An Analysis – James Cameron’s Titanic Successes
It doesn’t seem that long ago that James Cameron released his behemoth Titanic (1997) upon the unsuspecting public. I say unsuspecting not because he wasn’t well recognized—quite the contrary. At that time, Cameron was one of the world’s most popular genre directors, having a string of huge successes behind him. In gaining those successes, he reinvented the spectacle and bombast of the blockbuster. Films like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991) set a new standard for special effects, and simultaneously set an expectation for achievement and personal competition within the mind of its creator.
It’s no secret that just before Titanic was released, it was projected to be a colossal failure. The word had gotten out about its massive budget, and the release date setbacks seemed to hint at a troubled production. But most of all, it was James Cameron, a director who had only done hyper-masculine science fiction-inflected action movies. And here he was trying his hat with a romantic historical epic? However, despite all the obvious red flags, it worked. It worked like gangbusters. In its opening weekend alone, Titanic made 120 million dollars, making the film itself an event. The movie stayed in theaters for almost a year and reportedly brought droves of devoted teenage girls into the theater that would spend entire days watching the film over and over. The soundtrack was also an enormous success. Celine Dion’s theme for the movie, “My Heart Will Go On,” dominated the pop charts. Its music video, peppered with clips from the movie, was repeatedly shown on MTV and VH1, creating a symbiotic relationship that only reinforced the fans spending more money on both the CD and additional tickets. Whether you loved it or hated it, 1998 was the year of Titanic.
What happens when a populist movie wins Best Picture (or hell, is even nominated)? Every Tom and Jill throws in their two cents about how good it truly isn’t. Titanic has always had always a strange relationship with the critics. It’s impossible not to appreciate the technical craft and meticulous detail in the film, and it definitely pushed the bounds of special effects at a time when the solution for every visual wasn’t always a computer button away. But it’s even harder to deny another kind of Kraft in Titanic…the kind that usually comes in a rectangular cardboard box filled with elbow shaped noodles. There’s a reason this movie did so well with the young teenage girls of America: it’s one big soap opera on a boat.
Rewind to almost 20 years before Titanic. James Cameron was a young Canadian upstart working as a visual effects supervisor and second unit man for Roger Corman’s exploitation productions. And as an oompa loompa toiling in the Corman Factory, he cut his teeth on such films as Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Galaxy of Terror (1981), a shameless B-movie rip-off of Riddley Scott’s Alien (1979). In 1981, he was famously fired from what was supposed to be his directorial debut in Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, a sequel to the Joe Dante-directed shameless B-movie rip-off of Jaws (1975). Apparently, overseeing producer Ovidio G. Assonitis was frustrated with Cameron’s slow progress on the film and took over principle shooting midway through the production, beginning the long-standing rumors of Cameron’s bossy perfectionism on set. Now, it’s only fair to say that plenty of prestige directors started their careers with Corman—most notably, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Francis Ford Coppola—but it is also important to note that Cameron was specifically involved in the art direction and cinematography, a.k.a. the surfaces. In any case, while he may have graduated from Roger Corman’s University of Schlock, he never really took off his class ring.
In 1981, Cameron took on The Terminator, a low budget science fiction thriller about a killer robot from the future, starring then-unknown Austrian body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie became something of a calling card for both Cameron and Arnold. It had the same appeal as a lot of those cheesy Corman drive-in movies, but it was slick, economically made, and genuinely scary. The movie also had very convincing special effects, showcasing a new look for traditional stop-motion animation.
In a grand stroke of irony, only a couple years after he had worked on Galaxy of Terror, Cameron was approached to take on Aliens, a high-budget Hollywood sequel to Alien. Not wanting to step on Ridley Scott’s toes, or tread the same thematic water, Cameron’s vision for this sequel would transform the procedural, slow-burning original into a hard and fast action movie, filled with guns, quick dialogue, and many new creative creature designs. Perhaps the moment in Aliens that best defines the film’s core interests and its fundamental differences from its predecessor is the showdown between the fifteen-foot alien queen and Sigourney Weaver powering an armored mech-suite. The queen has just captured Newt, the young helpless child for whom Ripley now feels a maternal bond. After a fruitless skirmish in which the large alien seems to have gained the upper hand, Ripley re-enters the fight in a construction-yellow robotic humanoid forklift. The camera zooms onto our hero’s face and the famous line is uttered: “Get away from her, you bitch!” At this point, the audience cheers in an uproar and another helping of popcorn is shoveled into their mouths, crunching with glee as this Saturday serial moment plays out. That’s what kind of movie this is, the kind with a quotable catchphrase. These are the kinds of movies James Cameron makes, and whether he thinks so or not, these are the kinds of movies he is still making.
While working on his nautical thriller The Abyss (1989), Cameron began a partnership with Industrial Lights and Magic, George Lucas’s special effects team that had just learned how to integrate computer generated images into live action scenes. This technology made possible a future with no more puppets, no more latex, and no more clunky stop-motion animation. The newly featured “CGI” is used sparingly in The Abyss, but this film, while one of Cameron’s most overlooked, bookmarks an important transitional moment for a director who is always craving the newest and most expensive toys in production.