Jan 29, 2010


I have seen a few articles popping up lately about James Cameron, director and creator of the mega-huge blockbuster Avatar.  One of them in particular took the stance that James Cameron is the greatest director of all time - as evidenced by the fact that he has the two biggest movies of all time.  I know where this is coming from.  In our current journalistic landscape, writing well is not nearly as important as writing wild articles that pose wild hypotheses to get people's blood boiling.  So we have tons of "Best of" lists and "Greatest of All Time" articles.  Personally, I do not think Cameron is the greatest director of all time.  First, let me just give a brief rundown of what old King of the World brings to the table.

  • Avatar - the highest grossing movie of all time (worldwide, soon to be U.S. also).  That means $600 million in US, $1.8 billion plus worldwide.  Award winning and nominated.  Technically light years beyond anything out there.  
  • Titanic - until Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time.  Same numbers.  $600 million in U.S. and $1.8 billion global.  Oscar winner.  Technological marvel.  Launched Leo and Kate's careers.
  • Terminator and Terminator 2 - The first movie only made $38 million.  The second made $204 (in 1991 money).  But Cameron created the entire story, the characters, everything.  That means the four movies, one television show, numerous video games, and amusement park experiences were all from his initial idea.  And the morphing technology in T2 still is dang impressive - changed movie effects forever.
  • True Lies - fun Arnold movie - made about $140 million.  Yawn.
  • The Abyss - Made $54 million.  But it was the first movie to ever be able to create realistic special effect, computer generated water.  And this was 1989.  Actually a great movie, too.
  • Aliens - the second in the Alien series.  And just an unbelievable movie.  One of the best sequels of all time.  
  • Random weird stuff like the tv series Dark Angel, two documentaries (Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep).
  • Piranha Part 2.  Of course, who could forget that.
Not a bad list.  Over $4 billion in worldwide gross.  Tons of technologically advanced movies.  Oscars for special effects and technical stuff.  Two movies that were real Best Picture players - one won and we'll see what happens with the other.  And, of course, Piranha Part 2.

So, even though the list is small, it is also impressive.  To his credit, Cameron has been at the helm of five movies that had a large effect on Hollywood (Aliens, Abyss, T2, Titanic, Avatar).  And three of those movies were of the type that would earn the label "they changed everything."  Certain movies undeniably change everything.  Either their technology makes it possible to do something that never had been done before.  Or their style is so cool that it inspires dozens of movies after it.  Or their cultural impact can't be measured - as in culture is never the same again.  Some examples of this type of movie is Star Wars, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction, Toy Story, Cinderella, The Godfather, Independence Day.  Well, Cameron contributed THREE movies to this type - T2 (which revolutionized special effects), Titanic (special effects, movie scope, approach to movies), and Avatar (technology, 3D incorporation).

Cameron also was responsible for creating the Terminator series - completely creating it.  There are movies that grow to be much bigger than themselves.  They create an entire universe of media - they basically take on a life of their own.  Some of them (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Godfather) are based on other materials.  Others (Star Wars, Matrix, Indiana Jones, Stargate) are built from the ground up by an individual - Lucas, Spielberg.  I'm not talking about generating a ton of sequels.  I'm talking about creating a universe of characters that become their own entity and seem to exist in some parallel universe.  Terminator would be one of those characters - and it was Cameron's brain child.  These phenomena are rare.  So to have one to your credit is impressive.  To have two?  EXTREMELY rare.  George Lucas has two - Star Wars and Indiana Jones (he wrote Indy) - but Indy wouldn't have been anything without Spielberg's directing.  Look at the struggle that people like the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) have had coming up with something else to do.  They have never replicated the success or scope of their first movie.  You could even argue that Spielberg has only had one franchise like this - the Indiana Jones.  Lucas had one.  Coppola had one.  Well, Cameron has the potential to have two.  Avatar was created as a franchise - not a movie.  That is why it took fifteen years to come out.  He was building the universe - complete with sequels and video game concepts.  There are tons of spin off capabilities.  That's impressive.

Also, you could legitimately argue the The Abyss should be in the movies with a game changing effect on Hollywood.  I think it had an impact on movies, but I didn't include it in the list.  My reason is that it was more of a reaction to the impact that Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind that revolutionary on its own.  It almost was like Close Encounters underwater.  So its originality wasn't so much the point as it was its special effects.  That's why we haven't had anything other than the original movie in that franchise.  So how is it any different than numerous other FX movies that had an impact, but not a huge earthquake-level (Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump).  Also, Cameron's impact on the Alien franchise is enormous.  He didn't create the series.  But without Aliens, it wouldn't be what it is.  That's just a fact.  His involvement on the sequel turned the movie into a franchise.  But I can't credit him for generating it on its own.  He just had a vision for how to turn it into something so much more - and succeeded spectacularly.

So, is directing three game-changing movies enough?  Is creating two complete media universes (and strongly helping a third) sufficient to lay claim to a "greatest director" claim?  Is generating $4 billion after just nine movies get the title?  I would have to argue no.  It is impressive - not denying that.  But there are some problems.  First of all, look at that list again.  While all of those movies stand out as exciting and entertaining films. do any of them stand out as truly great movies?  The dialogue, character development, big issues that usually define great movies is lacking.  They are wildly fun to watch, but they don't leave you thinking about much of anything except for, "Man, I can't believe he was able to do that."  Sure, Titanic won Best Picture, but it was more due to its scope and epic quality.  The acting wasn't that great.  The main character was the boat.  The second half of the movie basically consisted of people running around and screaming.  His movies will be studied for years to come - largely to teach how to create an epic and utilize technology.  But it isn't going to be for storytelling.  The story is a distant element compared to the visuals.

Second, Cameron has proven he can do one type of movie.  He can do the visual effect epic.  He does it extremely well - probably better than anyone.  Much of his hype is due to the money.  Money makes the world go around, as they say.  And he bring in ridonkulous money.  (He also spends it - his movies costs TONS of money to make.)  But I would like to see someone take away his computer tricks and see how he does on a small, story and character driven film before we had him the laurel.  Other great directors have shown they can work on any scale with any amount of technology.  Peter Jackson doesn't have to have thousands of stampeding orcs to have a quality film.  Spielberg has worked equally well in special effect world and in character heavy world.  Even Tarantino has done small scale and epic.  Same with Scorcese.  Cameron's work all has been big budget, big scope, effects heavy.  This also explains why his work on television shows (Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dark Angel) had trouble catching on with a large group of people.  It is hard to translate epic scope to the small screen if you don't have strong characters and story telling.  The reason Lost and Star Trek have been able to do that is because they have unbelievable characters and stories.

The third strike against Cameron is more of a personal one.  He is an unbelievably arrogant and egotistical person.  I'm sure that most people in the entertainment world could be saddled with these titles.  But the thing about Cameron is that he is considered that BY those other arrogant people.  It takes a huge amount of arrogance to be called arrogant by the most arrogant people on the planet.  That's like me commenting on someone being fat or my wife saying someone is super smart.  Cameron has this reputation.  His actors always seems to love him - so he can't be a jerk to work with.  Arnold worked with him three times.  Bill Paxton has worked with him four times (he was in the first Terminator movie - betcha didn't know that).  But he does things that just grate on people - like his Titanic acceptance speech, culminating in his "I'm King of the World" exclamation.  Or his accepting the Golden Globe by addressing his actors in the fake language he had written himself for the movie.  There is this kind of "I'm better than everyone and I know it" approach he has.  It is like he makes these big movies just to show everyone how awesome he is.  I remember how people kept saying Titanic could never be beaten in revenue.  The Dark Knight came closer than anyone, but still missed by like $75 million.  Then Avatar came out.  And the whole time, there was this aura that Cameron had where it seemed he was saying, "Titanic can be beat - by ME!"  He's the type of person who, when he got the award for Best Director of All Time, he would respond with, "I know."

And the magical fourth strike is that he's Canadian.  I mean, how can the best director ever be from Canada?  Know what I'm talking abooot, yeh hoser?

My personal vote for Best Director of All Time is Steven Spielberg.  I know that some of my more critical movie loving friends will scoff at that.  He usually pops up in the top 20 of these arguments by "real movie critics."  I don't understand that.  The greatest movie I ever saw was Schindler's List.  You were just numb at the end, sitting silent through the credits because it took you that long to get enough strength to walk out.  The second greatest movies I ever saw was Saving Private Ryan.  That one, you weren't just numb.  You hurt all over.  You just sat there through the credits, trying to wrap your mind around what you just went through.  And in both of those films, everyone, I mean EVERYONE, in the theater did that.  No one got up - they just sat there trying to process.  At the same time, he also directed some of the most entertaining movies every made.  Look at his list:

  • Jaws (DGA nomination)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Oscar nominated for Best Director)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • E.T. (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • The Color Purple (Oscar nominated for Best Picture - robbed on Best Director nomination)
  • Empire of the Sun
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler's List (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director - won both)
  • Amistad (DGA nomination)
  • Saving Private Ryan (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director - won director, got robbed on picture)
  • Minority Report
  • Catch Me if You Can
  • The Terminal
  • War of the Worlds
  • Munich (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • A whole bunch of other ones that seem beneath him, but would be the best thing most average directors would ever come up with (Jurassic Park 2, AI, Duel, Hook, Always, Indy 4)
  • And none of that includes the movies, tv shows, or documentaries he produced.  Like Letters from Iwo Jima, Men in Black, Amazing Stories, Transformers, Band of Brothers, Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Shrek, Twister, American Tail, Young Sherlock Holmes.
Six Best Oscar for directing nominations (should have been nine), two wins, and NINE best director nominations by the Director's Guild of America (three wins).  He helped bring one epic franchise to life (Indy).  He made several game changing movies.  And has about fifteen movies that had a major impact on other films.  He can do anything with any source material.  Best example of that was 2005, when he released War of the Worlds (major sci fi epic) AND Munich (up for Best Pic and Director - smaller character and story driven story).  And, when it comes to money, movies he directed have generated $4 billion in the US alone.  If you look at his producing efforts, as well as the global take, his movies have generated closer to $10 billion.  So, for me, that is what makes the best director ever.  Cameron can enter the talk when he replicates his success two and half times over.

No comments: