When Did James Cameron Become Hollywood’s Blockbuster Punch Line?

Hate James Cameron? Nah. When you’re one of the greatest action directors of all time, you’re allowed a little leeway.
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By  · Published on August 15th, 2017

If you live in a major city like New York or Chicago, you sometimes forget how important theatrical revivals are to audiences. Whether it’s a Fathom Event or an anniversary booking, multiplex releases of classic films may be the only opportunity some folks have to see their favorite films on the big screen. That’s why I’ve had the re-release of James Cameron‘s Terminator 2 circled on my calendar for a couple of months now. If nothing else, I knew it would give me an excellent opportunity to wonder just why the hell we’ve allowed ourselves so fall so far out of love with James Cameron.

There’s a sense in Hollywood that genre directors – directors who focus primarily on horror, action, or science fiction films – face diminishing returns in the later years of their career. Given his newfound satisfaction as a musician, John Carpenter’s career as a filmmaker effectively ended with The Ward, a 2011 horror film that cost roughly $10 million to make and earned $1.2 million worldwide. Walter Hill, perhaps one of the best action directors of the 1980s, may end his feature film career with The Assignment, the much-reviled thriller that earned $206k against a reported $5 million budget. Even George Lucas – the man who practically defined the modern blockbuster – might end his career with scathing reviews and box office deficits courtesy of Strange Magic. Unless you’ve proven yourself as a Serious Filmmaker™ outside of your preferred genre (Spielberg, Scorsese, etc.), the final act of your Hollywood career is likely to go over rather poorly.

And James Cameron, for a lot of people, now seems to fit this mold. From Cameron’s (let’s go with) contentious decision to turn Avatar into a five-film franchise, to his decision to re-re-reboot the Terminator franchise, the narrative forming around Cameron suggests he’s another filmmaker past his prime, unwilling to let go of his legacy and clinging to the film franchises that made him famous. Only that’s not exactly true, is it? Unlike the other filmmakers listed above, Cameron’s last work of fiction wasn’t some halfhearted grasp at name recognition that lost millions of dollars at the box office. It was Avatar, the highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history – or second-highest behind Gone With the Wind if you prefer to adjust for inflation – and a film nominated for nine separate Academy Awards.

In fact, with a new Terminator series on the way, Cameron, the king of the summer sequel, might actually be performing at an all-time high. So why have contemporary audiences soured on Cameron as a director? It really just boils down to three things: his sequels, his arrogance, and his obsession with technology.

The first reason needs no explanation. Not content to turn his successful movie into a trilogy like every other filmmaker of his generation, Cameron pushed the envelope with a whole new Avatar quadrilogy, frustrating moviegoers who were underwhelmed by the film’s wooden characters and derivative storytelling (note: I am not one such moviegoer). Suddenly we were returning to Pandora a second time, and then a third, and Sigourney Weaver was telling us this was absolutely necessary for the success of the franchise, James Cameron was defending his decision to bring Stephen Lang’s character back from the dead (or something), and it was all just so overwhelming and unnecessary. In the director’s defense, some of this was timing. Cameron’s decision to turn both Avatar and Terminator into a new film series came at a time when Hollywood studios were launching entire cinematic universes based on nothing more than a hope and a prayer, and what may have seemed exuberant a decade ago now seems frustrating as hell in the year 2017.

There’s also the issue of Cameron’s mouth. Simply put, Cameron loves to talk shit about other blockbuster movies and remind audiences of his own inflated place within the industry. Just in the past few years, Cameron has criticized Star Wars: The Force Awakens for lacking ‘visual imagination’ (Variety), complained that David Fincher’s Alien3 was “a huge slap in the face to the fans” of the original two Alien films (CinemaBlend), and misguidedly described Terminator: Genisys as a “renaissance” for the franchise (Cinemablend). As if that weren’t enough, fans have also been turned off by Cameron’s humble brag habit. Cameron told the Daily Telegraph that he often sees the problems in blockbuster sequels more clearly than the filmmakers themselves. “If I had 20 minutes with the filmmaker ahead of time,” Cameron said, “I might have been able to help. But that’s just not how this business works.” Then again, Bryan Singer actively credits Cameron with fixing the ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past, so who knows? Maybe the director is just being honest.

Finally, there’s Cameron’s fascination with 3D technology. For as long as Avatar has been a box office hit, Cameron has been in the headlines, praising the technology as the next phase of cinematic evolution and – in keeping with our second point – going HAM on any filmmakers who dared to convert films to 3D in post-production. Not only has Cameron brought several of his own beloved movies back to theaters as 3D releases, he’s also been indirectly responsible for countless terrible films jumping on the technological trend, from Wrath of the Titans to Pixels to Drive Angry. After Cameron brought Titanic back into theaters with a 3D conversion in 2012, he’s decided to do the same thing next weekend with a re-release of Terminator 2. Still, Cameron’s fascination with the potential of technology only extends so far. Unlike other filmmakers who endlessly tinker with their releases, Cameron admitted to changing only one thing in each film: a star constellation in Titanic 3D that was driving renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson crazy and a troublesome windshield that broke continuity in Terminator 2. Only James Cameron could convert an entire movie to a new distribution format years after its release and still only make the smallest possible tweaks to the final film. Tremendous ego, tremendous restraint.

Does James Cameron deserve our ire? Honestly, if we were to de-canonize every filmmaker who expressed disdain for the majority of their contemporaries, we’d be left with several dozen wide releases each year directed by Ava DuVernay and little else. Given the state of the world these days, the idea of audiences distancing themselves from a director simply because he’s a little self-aggrandizing seems delightfully old-fashioned. I’ve always said that I’ll stand by Cameron until his work begins to suffer, and since I’m on record as enjoying the heck out of Avatar, I can only say that today is not that day. Save yourself some time, aspiring film critics: get on board the James Cameron revisionist-revisionist train while there’s still plenty of room at the station. You’ll be glad you did.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)