Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, the man who wrote and directed some of the most popular and financially successful blockbusters in the world, was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario in 1954, the son of an engineer father and an artist mother (with parents like that, his career path is not surprising) eventually moving with his family to California as a teenager and showing an interest in building and constructing things and having a particular fascination with movies and how special effects are created. After attending community college he worked a number of odd jobs in the seventies but after watching Star Wars for the first time, he officially wanted to become a filmmaker.
With no formal film school training he learned how to make movies as he went. His first was the 1978 sci-fi short Xenogenesis, and that led to him becoming a production assistant and later an effects artist and production designer, working with Roger Corman on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Galaxy of Terror (1981) as well as working on John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and the 1982 sci-fi film Android directed by Aaron Lipstadt, who was incidentally the Battle Beyond the Stars assistant production manager.
One of his effects assignments inadvertently led to his first directing assignment when he was hired as a special effects designer on Piranha II: The Spawning (1982), the sequel to Joe Dante’s well-received 1978 horror comedy about a summer resort being terrorized by genetically altered piranha. At first the sequel was directed by Miller Drake, but Drake left the project due to creative clashes with the producer so Cameron stepped in to try to salvage the film. While this is technically Cameron’s feature film directorial debut, Cameron had so little creative freedom that he didn’t like to acknowledge it as his own movie for years since its release. Piranha II was less beloved than Piranha and it bombed pretty badly, despite it being made for less than $200,000.
James Cameron’s next movie was a suspenseful chase movie inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, and apparently based on a nightmare Cameron had during the stressful experience of directing Piranha II. Sci-fi action film The Terminator (1984) stars Austrian bodybuilder and Conan the Barbarian star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg assassin from the future who goes back in time to kill a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) whose unborn future son will save mankind from extinction at the hands of evil A.I. organization Skynet. This highly entertaining movie was not only Cameron’s first collaboration with up-and-coming film producer Gale Anne Hurd, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cameron and would go on to produce all of Cameron’s films from 1984 to 1991, but it exceeded all expectations at the box office and spawned a franchise that continues to this day, as well as put James Cameron on the map in Hollywood.
After co-writing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with Sylvester Stallone, Cameron directed Aliens (1986), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien, featuring the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, who returns to the site of the attack with a unit of Colonial Marines and, as the title suggests, finds more than just one alien this time. Unlike most sequels to classic films that are helmed by different directors, Aliens expands on the first film in smart ways and is even seen by some (including me) as superior to Alien, as well as an action-packed sci-fi classic. Sigourney Weaver even got her first Oscar nomination thanks to this film, which is kind of amazing when you consider how rarely good acting in sci-fi films gets serious awards attention.
Cameron’s next film The Abyss (1989) is another original sci-fi story he wrote about a search and recovery team who go on a journey deep in the ocean after a submarine mysteriously sinks in the Caribbean. The group discovers an unexpected alien entity (or a “non-terrestrial intelligence”) that may or may not be a threat to their lives. The film’s incredible visual effects won Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) an Academy Award.
ILM would be put to significant use again when James Cameron made the Terminator sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Set in the year 1995, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has been reprogrammed by the resistance and this time he has been sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor’s son John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a more highly advanced Terminator model, the shape-shifting T-1000 played by Robert Patrick, a leaner and meaner contrast to Schwarzenegger’s army tank-like build, which was intentional on Cameron’s part. Just like with Aliens, T2: Judgment Day is a well-loved classic that many people see as superior to the first movie. It might even be my personal favorite James Cameron film as well as my favorite action film and my introduction to the Terminator series, of which I am still a fan thanks largely to how much of an impression this movie made on me.
Judgment Day was the first film produced by Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, a company which would go on to produce movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel (2019) and Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), a movie which featured the return of both Schwarzenegger and Hamilton and was the first Terminator film produced by Cameron since T2. Cameron also co-founded the visual effects company Digital Domain in 1993 with ILM alum Scott Ross and independent special effects artist Stan Winston, and that company’s debut feature would be Cameron’s next directorial effort True Lies (1994). Based on French director Claude Zidi’s 1991 spy comedy La Totale! (The Total), True Lies stars Schwarzenegger as a U.S. government agent who struggles to balance his family life with his life as a spy. This film isn’t as great as most of Cameron’s other films but it got decent reviews and was the third highest-grossing film of 1994 behind The Lion King and Forrest Gump so it was still popular enough.
You might think Cameron’s career was starting to hit a slump after this but that was far from the case because his next movie would be his crowning achievement. The film Titanic (1997) is a romance epic based on the events of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, which crashed into an iceberg during its maiden voyage from England to New York, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a fictional couple who fall in love aboard the ship despite being part of very different social classes. Cameron, who was always fascinated by sea exploration and shipwrecks, really first set out to make a disaster movie, but he added a romantic plot in the middle of it because he thought it would amplify the drama and the emotional impact of the tragic story. But based on the scope of a story like this and how convincing the special effects would need to be in order to sell it, it ended up becoming the most expensive film ever made, to the point where both Paramount and 20th Century Fox agreed to co-finance it and co-distribute it around the world. If this film tanked, which many people predicted it would, it could spell the end of Cameron’s career, and even Cameron, who put all his passion into it, was expecting it to bomb.
We all know what happened next. All of Cameron’s instincts paid off because Titanic went on to become one of the most financially successful, critically acclaimed and Oscar-decorated films in movie history, ultimately winning eleven Academy Awards total, including Best Picture, and earning over $2 billion worldwide, literally becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, beating the previous record held by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The praise the film has garnered has been attributed to a variety of factors, with critics pointing out the flawless blend of romance and epic-scale drama, further enhanced by how great the acting is and how well the plot is crafted, not to mention breakout heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and the huge number of young women who had a crush on him and went out to see the film multiple times just to pretend they were in Kate Winslet’s shoes. Visual effects companies like ILM were also at the top of their game here during the scene when the Titanic sinks, and so was composer James Horner whose melodies contributed to the historic nostalgia and Celine Dion, whose power ballad “My Heart Will Go On” became a global hit and a signature song for the Canadian singer forever forward. I could go on about the film’s accolades and cultural impact but you get the idea.
In the decade following the Titanic phenomenon, Cameron created the FOX sci-fi drama Dark Angel (2000-02) starring Jessica Alba, but more prominently he started directing and producing documentaries, many of which highlighted his personal passions, such as the 2003 film Ghosts of the Abyss in which Cameron explores the wreckage of the real Titanic, and the 2005 film Aliens of the Deep in which Cameron and a team of NASA scientists explore the unusual lifeforms of the deep sea. Both were released for IMAX in 3D by Disney. Cameron also co-directed the 2002 Discovery Channel documentary Expedition: Bismarck with Gary Johnstone, and he executive produced many more documentaries for TV exploring subjects like the Titanic, climate change, whales and the sci-fi genre in James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction (2018) which featured interviews with such people as George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg.
Cameron would not direct another narrative feature film after Titanic until more than a decade later, but Cameron began development on his next movie years before Titanic even came out. The sci-fi epic Avatar (2009) starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver is set during the 22nd century and follows a group of humans who mine a lush Earth-like planet called Pandora populated with blue cat-like creatures called Na’vi for a valuable mineral called Unobtanium. The film was originally set to come out two years after Titanic in 1999, but the technology of computer visual effects that decade was not up to Cameron’s standards so the project was shelved. However, Cameron never stopped thinking about Pandora and he continued building the world and expanding the Na’vi lore until he finally wrote a screenplay in early 2006. With a dazzling array of visuals, motion-capture animation and 3D, Avatar became one of the most highly-anticipated movies ever, and when it finally came out in December 2009, it surpassed Cameron’s own Titanic as the highest-grossing film at the global box office, and it even led to a prolific 3D trend. Its huge success, just like with Titanic, is attributed to a lot of factors. Roger Ebert said it reminded him of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings in the way it broke ground with visuals while still telling a compelling human story. Although a number of critics said the visual effects of Avatar outshined the writing, and less kind critics even said the story was derivative. But Cameron, who wanted to create a fictional universe that could rival Star Wars, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, had already made plans for several sequels before the first film even came out, with the second film Avatar: The Way of Water coming out in 2022 and more currently on the way.
James Cameron, who is responsible for writing and directing some of the most ambitious and expensive movies in cinematic history, is clearly a passionate person with a clear vision. Listening to him in interviews and hearing the way his co-workers describe him conveys all that and more. He has a reputation for being a demanding perfectionist who can be short-tempered and borderline dictatorial on his film sets, to the point where people like composer James Horner and actor Kate Winslet have considered never working with him again, but Cameron has also received a lot of praise from people like Sigourney Weaver who says his method makes you want to work harder and Leonardo DiCaprio who called him a visionary similar to director John Ford. Plus Cameron gets a lot of respect for his vast knowledge and his ability to do almost every job on a film set from art direction to camera work to editing to wardrobe department, not to mention his deep passion for movies which is likely the culprit for his demanding perfectionism. Even in interviews you can tell he has a huge ego. But Winslet and Horner eventually worked with him again so there must be something about him that draws people to his side. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably his serious work ethic, his persistence in achieving his vision, his ability to get the best out of his cast and crew and his great track record for knowing how to entertain audiences.