twelve years after Christopher Heard’s poorly-sourced Dreaming Aloud.
Rebecca Keegan has one big advantage over Heard, and it’s that she wasn’t limited to newspaper clippings and a few meagre interviews: she reportedly had full access to Cameron, his family and his long list of friends and acquaintances in Hollywood. As a result, The Futurist is a rich and well-researched book, one that remains interesting throughout and not just when its subject hits the big time.
Of course, the notion of “big time” for Cameron starts early, as he’s been helming his own celluloid visions since 1984’s The Terminator. Every subsequent Cameron film after that is a study in increasingly complex endeavours, with making-of stories that rival the film itself. “Just another day on a Cameron set” may include everything from hanging off a plane suspended by a crane over the Miami skyline, nearly drowning in an abandoned nuclear reactor cooling tower, building a near-full-scale model of the Titanic with period detail, or inventing new technology to get unprecedented visuals. From its very title, The Futurist aims to show how much of a visionary Cameron truly is; how he has the mind of an engineer, the hands of an artist and the eye of a filmmaker. Tales after tale show Cameron doing things no one else has ever done before, winning large bets against those who said it just couldn’t be done.
The flip-side of this incredible forward drive is Cameron’s abrasive personality, one that has annoyed a number of award-watchers, left film crews rebellious and broken four of his own marriages. Cameron delivers fantastic movies, but he’s a demanding master in making them. But then again, he has paid his dues: One of the best-known stories about him involve feverish sickness in Rome while fruitlessly re-editing his first film (an episode that would lead, as fans know, to the genesis of the Terminator films), but Keegan also reports on a lesser-known story about his first shoot that involved Cameron literally mopping up blood on the set and trying to keep the rest of the lunching crew from finding out what happens when you shoot in a real morgue. Keegan doesn’t shy away from describing Cameron at his worst or identifying who has said they would never want to work with him again, but she does her best to show how the same facets of his personality can lead to good and bad.
The rest of the book is just as skilful. With deft and clear narration, Keegan moves from project to project, weaving industry facts with recollections from Cameron acquaintances. For moviegoers, The Futurist is a lot of fun to read. I don’t follow gossip much, and so there were a number of new anecdotes to me here and there, including one in which Cameron helped arrange for the safe release of Guillermo del Toro’s father after a kidnapping. Perhaps the most revelatory section of the book follows Cameron in the twelve years between the release of Titanic and Avatar. Flush with cash and acclaim, Cameron chose to step away from Hollywood and spend a decade indulging in his passions, from deep-sea diving to space exploration and setting up the new technology that we would need to deliver Avatar.
Given all of this, the flaws of The Futurist are slight, obvious and inevitable. Released to coincide with Avatar’s release, it hopes for another Cameron success but really has no idea how big the movie would become, and how warmly it would be greeted by audiences. Then again, updated material is what paperback editions are meant to feature. (One wishes, though, that some of Keegan’s most ridiculous claims about Cameron’s predictive powers would be toned down: Using Arab terrorists in 1995’s True Lies doesn’t make him anticipate Al Quaida any more than did contemporary thrillers such as Executive Decision and Air Force One.)
It’s not quite the ultimate Cameron biography (one hope that he still has a few great movies in him), but it’s a very good one. It’s certainly the best and most complete book about Cameron’s life so far (even though Paula Parisi’s Titanic and the Making of James Cameron remains a resource for Titanic minutiae) and a pretty good compendium of arguments for those willing to argue that Cameron is among the most important directors of the past quarter-century.
(In theatres, December 2009) Expectations ran high for Avatar, James Cameron’s first fiction film since 1997’s blockbusting Oscar-winning Titanic. Promises of revolutionary 3D technology and one of the biggest budgets of all times did nothing to calm down fans and foes. Fortunately, the film lives up to most of the hype. If it isn’t quite a revolution in the film business, it is still an unprecedented and astonishing piece of work on many levels. First and most impressive would be the world-building shown in the film: up until now a pleasure left to written-SF fans, Cameron manages to produce a completely new environment in a film with no media tie-ins: Much of the stuff on-screen actually holds together at a glance, which is more than most other “Science Fiction” films manage to do. The immersion into the world is helped along by innumerable small details that reinforce the tactile reality of the world, and by a fully mature use of 3D cinematography: Cameron simply moves his camera through 3D-space and tickles our sense of place rather than repeatedly poke us in the eyes. The production design of the entire film is a source of wonder, and so is the confident way in which Cameron directs the action: After years of shaky-cam confusion, here’s a film that does it right, maintaining our sense of space while delivering the action and explosions. Every single dollar spent on the film is on-screen, and the result is as good as blockbuster entertainment can aspire to be. Visually, it’s irreproachable. Which makes the relatively simplistic nature of the story a bit harder to tolerate: Gleefully adopting the overused “contemporary stand-in learns all about the noble savage” plot template, Avatar usually feels obvious and unsurprising –especially when the characters start talking. (Where to start? The human caricatures? The new-age pablum spoken by the Na’Vi? The way our hero become The Leader rather than An Advisor?) It’s not an entirely bad script (structurally, it’s competent to a level that would leave less screenwriters crying) and it does manage to make the most of what it’s given as premise, but it is a tired and sometimes-exasperating plot template. But story is less important here than spectacle, and so there’s more to see here than a single viewing can appreciate, which is just as well, because Avatar looks destined to do brisk business and earn a solid place in genre film history. There’s a lot more to say about the film and how it works, but the conclusion seems unavoidable: Avatar is one of the best SF films of the decade, a remarkable visual achievement and a movie experience so comforting in its professionalism that it raises the bar for everyone else.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, June 2009): You would think that a 1995 film re-casting 1992 racial tensions in then-future 1999 Los Angeles would be irremediably dated fifteen years later. But nothing could be farther from the truth: For once thing, the story (co-written by James Cameron) is a savvy exploration of a seductive SF concept that hasn’t aged a wrinkle since then. For another, Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional direction keeps things moving both in and out of frame: there’s a terrific visual density to what’s happening on-screen, and the subjective camera moments are still brutally effective. But even the dated aspects of the film still pack a punch, as they now appear to have taken place in an alternate reality where police brutality and memory recording have flourished even as the Internet hasn’t taken off. (History of Science students are free to sketch how one explains the other.) But it’s really the characters that keep the whole thing together: Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as a romantic hustler, while Angela Basset’s seldom been better than she is here, all smooth cheekbones, high attitude and shiny dreadlocks. The pacing is a bit slow (how many times do we need to see Lenny pine away for Faith?) and the ending isn’t as snappy as it should have been, but Strange Days is still amazingly peppy for a film with such an explicit expiration date. It measures up against the best SF films of the nineties, and that’s already saying something. The DVD has a smattering of extras (most notably a few good deleted scenes, a twenty-minute audio commentary and a teaser trailer that I could still quote fifteen years later), but this is a film overdue for a special edition treatment.