James Cameron is a name synonymous with highly-calibrated action sequences, thought-provoking narrative, finely-tuned editing and visual effects and solidly-executed cast performances … his work with the “Terminator” films, “Aliens” and “Titanic” have pushed the boundaries of storytelling and cinematic visualization and remain his trademark film efforts to this very day.
But what about his other work?
Needless to say, there’s a decent chance that you could be forgotten if you’re a James Cameron project that lacks an Arnold-Cyborg or a big boat … easily getting caught up and abandoned in the wake of his monster hits.
But fear not … I’ll be more than happy to bring you all to the forefront with The Top 5 Underrated James Cameron Projects.
#5: “Piranha Part II: The Spawning” (James Cameron, 1981)
It’s always intriguing to see where a director has come from … their first real project. Despite his 1978 film “Xenogenesis,” Jim’s official start is marked at 1981’s “Piranha II.” Produced by mentor Roger Corman, the film finds a scuba diving instructor, her biochemist boyfriend and her police chief ex-husband as they try to link a series of bizarre deaths to a mutant strain of piranha fish — obviously given Corman’s involvement the film is a low-budget mess of campy acting and poor effects. Even so, Cameron’s display of direction is still quite taut and impressive, especially in the camera set-ups more than anything. But aside from that, it is a rather nasty piece of trash — with hot chicks in bikinis being the only thing going for it. Oh well … live and learn.
#4: “True Lies” (James Cameron, 1994)
Sandwiched between Jim’s biggest films (1991’s “Terminator 2” and 1997’s “Titanic”), 1994’s “True Lies” always gets a proverbial “Oh yeah … THAT one!” reaction when it continuously pops back into our collective consciousness. The slam-bang actioner about a top U.S. Government spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) masquerading as a computer salesman for his wife and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and a very young Eliza Dushku) while fighting against a band of ruthless terrorists is, in my own opinion, the Cameron film that seems to have the most fun … both with itself and its audiences. Schwarzenegger and his partner, played by Tom Arnold, make an odd combination that just so happens to work on comedic terms … very much Jim’s answer to Abbott and Costello. “True Lies” also fires on all action cylinders, including a dynamite chase early on through the Marriott in D.C. and an explosive finale that finds Arnold residing in the cockpit of a fighter jet unleashing machine gun fire into an office building and blowing the terrorist leader away with the deadpan line “You’re Fired.” Not only that, but we also get a great supporting performance from Cameron-alum Bill Paxton as a sleazy used-car salesman — and an unforgettable striptease from Jamie Lee Curtis … WHOA! After all of the haunting and foreboding proceedings of “Terminator 2,” it’s such a welcome relief to see Cameron tickling at the funny bone in true, bombastic style.
#3: “Expedition: Bismarck” / “Ghosts of the Abyss”/ “Aliens of the Deep” (James Cameron, 2002/2003/2005)
As a genre, Documentary always seems to get the short end of the stick … obviously given the fact that the term “documentary’ harkens the idea that the priority of the film is to educate and inform first before entertain. There’s already an air of boredom that stems from the genre that people going in have to deal with — which is why the most successful documentaries have a distinct visual style or sense of satirical humor to rebuff the dull portions, such as films crafted by the likes of Errol Morris or Michael Moore. How could a documentary NOT be boring when the involvement of one of the most bankable filmmakers of recent years can’t even get butts into seats? Nevertheless, the documentary efforts of James Cameron are still quite something and it’s fascinating to see a visionary with a knack for narrative take his eye to a genre like this. In the wake of “Titanic,” Jim had become engrossed with the technology used for deep sea expedition. The TV doc “Expedition: Bismarck” is a wonderful exploration of a gigantic Nazi cruiser sunk by the British in World War II (complete with some interestingly crafted CG schematics of the ship), while his IMAX works “Ghosts of the Deep” and “Aliens of the Abyss” work very well in both informing on this topic while also showing viewers absolutely BREATHTAKING underwater footage taken from the submarine itself as Jim continued to accompany the crews on their journeys to the most intriguing unknown portion of our world — that happens to make up 70 percent of its surface. While it’s always welcome to have Jim in the saddle of another narrative feature, his documentary material is still quite amazing.
#2: “The Abyss” (James Cameron, 1989)
Even after the success of “Aliens,” this gem seemed to get lost in a year that saw the (supposed) final adventure of Indiana Jones and the remarkable box-office busting debut of a certain caped crusader — but rest-assured, 1989’s “The Abyss” is a more than worthy piece of slick filmmaking. Following the sinking of a US ballistic missile submarine, a deep sea-diving crew led by Ed Harris leads in the search to reacquire it, with a team of Navy SEALS joining the excavation and rescue. But due to storms damaging the undersea oil platform and its sub, the team find themselves trapped on the ocean floor … unaware of a mysterious aquatic alien-life form called a Pseudo-Pod. Tensions mount as one of the warheads from the USS Montana activates and everyone must work together to prevent a catastrophic nuclear explosion. “The Abyss” is a much understated and beautifully crafted work of Cameron’s — truly one of his most provocative as it takes a very hard look at the dangers of nuclear weapons in a way that predated “Terminator 2” and delivers greatly conceived performances from both Harris and Cameron-regular Michael Biehn. The confined spaces of the location also work well to mount tension and add a welcome flavor of frustration to the story — forcing its characters to deal with the fact that there’s no escape — and the Pseudo-Pod is also revolutionary as a pre-cursor to the T-1000, advancing the spectrum of digital effects technology. A movie of destiny, “The Abyss” is certainly not to be missed.
#1: “Dark Angel” (James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee, 2000-02)
Some of commented that “Avatar” marks Jim’s triumphant return to science fiction post-“Titanic.” While that’s true in a feature film sense, Cameron’s eye for mankind’s future was most certainly hard at work well after “Titanic” with the smash hit television series “Dark Angel.” Set in post-apocalyptic Seattle, “Dark Angel” finds America thrown into the dark ages after terrorists have set off an electromagnetic pulse, disabling all electronic devices in the country in an attempt to cripple both the nation’s economic and political strengths (a shot in the dark in 2000 that obviously became a hot-button topic in the wake of 9/11). As a result, the United States has become a combination of a third-world country and the Wild West, as citizens continue day by day facing brutal Sector Police and trying to fend for food, shelter and security in a world where money has become all but worthless. The show delivers on the sci-fi end with Max (Jessica Alba), a genetically-engineered super-soldier on the run from Manticore, the military-owned company that designed her and her brethren at the end of the ’90s. With the help of a cyber-journalist (Michael Weatherly) out to bring a “true word” to the people amidst all of the corruption that runs rampant, Max fights to destroy Manticore and seek out her genetic “brothers and sisters,” all while trying to make a living as a bike messenger. With its odd yet effective combination of post-apocalyptic genetic cyberpunk and ghetto fab hip-hop urban counter culture, the series was dynamite in its first season, making Alba a household name and going on to inspire the creation of books, action figures … even a video game. A prime example in wasted potential, “Angel” was shockingly scrapped by FOX after its second season (although I can see why with the whole “Freakish Monster” gimmick that screamed of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”) … which is common since FOX has a nasty habit of being particularly unfair and ignorant towards its Sci-Fi material (they’ve also canned “Firefly,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Dollhouse,” among others I’m sure). Thankfully, the show got a fine send-off with its series finale “Freak Nation,” directed by Cameron himself. It’s a wonderful series that shows that not even the success of “Titanic” could keep Cameron away from Science Fiction.
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