James Cameron and the Test of Time

James Cameron on the set of Avatar
James Cameron on the "set" of Avatar

What makes a film (or any work of art for that matter) memorable for years after it first appears? What are the films that we go back to again and again? The ones with the amazing special effects? The big stars? Or the ones with the great stories that still resonate?

James Cameron makes blockbuster hits. He didn’t necessarily set out at the beginning of his career to do so, but that’s what it has become. From Terminator to Avatar, most if not all of his films have engaged the most up to date effects and techniques and have made (and cost) substantial amounts of money. Despite lukewarm reviews (for the story at least), I expect Avatar will end up being the hit of 2009 (though even its substantial tickets sales will probably barely be enough to cover the costs).

So his movies are popular in the moment. And a few of them have continued to be popular years later. Terminator and Aliens are considered (rightly so) classics of their genre. The Abyss has a loyal following, and even True Lies is shown on television now and again (and personally I do like it).

But with the exception of the first two mentioned above, what will Cameron be remembered for? Mention Titanic, and mostly you will hear about what it cost to make and the ‘King of the World’ Oscar speech. And considering the praise for Avatar has been about its effects, will that be remembered much in the future? Better special effects always come along and the old ones are forgotten (remember the fuss over Tron or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

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I have not seen Avatar and am not sure if I will. I know if I do see it, I must see it at Imax or there is no point. This is a good thing to me; I appreciate films that embrace the medium for which they were intended. Still, if I’m going to spend that kind of money, I want more. I want a story, and a good one, because that is what we remember.

Yes, when Robert Patrick liquified his body around prison bars it was cool, but we remember a mother trying to protect her son. We remember Ripley kicking alien ass because Ripley is one of the greatest science fiction characters ever created. We remember Ed Harris pounding on his wife’s chest willing her back to life. It is these moments that we go to film for, long after the special effects have worn off.

So in decades to come will Cameron be remembered? Well, of course he will. But for what? I doubt he will care, he’s rich and his name is in the history books; for creating some of the most expensive movies of all time; For creating some gems early in his career; And for utilizing the best technology had to offer. But technology improves and the story fades. And when we all sit around the campfire, there are no special effects, just the story. That is what we remember.

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