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Worst to Best

James Cameron Ranked
Worst to Best

 

Jimbo’s back! James Cameron managed to take even longer between Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water than he did between Titanic and Avatar (thirteen vs twelve years), but never fear; there’ll be an Avatar 3 along in no time at all, for which I know we are all exceedingly grateful. I first compiled this Worst to Best in 2016, and the surprise is the relative hive of activity in Cameron’s closet during the intervening period. 

Besides the non-Avatar projects that saw the light of day with his name attached, we could rely on Jim to fill any lulls with his voluble opinions on a given subject, be it his vigorous veganism, his ecological fervour, his feminist credentials or his testosterone-fuelled indictment of all-things testosterone-fuelled. Indeed, ally that with patented recurring themes of the threat from nukes, the joys of transhumanism and the benign nature of AI (okay, let’s split the difference on that one), and the conspicuous absence of anything broaching the genuinely spiritual in his work, and you might be forgiven for pegging him as a Black Hat. Probably because, it seems, he was one. But no more (also it seems). Which will come as a relief to anyone financially or emotionally invested in Avatars 3, 4 & 5.

The salient sense one takes away from a revisit (or, in some less essential cases, a first visit) of James Cameron’s filmography is that less is more. Which isn’t only a judgement on his predilection for overstatement – least flatteringly when this exposes shortcomings in areas such as the interpersonal, philosophical or comedic – but also the cumulative fatigue of a body of work that, while it isn’t an especially prolific, rapidly becomes repetitive in its abiding fascinations and pronouncedly broad-stroke narratives and characters. 

After a while, Cameron’s great strengths (namely, as a master technician of action cinema and a dab hand at structure) begin to pale in the face of the more bare-faced conceit of applying the auteur sensibility where it only sketchily merits one. Under which guise, he is prone to scribbling increasingly rote, bloated screenplays before being thrown gazillions of dollars to make them. 

So here is Jim Cameron ranked, on the basis of writing and/ or directing gigs. And admission time: if you’d asked me who my favourite filmmaker was at the end of the ’80s, I’d have probably plumped for old Jimbo.

 


Piranha II: The Spawning

(1981) Cameron likes to distance himself from this, his first movie. Which is understandable, since he was unceremoniously dumped off it, and it turned out fairly wretched. Piranha II isn’t even close to one of the worst ten movies ever made, as some lists would have it, however. Conversely, The Spawning (or The Flying Killers, which is more ludicrously fitting) only occasionally crosses into “So bad, its good” territory. Mostly when the flying fishies begin feasting on someone, which entails leaping through the air and attaching themselves to a victim’s neck, amid jets of the old rouge. 

Setting the store for Jimbo’s future career, the underwater photography is accomplished, while the attempts at comedy are risible. There’s also a headstrong female protagonist (Tricia O’Neil) who pays little heed to collateral damage (not quite the T2 Sarah Connor, but from tiny acorns). The highlight is Lance Henriksen’s waterlogged police chief, the actor bringing effortless cool to a rare hero part (albeit, one where he’s required to behave like an idiot for a spell so his missus can do the detective work).

In terms of Cameron themes, we have messing with nature, and worse, lousy humans trying to weaponise it (see also Aliens, at least until the xenomorph was retconned); science has produced a GM piranha that can fly, the “ultimate” weapon. Another trope: blow them up as a solution has held Jim in good stead throughout his career.


Rambo: First Blood Part II

(1985) “To survive a war, you gotta become war.” Cameron’s dry run for Aliens, with a jaded hero forced out of retirement to revisit the scene of an old crime and confront his nightmares. And, like Piranha II, this is another picture he’s prone to cry off responsibilty. In this case, it’s via his claim that Stallone rewrote the politics while the action is his. But come on, Jimbo, you came up with Rambo returning to Nam – actually, fair’s fair: Keven Jarre, who penned the first draft, did – and you came up with the gooks teaming up with the infernal Russkies. And you had Stallone taking them all out. 

I’m still bemused this was as successful as it was, as even asserting audiences loved it through ironic detachment doesn’t tell the full story (movies just don’t become that big a success for such reasons, except in the minds of critics). First Blood Part II was evidently wielding some serious cathartic weight. That, and Stallone’s ridiculous new body encapsulated the vacuous, superficial ideals of a decade when materialism became a badge of pride rather than something to feel apologetic for. 

The main problem with Rambo isn’t those elements, however. It’s that it’s incredibly dull, aside from some stunning scenery chewing courtesy of Steven Berkoff, and has zero dramatic tension; as an action movie, it’s inert. While the blame for such deficiencies should rightfully be placed at the door of George P Cosmatos, we should also be grateful it wasn’t worse; Stallone excised a typically extravagant, action-free introductory passage from Jim’s screenplay.

What might one construe from this assignment generally? Perhaps that, as long as Cameron could tell the kinds of stories he wanted – big, violent action tales, invariably involving guns, hardware and mass carnage – the specific political implications are immaterial. Even if those big, violent action tales innately lend themselves to a more right-of-the-spectrum appreciation. Which is possibly why Jim has done his utmost to ameliorate the mix with strong female protagonists, finger pointing at corporate interests, protesting destruction of the environment, giving peace a chance, and even proudly proclaiming most recently how he cut some of that violence he loves so much. If you think this might be just window dressing to his true, unsullied inclinations, Jim will invite you outside where he’ll whup your doubtless meat-eating, dairy-drinking ass.


Ghosts of the Abyss

(2003) Cameron attempts to show he’s an all-rounder, plunging into the different skillset of documentary making. I’m sure he thought it would be as easy as piddle to make, but his epic romance between Kate and Leo ends up more informative (and engaging!) than this revisit to the wreck of the biggest ship of its day. Poor Bill Paxton comes along for the ride and is subjected to crude comedy sequences and an enormous upchuck for his sins.  Which is nice (mind you, some would say his role in Titanic wasn’t altogether dissimilar). There’s some fetching underwater photography, naturally, but it hardly justifies the time and indulgence surrounding it.

Perhaps the key importance of Ghosts of the Abyss, however, is that it lends the seal of approval to the official story of the Titanic’s demise; it’s been suggested it was made as a response to doubts over this story. Perhaps appropriately – or programmingly – another great paradigmatic swizz, that of 9/11, occurred while the filmmakers were out there diving. Is that the Titanic down there, or the Olympic? Or something else entirely (is there even a wreck of any vessel where the Titanic purportedly lies? We only have Jimbo’s word he’s in the right spot). Was there any iceberg at all? Was it all about the Gold Standard? JP Morgan rivals? Jimbo isn’t interested in getting to the bottom of any of that. If you’re big in Hollywood, of course, it is incumbent upon you to nourish the lie of some incredible, epoch-shattering event at some point. Quite possibly, Chris Nolan will shortly be breaking that mould. 


T-2 3D: Battle Across Time

(1996) aka Terminator 2: 3D. Footage from this Universal Studio Park Terminator ride, co-directed with John Bruno, can be found on YouTube. It’s an exercise in shameless convenience and moneymaking, the filmed part mostly devoid of anything you haven’t already seen, aside from Arnie riding around a 2029 future. 

Apparently, the attraction cost $60m, of which the Jimbo-shot section, which lasts twelve minutes, came in at $24m. As you’d expect, the result is entirely ungainly, haltingly assembled in order to shoehorn in the necessary action, interaction and spectacle. Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong reprising their roles, or their live stage doubles) interrupt a Cyberdyne systems demonstration and are attacked by a T-1000 (Robert Patrick, or his live stage double) before being rescued by a T-800 (Arnie, or his live stage double), on a motorbike (I’m sure that had a live stage double too). Who takes John back to the future – Why? I’m blowed if I know – where they become embroiled in some futuristic robotic shit and Arnie takes down Skynet. And dies. Again. There’s also a new Terminator variant, a T-1000000. Which is obviously just being silly.

Some will have it that this is the Terminator sequel that should have been. The nature of the beast makes it rather difficult to be definite about its potential, but I’d suggest there isn’t anything nearly interesting enough in the premise to justify a T3, or T2.5 (not that it’s necessarily inferior to what follows). T-2 3D is basically a string of greatest-hits moments and the chance to show a sliver more future. And test out that 3D. Arnie says “I’ll be back” but also delivers some entirely incongruous one-liners (“Hey, bucket head!”; of a Terminator he destroys, “He was my college roommate”; and “Let’s bust a move” as they advance on Skynet). The scenes are well-shot, but they aren’t inspired. 

More interesting, in a kind of sub-Verhoeven sense, are the Cyberdyne puff pieces prefacing the main event. They illustrate, lest there be any doubt, that humour and subtlety aren’t Cameron’s forte (he co-wrote with Gary Goddard and Adam J Bezark), since the satire is more statement than wit (“Feel safe, feel secure, we’re watching”, and “Skynet will search out hosts on the Internet and install itself free of charge”). Nevertheless, it does quite accurately pre-empt/ predictively programme the wholesale, ambivalent manner by which we have surrendered our privacy to surveillance technology. Skynet, “where happiness is not only mandatory, it’s policy”, connects the world as never before, and “Soon we can all sleep soundly, knowing Cyberdyne is running the show”. Host Kimberly Duncan is excruciatingly aggravating, such that I’m surprised visitors didn’t walk out; maybe I saw footage from the solitary show where no one cheered when she was killed by the T-1000.


Aliens of the Deep

(2005) Jimbo’s final (helmed) documentary to date sees him aim higher and fall lower, as he shows off for all to see his lack of rigour when it comes to making a robust piece of speculative science. He’s far more invested in how awesome the undersea creatures and landscape are than plying us with interesting information about the same, and also far too enamoured with the pretty marine biologist he pores over in every other shot. And yet, despite the meagre pickings, even less elucidating when it comes to projecting a similar voyage of discovery to Europa, there is some quite stunning photography here (even more so than in Ghosts of the Abyss). It’s just that you have to wade through all the junk to get to it. 

This is, of course, and aside from fitting seamlessly with Jimbo’s abiding watery obsessions, also a by-the-by stealth submission of the veracity of NASA space, with its projection of a physical moon of Jupiter with oceans just itching to be explored. Rather than sitting around waiting patiently for that infinitely far off possibility to materialise, Jimbo duly opted to invent his own world, with its own oceans just itching to be explored.


Terminator: Dark Fate

(2019) Jim earned himself a story credit on this retcon/reboot, and so for the first time an explicit affiliation to the franchise that has continued on without him, through thin and thin. I was far too kind to Terminator: Dark Fate first time round, even though its faults were plain for all to see. John Connor recast as a 4ft-Latina homunculus who somehow “turned scavengers into militias, and militias into an army”. As Granny Connor says, slack jawed, “She’s John. You’re John”. But John as played by Eddie Furlong, rather than Christian Bale, when it comes to the risible future flash of her in action, kicking ass.

Dark Fate led the first woke wave and did so in conspicuously undiluted fashion. Toxic white male saviour John is killed off in the first scene; this is actually just about the best moment in the movie, in terms of announcing an intent to do something different, but having cleared the slate for what might happen, the makers opt for more of the same, only gender-swapped. 

We’ve seen much of this from lesser Terminators in the Cameron-free interim: augmented/ transhuman man is now augmented/ transhuman woman (although, as played by Mackenzie Davis, super-androgynous with it). The Terminator is a mix of T-1000 and trad Terminator (see Kristina Loken in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a pretty dumb idea then). The casting is as hopeless as in the previous Terminator: Genisys, in as much as all the new faces are desperately bland (Gabriel Luna’s Rev-9 is a Latino Terminator… and that’s about it. Davis does her best to be tomboyish. Natalia Reyes is plain ridiculous, except when she’s playing someone useless in the opening scenes).

Sure, Arnie is kind of funny when he shows up halfway through as gay dad Carl, this T-incarnation announcing the inevitable goal of the transhuman blurring of human and AI (“Wait, you grew a conscience?”) Linda Hamilton is a grumpy old mare, but at least she brings some heft and attitude; it’s just that Sarah Connor has nowhere to go and deserves better than Tim Miller’s underfed comic-book trappings. Miller’s a terrible choice: capable, just about, of serviceable action, but with zero flair and style, and quite content to let sloppy FX through wholesale. Their equivalents of thirty years earlier looking vastly superior and better integrated with the action. 

If Dark Fate seems incredibly stale, that’s because all it has to say for itself is a mix and match of concept and gender. Legion replaces Skynet, “an AI built for cyberwarfare”. Arnie’s killer-of-John exists as a paradox, one who “carried out orders from a future that never happened”, but no attempt is made to address this (Grace’s tattooed address is also a paradox, of course).

Miller and Cameron butted heads – Miller was on board first, so much as I’d like to blame Cameron for purposely selecting someone who couldn’t fill his shoes, it seems that only applies to Alita – but killing John was Jimbo’s idea. This, from the same guy who considered killing off the Aliens family in Alien³ anathema. Go figure. 

Doing the Way of Water rounds, Jimbo suggested bringing back Hamilton and Arnie was an error, a conclusion that shows he really had nothing to contribute, despite his penchant for criticising; they’re the best parts of the movie, which may not be saying much, but it’s there. Terminator: Dark Fate flopped, but it seems the franchise still isn’t entirely dead, with a total reboot planned. Maybe now-White Hat Cameron is considering something that reflects the actual use of time travel in both diverting and restoring the optimum timeline.


Expedition: Bismarck

(2002) Ironically, given it’s a TV affair and awash with cheesy moments and choices, this is the superior of the three Cameron documentaries to date. Mostly because it actually has a kernel of narrative momentum to get its teeth into, and a trajectory of inquiry. True, there’s far too much in the way of poor reconstructions and un-special effects, and its director couldn’t be more at home than when he’s attending the wreck of a once destruction-wielding marvel, but piecing together the opposing takes on what took the ship down (the British Navy or German scuttlers) is the sort of thing that just about justifies Jim’s inadvisable pleasure jaunt.


 Dark Angel: Freak Nation

(2002) Episode 2.21. For an introduction to Dark Angel, you might first want to skip to No. 12 on this list. Cameron didn’t write Freak Nation (although he receives a story credit), which makes it an anomaly on his directorial CV. He came on board the Season 2 finale in part to show Fox what might have been for a third season; the gambit failed to pay off, and the network cancelled on him soon after saying they’d picked up it up for another run (“I was pissed!” – you go, Jimbo!)

Anyone hoping for some spectacular small-screen sleights of hand will be sorely disappointed, however, as Cameron sticks to the budget and delivers some reined-in, static action or attempts to pull off feats that not only don’t quite work, they’re also laughably inept. When Max leaps onto a drone and uses it as a hover board, crashing it into the Jam Pony Express office, you’re left longing for the vastly superior (only relatively) flying sequences of Highlander II: The Quickening. 

The office, a standard set for the show, is under siege, being as it’s been occupied by a number of transgenics, and obvious mutant ones at that (one’s the spit of a nu-Who Silurian, which means he looks very much like your average ’90s Star Trek alien). The show appropriates the thematic insolence of X-Men, not the subtlest of movies in the first place, in a blundering manner, with protesters exclaiming “These mutant freaks are an affront to nature!” while law enforcement shows no compunction in taking them down.

Kevin Durand, looking the spit of Vincent from the Linda Hamilton-starring Beauty and the Beast TV series, only dopier and given to spouting a lot of hippy nonsense when describing his paintings, fails to enliven the proceedings (which is unusual for him). Others are saddled with meaningless pseudo-profound utterances such as “You gave them freedom, Max. And the thing about freedom is, it’s never free”. And “We were made in America, and we’re not going anywhere”. 

Characters fight against a soundtrack of rawk music, go back and forth about the evils of humanity and how everyone isn’t the same as everyone else, etc., and someone even has to deliver a baby, in case you had any illusions this was other than overstretched TV fare. There’s even a prophecy, so it’s likely the production crew saw some Millennium, or Buffy (“When the shroud of death covers the face of the Earth, the one whose power is hidden will deliver the helpless” – solid gold, that). Perhaps the most Jimbo moment comes at the beginning, as Max comments contemptuously of some human protestors, “Two million years of evolution, and this is what we get – you morons!” Before pulling a wheelie and riding full pelt towards them. 

Dark Angel obviously bundled all the transhumanist propaganda it could into its slipshod run (the subtext being, yeah, it’s mean what the government did to these people, but look how super-special Kool they ended up, so you probably wish you were like that too. And if Klaus Schwab has anything to say about it, you will be). The second season included a virus – yes, one of those – plotline and further, a millennia-old breeding cult – shades of Anunnaki there, along with a depopulation agenda – with their own superhumans who are a match for the transgenics. Turns out that Manticore’s founder, Sandeman, was a defector from the cult, who gave Max DNA that would threaten the cult’s plan to wipe out average humanity (so all this transhumanist business is POSITIVE! It’s to save us all!)

Eglee advised that the cancelled Season 3 would have told how the Earth passed through a comet’s tail thousands of years ago (so plying the NASA-space lie). One that, through the miracle of panspermia, deposited a virus (so plying the Pasteurian science lie) that killed 97 percent of humanity. The cult preserved the survivors’ genetic material so their members would survive when the comet swung back round again; Sandeman made Max Jesus, or Neo, with the genetic immunity she’d been endowed, to be spread through the – ahem – common cold virus. Or by dispersing an “antibody through the atmosphere”.


Xenogenesis

(1978) More an exercise in achieving and integrating special effects and design work on a negligible budget – financed by some Californian dentists for a tax write-off, it seems – than a short story of artistic merit in its own right, Xenogenesis nevertheless gives an early-stage taster of the director’s interests and preoccupations. It was also a success in terms of its remit, as it got Cameron’s foot in the door with Roger Corman.

A mash-up of archaeology (Rak – William Wisher, co-writer of T2 – and Lon – Margaret Undiel – are searching for a place to begin life anew for humanity) and machine intelligence, Xenogenesis sees two nondescript leads happening across a dead planet in which robot war machines continue posting sentries. Or acting as cleaning units, at any rate. You can see the basis for Aliens’ power loader in the spiderbot, which moves in synch with its human driver’s arms, leading to a rock ’em, sock ’em robot duel. The 12-minute film makes just enough sense to follow as a plot, and Cameron clearly loved designing his sci-fi setting (the intro lasts a minute, showing off concept drawings), but it’s the definition of style over substance. Xenogenesis merits bonus points for being substantially shorter than any of the director’s other ventures, though.

So Jim gives us deadly AIs, a doomed humanity in need of salvation among the stars, and the joys of technology enhancing our natural capacities exponentially. There’s nothing like starting as you mean to go on.


Dark Angel: Pilot

(2000) Cameron’s tepid venture into series television landed softly via this 90-minute pilot. Mogul-like, he handpicked and launched a major new “star” on the world in Jessica Alba. She plays Max Guevara (yes, I know), Jimbo’s sci-fi equivalent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-by-way-of-anime-heroine, a genetically-enhanced super soldier, cycle courier by day and justice dealer the rest of the time, unfortunately prone to very TV-ish one-off stories of the week, and superheroically, and pensively, standing on rooftops (yes, she’s Batman). 

Jim co-wrote the teleplay with Charles H Eglee, an old associate from his winged piranha excursion, and it’s easy to see this as Cameron’s comedown after letting all that pre-millennial tension wash over him in Strange Days. The world having unfortunately survived, Jimbo wishes it were all a bit simpler and so delivers a simple-minded future in which terrorists have rendered the US a third-world country by setting off an EM pulse. The result is a remarkably clean-and-tidy Fox network-styled post-apocalypse, so comfortably fitting with Max’s observation “The thing I don’t get is, why they call it a depression. I mean, everybody’s broke, but they aren’t really all that depressed”. 

Jim’s vision of America seized by financial dread might be seen as prescient/ predictive programming, along with his embrace of drone culture (the police have them hovering over every street corner), but mostly, it’s just plain derivative. I recall sticking with Dark Angel for about eight or nine episodes, and all I took away was how run-of-the-mill everything was. David Nutter, then riding high from successful stints on The X-Files and Millennium, directed the $10m pilot, but he’s unable to offer much more than a professional sheen. 

The issue with the show isn’t only how utterly generic it is conceptually, but also how without spark the characters are. Alba pouts the way a girl must surely pout when she knows she’ll never need botox, but she isn’t much cop at anything else, including looking like a kick-ass. She teams up with Michael Weatherly’s blandest-of-the-bland love interests, rebel hacker and broadcaster Logan Hale (somehow, he’s still there at the end of the second season, despite possessing no charisma whatsoever), while searching out her former fellow detainee transgenics. Think Mr. Robot but with zero traction.  This a future of supporting characters with names like Original Cindy, Herbal Thought and Sketchy, where everyone sports designer duds like the world never ended and they’re going to party all weekend. Or ’til dawn.

Cameron set Dark Angel in a dystopian 2019, so on the verge of the coof (the prologue takes place in 2009, the EMP doing for the economy at about the same time the economy was done for). He prescribes a feisty fighting woman-child in the Buffy vein – see also his Alita adaptation sometime later, which he acknowledged was an influence – but crucially, she’s also a super soldier. Max is one of a group of genetically modified transgenics who, besides possessing all the special super skillz that come with being a super soldier, have animal attributes (barcoded Max boasts cat DNA, meaning she goes into heat periodically. For her sake, hopefully not in the vicinity of James Corden). The sort of thing that has been a feature of DUMBs “research”. Of which, Max escapes a military facility as a child, so we have MKUltra in full effect. Don’t forget, though, that however bad such stuff is, it makes you stronger, better than everyone else, and super Kool with it. Max’s fam are her fellow victims at this point in the Jimbo journey, rather than actual fam.

Cameron commented, “If we can’t find an audience, we deserve to be off the air. It’s that simple”. Prophetic words, as Dark Angel scraped a commission for a second season (most probably Fox wanting to keep him nominally onside), but it was relegated to Fridays and sunk like a stone. As such, it fared none too dissimilarly to Spielberg’s habitually ill-fated forays into TV, where his name somehow got the likes of Seaquest DSV recommissioned, despite pervasive viewer apathy. Even Cameron’s staunchest adherents will probably admit character depth isn’t his forte, so he was bound to come unstuck unfurling paper-thin posturers on a weekly basis. The best you can say about Dark Angel is that it isn’t awful, the worst that it’s completely forgettable.


True Lies

(1994) Jimbo shouldn’t have needed telling he should steer well clear of comedy, particularly comedy that takes in Middle Eastern terrorists and marital infidelity. I’d like to think this was just spectacularly misjudged, but Cameron’s defence that the picture is “funny, funny, just funny” is about as convincing as his divesting himself of the blame for Rambo II. 

Arnie’s spy Harry Tasker lies to wife Helen about his day job for their entire married lives, then has the gall to act the jealous husband when she seeks a bit of unadventurous adventure. Harry’s approach, like any good patriarch, is to kidnap, interrogate and then prostitute his dearly beloved. It’s a thoroughly distasteful set-up and unfolding, all in the name of fun-ny, and that’s before we get to Art Malik’s thoroughly evil Arab.

For a Cameron film, perhaps most surprising is that the action never quite comes together. Or less effectively than it had done in earlier outings, certainly. The big climax involving a Harrier jump jet is annoyingly unconvincing and ill-served by “hilarious” asides. What comedy there is that works is entirely down to the trio of Arnie (yes, really; despite his inherent limitations, he’s generally pretty good here, particularly so as the vengeful hubby), Tom Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis. If we have nothing else to thank Titanic for, it’s that it surely put the kibosh on Cameron pursuing a sequel.

Besides Jimbo pre-empting/ predictively programming the “justified” incursions against still-just-about-okay-to-vilify-at-that-point Arabs due to “their” intrusion on US soil with 9/11, we get his last in a decade-long devotion to the evergreen nuke threat. It did very well for the director, which may be why he “romantically” stages a clinch between Harry and his missus against the glow of a mushroom cloud. It’s a jolly good thing nukes are fake, or one might come away thinking Jimbo was quite twisted.

Just for good measure, we have some Dark Hollywood swirling around the picture, with Eliza Dushku allegedly molested by the movie’s stunt coordinator. Jimbo, obviously, didn’t know about it (this isn’t to suggest he did, only that it seems no one ever does when cases have emerged in the past few years. Meryl being a case in point).


Titanic

(1997) I’m no great fan of Titanic, so it’s mid-positioning on this list evidences just how much sub-standard fare Jimbo has tyrannised into existence. Once he left the ’80s behind, and no one was left standing to say “No” or even offer sage advice, Cameron’s ego was on a fast track to nowhere good, complete with a level of output that would have made even Kubrick think twice (at least Kubrick made films of unchallenged artistic merit, so those ever-longer waits counted for something). 

Titanic is well directed – I can’t fault the extended sinking of the ship, which takes up an entire act and then some, just what goes on between the characters during that time – and well performed by a couple of latterly deserving Oscar winners (though maybe not for the performances for which they earned the statuettes, but ‘twas ever thus). However, the entire affair is so ridiculously cornball, so faux-romantic (the way Cameron’s subsequent movie is faux-spiritual) and utterly cartoonish in every facet of the escalating tragedy, that it’s difficult to digest how anyone was hoodwinked by it for a second. The technical accomplishment is undeniable, but one only has to compare the watery racing around the doomed ship here to the claustrophobic stakes of the also watery The Abyss to see how one just isn’t in the same league dramatically. But… I guess I must be wrong, because untold audiences were thoroughly beguiled and moistened of eyes.

As per 19 above, and as had also occurred a few years earlier with, for example, JFK, Cameron is here, to initially simultaneous fanfare, scepticism and enormous expense, offering up an official version of history that will, for many, become the shorthand. If you’re sufficiently swept away by the (fictional) romance between Jack and Rose, you won’t begin to question the official (also fictional) events that unfold in the background (and then foreground). On that score, it’s a much better conceit than, say, Pearl Harbour; Titanic’s achievement for many is that the facts behind the sinking (or non-sinking) become irrelevant. Because poor Leo, sob.


Alita: Battle Angel

(2019) In some respects, this is much more interesting – and peculiar – than the two movies ranked immediately higher on this list, but Alita: Battle Angel staggers somewhat under the variable execution of one Robert Rodriguez. If Jimbo didn’t pick Tim Miller for Dark Fate, he did select Rodriguez, responsible for single-handedly (well, with Kathleen Kennedy) sending Boba Fett right back into that Sarlacc pit, reputationally. Rodriguez can direct action, and he can integrate effects, but his prevailing ethic is one of “That’ll do”, along with a guilt-free relish for B-schlock that makes even something as extravagant in budget as this feel rather like B-schlock.

Cameron had the manga adaptation on his slate from the early-00s, but he clearly found a more seductive avenue for his enviro-transhumanist leanings in Project 880/ Avatar. Alita takes the same essential idea – that you’ll be better, much better, and superpowered to boot – but with a machine body supplementing the same old human brain, and just as Avatar’s big blue cat form offers release from the captivity of a defective shell, so Alita arrives free from the trauma of an artificial prison of metal and chrome that made Robocop so resonant. Being a cyborg is actually great fun (not so much for Snyder’s Cyborg); you can have romances and everything, and you get to perform kick-ass Panzer-Kunst.

Who knows how Jimbo would have approached this? I’d expect with a degree more verisimilitude than Rodriguez (who said he wanted to make it more like a Cameron movie than one of his). Certainly, it seems the visualisation of Alita herself had already been decided. This design aspect takes its cues from the heightened character of the manga, with the big eyes ported over into live action. This in itself might be construed as treading dubious ground; Alita with her big eyes (childlike innocence) is given the body of a thirteen-year-old (Ido’s deceased daughter) and begins a (consenting) romance. She’s then revealed, when she gets her natural form back – a Berserker body – to be “a little older than you thought”. Either way, she’s a killer cyborg “adult” designed to look like an adolescent girl/ child. Putting to one side the implications on Japanese culture, it’s Cameron and Rodriguez transcribing the imagery to live action that rings alarm bells. Alita both prefigures and forms a companion piece to the nu-androgyne “perfection” of his transhumanist cat people.

Then there’s the scrappy, cartoonish approach to the various cyborgs and cityscapes. I missed out on seeing Alita in 3D, so perhaps that made all the difference, but compare it to something like Elysium, also futuristic, tech-heavy and with societal strata divided between above and below, and only one of them comes away remotely photoreal. With scenes like the motorball try-out, Rodriguez puts together an effective action sequence, but there’s a general feeling that this is much happier associating itself with the virtual world of the Star Wars prequel trilogy than anything that would get a nod of approval from Niall Blomkamp.

Alita’s an oddball, quirky movie, for all its issues. Rose Salazar, Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly make decent accounts of themselves, and the likes of Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeff Fahey are evidently having fun (Rodriguez is the kind of guy who will cast Casper Van Dien in his movie; he revels in such B-ness). Ed Norton cameos as the supervillain elite Nova. The major duff note is Keean Johnson as Alita’s insipid love interest. There’s talk the movie may yet get a sequel. Hopefully, if it does, it will come with a plot less of a redux than…


Avatar: The Way of Water

More of the same. Much more. If you thought Avatar was long, The Way of Water will make it seem like a tea break. There’s no doubting the technical accomplishment here, or that Jimbo still has it when putting an action scene together, but The Way of Water goes to reconfirm that, without the bite of really strong performers – even really strong performers in really clichéd roles – the cogs and wheels of Cameron’s finely tuned spectacles are that much less forgiving. There’s a glimmer here for potential going forward in the Quaritch copy, and Sigourney Weaver fashions a surprisingly rewarding role from her Neo-hybrid teen cat person, but much of the rest is a familiar melange of CGI hardware and character performed by merely adequate actors (Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña).

Of course, the movie also makes a splash, and to an extent, all that underwater 3D goodness is compensation enough; there’s acres of aquamarine flora and fauna on display in the eye-candy department, enough to make the rather stodgy – but undeniably commendable – message of the importance of family limp by with a free pass. Jimbo also gives us whales’ lifegiving essence as a new unobtanium, prized by the human elite such that it’s tantamount to the movie’s adrenochrome (as opposed to ambergris).

Less certain are the picture’s ongoing elements. Once again, humans are the most evil of evil beings, excepting those who renounce their humanity (Jake Sully) or would rather be a cat (Spider). Whether or not that makes Avatar’s humans generally an Elite substitute (so we’re… the Na’vi?), it’s the familiar espousal of encouragement to despise oneself. So too, the meticulously designed androgyne form of the Na’vi, lingered over with increasing delirium by Jimbo. Back to nature is great, obviously, but the irony of presenting a natural world created in a computer is surely equal parts absurd and sinister. One might argue the lustre of Pandora is smoke and mirrors in the passage towards the Grey future’s transhumanist perpetuation of a doomed species. 

And then there’s Quaritch Mk II, a fully functioning, better-all-together incarnation of the original. There’s no soul in there, yet he’s a nicer person, and getting nicer by the minute? Very different in presentation to Donald Marshall’s flawed consciousness chip rendering psychotic replicas of an individual in a clone or host body. Which means that The Way of the Water, regardless of Jimbo switching teams to join the White Hats, sends decidedly mixed messages. Hopefully, he’ll be on more solid thematic ground when it comes to the fourth and fifth instalments – the third having been shot with the second – and we’ll see something that seems less like it fits rather too neatly with the old world order.


Avatar

(2009) In which Jimbo saves the – a – planet by wreaking mass-destruction across its environs. Way to go! The eco-message is so earnest, and thick-headed, it’s almost endearing. But only almost. Greta and her handlers are probably very proud of it. Avatar is perhaps the ultimate example of emperor’s new clothes, since Cameron hoodwinked an entire global audience that his immersive, CGI-heavy, 3D endeavour really was this amazing new thing (to the extent there were serious complaints when it didn’t earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination). Really, of course, it was the old story of the white-saviour figure riding in and showing the natives how it should be done, just with added blue cat people and touchy-feely Gaia consciousness. 

Cameron’s idea of transcendence is head-butting the Dalai Lama and hoping something enlightened rubs off. Hence this entire movie, where “Attack! Kill! Kill!” is the rousing order of the day, with one-dimensional, hissable villains and, perversely, the kind of pixelated hardware climax you’d never have countenanced from the guy who formerly relished the physicality (realism) of his challenges. 

But then, Avatar’s title informs everything about it. It’s also all about faux-spirituality, offering the Luciferian olive branch, inviting the unwary into an artificial Eden. All you have to do is escape/ exchange (or augment) your useless human form – humans are awful, excepting the one or two nice ones – for a virtual double – created in a computer, but actually real, right? – a lean blue avatar with super strength. Far superior and preferable all round. It’s the transhumanist dream realised, and Jimbo made it the most popular movie ever. That surely gave him some special Black Hat kudos, right there. 

In my initial ranking I asked “Will anyone care about the sequels? I wouldn’t bet against them, despite there being no one out there clamouring (audibly, anyway). It’s quite clear that, for better or worse, people connected with Titanic because the star-crossed lovers affected them. Can anyone say something similar for Avatar, other than unmitigated advocates of 3D technology?” In a market starved of such tech done really well – and pretty much inert in terms of the home-viewing environment – it really is the 3D that is leading the gargantuan sequel’s gargantuan gross, success that is much needed, given its gargantuan cost. 


Strange Days

(1995) Jim’s end-of-the-world angst manifests in typically unfinessed glory. Strange Days is a clumsy, hamstrung love story elevated considerably (much like The Abyss) by sterling performances from leads Angela Bassett (as his de-rigueur masculinised woman, as opposed to simply essaying a strong female character) and Ralph Fiennes. The political commentary (LA Riots) feels like the work of someone writing from a gated mansion, while the future tech is suitably, ingeniously grisly in places (jacking someone in to witness their own death). 

But the whole suffers from being severely overextended while simultaneously lacking a sufficiently engaging mystery plotline to supply balance. Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is dependably faultless, but Strange Days, which bowled me over when I first saw it (on the big screen), has aged poorly. It’s a cute-grim cyberpunk vision of then-a-few-years-hence, and has none of the legs shown by the more philosophical and thoughtful Until the End of the World, which wafted in on the breeze a few years prior.

In Strange Days favour, however, is an undiluted rejection of the transhumanist doctrine that would inform Cameron’s next SF movie. In Avatar, the artificial environment is one of seductive make-believe-nature. Strange Days gives us the kind of dystopian urban hell we’d be fools to invite – or did invite, since it’s set in 1999 – with the option of virtual escape a clearly marked trap of sensory depravation. One might invite the nostalgia of recorded and replayed memories as the dubious upside (also seen in Until the End of the World and its dreamscapes, or Minority Report and its drug-enhanced home movies), but once we’re privy to jacked-in rapes and murders, it’s clear that just saying no to the whole false paradigm is the only human solution.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day

(1991) A sequel too far for Cameron. Even amid its acclaim at the time, with which I was swept along, I was aware of something slightly fatigued in the very existence of T2. Its shortcomings were, however, expertly disguised by the glittering effects and hugely propellant, exquisitely explosive action spectacle. 

There’s something to be said for turning Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor into a massive loon, but reconfiguring the Terminator as a good guy isn’t really a great twist (something I was sure of from the first announcement, and the finished movie did nothing to convince me otherwise); it’s a neutering of the iconic menace, in reflection of Arnie’s now superstar status. That it was Jimbo’s idea, rather than Schwarzenegger’s, simply shows shrewdness on the former’s part, both financially and thematically.

Indeed, at the time, I’d have argued Sarah seeing Arnie as the ideal dad for John was indicative of her delusional state, but since then we’ve had Dark Fate, where Jimbo established that T-Arnie is indeed the ideal dad. That is, an AI is a better parent than a natural human. Thank heaven he righted the balance with The Way of Water… where a transhuman bodyswap makes you the ideal parent! Of course, when it comes to the parental equation, we also have Sarah retooled as a steroidal man hater (Jim gets hard for hard-bodied women). Testosterone is only a bad thing in men (men other than Jimbo, natch). 

While Robert Patrick admittedly makes for a strikingly unstoppable replacement villain, the real problem with T2 is that it has insufficient reason to be (for more of this with Jimbo sequels, see The Way of Water). Cameron’s mostly just rehashing stuff, from iconic scenes and phrases to the fostered family dynamic he developed for Aliens. There’s a lot of giddy fun to be had and some incredible, heart-stopping action, but by the time Arnie gives his smelted thumbs up, I’ve had quite enough of Terminator retooled as syrupy confectionary. 

Cameron can also be credited with a valiant attempt to keep the nuke threat alive, post its Cold War wilting on the vine. Don’t worry that there aren’t any Soviets left for us to fight (he was caught on the hop there with The Abyss); AIs will do the job, if common-or-garden human adversaries won’t. For the sake of a megabucks payday, Jimbo is also happy to retcon his neat(ish) causal loop from The Terminator, so don’t say integrity isn’t important to the guy. The existence of Skynet is prevented, as confirmed by T6 (or not, if you believe T3; Cameron had seen T2 as the end, until it wasn’t when the T-rights were available, until it was again and then wasn’t again). Which is kind of messy in a way The Terminator isn’t (there, Skynet will always be part of timeline; here, it never comes into being).


Point Break

(1991) I debated including this one; Jimbo’s executive producer, but he and Kathryn Bigelow went uncredited for their rewrite of the screenplay (the WGA weren’t budging). Point Break (working title Riders of the Storm) followed his mantra of “climax following climax”, something you can still see in his work, but at this point, pre-Titanic, his process remained rigorously disciplined and sharply honed. Indeed, Point Break is, for the most part, top-drawer action cinema. It finds Bigelow entirely cresting a wave (latterly, she got it into her head that she was a skilled purveyor of political action cinema, which has rather been her undoing).

This is a movie, in contrast to most of Cameron’s oeuvre, that displays a cheerful self-consciousness about its sheer inherent goofiness, from a very game Keanu, delivering a deceptively effortless blend of Ted-ish stoner, sincere FBI guy and romantic lead as the absurdly named Johnny Utah, to Patrick Swizzle announcing himself as a zen-surfer outlaw, whose mantras only start to seem like a bad idea when the blood squibs start exploding. There’s some fine support too from Gary Busey (the grizzled veteran partner), Lori Petty (the surfer chick with gravitas) and John C McGinley (the shouty boss).

Bigelow initiates us into the surfer world with due enticement, while the action sequences, from masked (Ex-Presidents) bank robberies to DEA raids to skydives, live up to the “100% Pure Adrenaline” tag line (a good thing it was adrenaline and not testosterone, right?!) While the movie has been homaged in its own right (by Hot Fuzz, with characters both watching it and re-enacting the scene where Keanu fires his gun into the air), one thing it successfully avoids is feeling dated or passé. If I’ve a complaint, it’s that the third act – the final robbery and off into the skies – can’t top what went before (I suspect part of this is down to having Johnny become a captive, and so a passive character until he’s in freefall). Nevertheless, Point Break is a prime example of action moviemaking at its zenith.


The Abyss

(1989) In Special Edition form, the form Cameron attested he favoured least, as it detracted from the picture’s heart, this is very nearly great. The Day the Earth Stood Still vision of a world brought low by its premiere occupants, and the warning of global tsunamis poised to strike, packs a punch, somewhat making up for the soggy melodramatics accompanying Bud Brigman’s descent of the titular trench as his ex-wife Lindsey serenades him with a ridiculously over-indulgent monologue. 

The sequence evidences Cameron has little clue when it comes to exploring the hearts and minds of his characters, and that, if he attempts to extend himself beyond the two dimensional and winningly caricatured, he leaves them stranded. That said, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio turn in outstanding performances, the central theme, as over-familiar as it is, carries resonance, and most of all, the technical achievement is absolutely phenomenal. 

See the Special Edition if you see only one version, but be prepared to persevere through the decidedly unhurried opening hour. When the action comes, in fits and spurts, it’s more than first rate, and if the picture is unfortunate enough to have the least distinctive supporting cast of any Cameron blockbuster (perhaps in the service of notional realism), it boasts a highly entertaining bug-eyed turn from Michael Biehn, embracing the chance to show he doesn’t just have it in him to play goody-two-shoes heroes.

The Abyss is, of course, and despite its virtues, also yet another chapter in Jimbo embracing the nuke lie for all its worth. Curiously, it encourages the lore that ETs have shown up at military bases and deactivated various of their stockpiles (which makes for an appealingly beneficent story) as we see an NTI (non-terrestrial intelligence) tentacle alarmed by the very same on the rig. Cameron gives us benign, translucent, sub-Grey diminutive ETs concerned about the evil unchecked humanity will inflict upon itself, which rather goes to emphasise the “Humans, they’re the worst” screed that populates most science-fiction media. Rather than concerning itself with the kind of ETs/NTIs that might be expressly engineering a destructive course for humanity, The Abyss is very much in the line of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then.


Aliens

(1986) Much celebrated at the time, not least by me, time hasn’t been overly kind to Aliens. Its effects creak, it’s hopelessly overlit for a movie that’s supposed to be at least a wee bit scary, and appearance-wise, its cast are embedded every inch in the decade it was made. Most damningly, or successfully, depending on where you’re coming from, Cameron has taken the taut, palpable, low-key realism of Ridley Scott’s original, and fashioned a live-action video game from its principal monster while turning its heroine into a gun-wielding she-Rambo. 

The air-punching “Get away from her, you bitch!” was seventh in Empire magazine’s 2016 50 Greatest Sci-Fi Moments (the chestburster rightly placed higher), but it’s a line that very much identifies Aliens as pure comic book. Such a scene would have been unthinkable in the original. Encountered on those terms, Alien 3 is very much a return to core principals. 

That said, what Cameron does well, he does incredibly well. The onslaught of marines versus Vietnamese… Stormtroopers… I mean xenomorphs, is relentless and ekes every iota of available tension. The supporting characters may all be 2D, but they’re all memorably so, and performed with exemplary skill by a well-thumbed cast. And James Horner’s score is dynamite. Like The Abyss, I always go for the Special Edition, although the reasons in this case are less convincing, and next time I revisit it, I suspect I’ll return to the theatrical cut. This one does sustain the prolonged build-up, though, because the anticipation of a rematch is everything.

While nukes (a lie, let us remember) were very much our enemies in The Terminator, they are less polarised here. They’re characterised as a necessary danger (powering the LV-247 colony) and also our friend (nuking the site from orbit will dispose of those pesky xenos). Less malleable are corporations, personified by Burke’s company man as willing to do anything to secure their prize asset. Indeed, where in Alien there is an instruction and an AI to carry it out, the AI here falls into relief, as the Terminator would subsequently, and becomes a friend, a funny uncle, and a member of the family (as the Terminator would subsequently). This was part of the (then) Cameron game plan. Humans are worthless, even less than the aliens themselves, since you don’t see them “fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”.


The Terminator

(1984) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cameron’s best science-fiction movie, and best movie, is tonally closer to horror than science fiction. Where Aliens ultimately slightly dissatisfies is that it is, first-and-foremost, an action flick, forsaking the palpable, unearthly dread that infests the original. Dread is Terminator’s constant companion: inescapable, unstoppable. Any moment of respite must be held onto for dear life. 

Without the luxury of a preceding career pedigree, Jimbo’s required to deliver a movie free from fat, and the result is a taut, relentless B-thriller, one where the melodrama is completely in keeping with the apocalyptic foreboding. This very much feels like a picture staring into the abyss of nuclear armageddon, whereas T2, for all the CG carnage of judgement day, was never in much imminent danger, insulated behind an expensive sheen. 

More than anything, The Terminator sets up Cameron staples – via Harlan Ellison – that would serve him well throughout his career. We have the nuke threat (or nuke-lie threat), something that would be a constant until he went back in time aboard the Titanic. It’s one triggered by an AI defence network gone sentient and leads the to the post-apocalyptic ruin of the 2029 we see (judgement day’s date isn’t mentioned in the original). As noted, the nukes here carry with them the sound of inevitability, something closer to the personalised gloom of the following year’s Edge of Darkness than their glossy visualisation in the sequel. Of course, in The Terminator’s future, humanity has won – easy to forget amid the foreboding – with only Arnie to throw a last-ditch spanner in the works

Most appealing is that Cameron actually identifies the essential issues with time-travel plots while simultaneously embracing their most fundamental illogicalities. Hence the “retroactive abortion” of murdering the resistance leader before he’s born (meaning Skynet will never have a reason to send a T-600 back in time in the first place), and the paradox of the resistance leader being the offspring of the man he sends back in time to protect his mother. It seems likely that, however the intricacies of actual time-travel operate, they will inevitably leave paradoxical traces. But the likelihood is also that it’s very difficult to understand those intricacies fully while rooted in a 3D perspective.

In a parallel universe, such as the ones T5 plays with (poorly), Cameron might have continued forward with such a honed approach, rather than becoming ever-more bloated in manifesting ever-slenderer premises (T6 offers a quasi-reboot of the concept, post T2, and succeeds only in compounding all the various problems present in the intervening chapters. But with added woke “veneer”). The Terminator may have the issues of your typical time-travel paradox tale, in terms of narrative integrity, but that’s inarguably the entire point, and more, it serves an emotional payload that doesn’t feel faked, thanks to the committed performances of Biehn and Hamilton. The Terminator began Cameron’s career in earnest, and while the pinnacles of his success have grown successively ever higher, he’s never equalled the quality of his first classic movie. 

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