JAMES CAMERON VS. TECHNOLOGY Volume 1
James Cameron burst onto the scene in 1984 with The Terminator, and two years later in 1986 he released his second feature, ALIENS (to pretty much near-unanimous praise); thus Cameron had already begun a love/hate relationship with technology. As a storyteller and a director, he was well aware of the possibilities of technology, both as a benefit and a possible danger to mankind.
Cameron is of course not the first filmmaker to discuss humanity’s love/hate relationship with technology. Indeed, it has been a theme throughout history, and new technology has always inspired both fear and awe in humanity. Consider fire, for example. It’s hardly technology, but when people first saw it, it was presumed you had to be a witch or a wizard to yield it. On the other hand, we as a race of humans also love technology. When the newest thing comes out, we respond as a collective, and in a single voice: we gotta have it! One need to look no further than the craze of the iPhone for proof.
It is this ever-present alarm and wonder of technology that has been the basis for Cameron’s cinematic oeuvre since the beginning of his career, not just in his stories, but as a means to tell his stories. When he first realized his interest in film, after reading the Syd Field book Screenplay, he became fascinated by the idea of merging art and science. He and his friends wrote a script, raised money, and rented a 35mm camera to shoot their movie. Although before they could do that, so interested in the inner workings of the camera was Cameron, he dismantled and put it back together it just to figure out how it worked.
One of the earliest anecdotes about Cameron as a filmmaker involves his work on a Roger Corman feature called Galaxy of Terror (1981) in which he had to get maggots to wriggle on cue. Cameron was the second unit director, and no one else on set could figure out how to do it. The worms were placed on a piece of meat that was supposed to be a dismembered arm, and Cameron knew that in order to get the worms to move when you wanted. All you had to do was run a small electrical current through the meat, and the worms would wiggle. He hooked the arm up to an AC power cord, and it worked. The producers were so amazed at his skills they immediately started talking with him about bigger projects.
He did so beautifully in his first feature, The Terminator, in which he explored the dangers of what can happen when you give too much power to technology, and he has used this theme in his stories over and over again. In his second feature, ALIENS, Cameron again returns to technology as a root of the story. There can be no way the Colonial Marines can get to LV-426 without the tech of the spaceship, Sulaco. There also couldn’t have been a way the story could have begun without the tech onboard the escape ship, Narcissus; and more than that, there was no way Ripley could have beat the Queen Alien without embracing the technology of the Power Loader.
With his first two movies, Cameron has set up his feelings towards technology. There are dangers to it, but it can also be used to assist with humanity. Furthermore, we know how Cameron feels about technology, and how it will either help or hurt mankind based on the movie’s title; or even simpler than that, the first letter of the movie’s title: A or T.
(Piranha II: The Spawning is of course the first feature Cameron is credited with directing. Although he calls it the best flying piranha movie ever made, he largely discounts it from his oeuvre, and so shall we.)
1984. The Terminator was released to very little, if any acclaim, on October 29, 1984. The film was at once billed as “the thinking man’s science fiction.” Its premise had a nightmarish simplicity that gave logic to the unstoppable killers so popular in the slasher genre at time (which was populated by Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, and the newly introduced Freddy Kreuger); a killer appeared out of nowhere to hunt a woman and simply would not stop until she was dead. However, there wasn’t anything supernatural about why this killer wouldn’t die. If the others were former humans given an evil and prolonged life, this was a killer that never had life; it was a machine. A Terminator. Cyberdine Systems, Model 101 to be exact, which we saw reflected in his Gargoyle sunglasses as CSM-101 on the brilliant poster with a scowling, flat-topped Schwarzenegger that fused psychotic cyberpunk with a deadly Tech-noir. A theme that would be further explored in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a novel that would also be released in 1984.
As played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, known mostly at the time for his roles as Conan the Barbarian and the documentary Pumping Iron, the role of Terminator was infused with a psychotic, manic simplicity: kill Sarah Connor. Why was Sarah Connor on the kill list? For the reason that the machines had decreed it.
According to the movie’s story and as told by Kyle Reese who played in a breathless performance by Michael Biehn, the machines started a nuclear war that would become another element Cameron would employ again and again. From the fires of that war rose the remnants of mankind, led by John Connor, Sarah’s as yet unborn son.
As the movie’s poster said, “In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of this planet devised the ultimate plan. They would reshape the Future by changing the Past. The plan required something that felt no pity. No pain. No fear. Something unstoppable. They created THE TERMINATOR”
In the mid 1980s, nuclear war was still a very real and palpable fear. To this day, the terror still exists, but it is much more so in the distance as to be an almost existential fearfulness, and nothing like it was towards the end of the Cold War. Cameron capitalized on this in his storytelling and then posited the only thing that could possibly be worse than a nuclear war: machines rising up from the fires of the war in an all out attempt to snuff out humanity, and he gave those machines the capability to be virtually unidentifiable. In the ’50s, there was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a McCarthy’s era Red Scare allegory that suggested our closest neighbors could be Communists; but The Terminator modernized that fear and updated it with the very thing that was even scarier than our neighbor, for this terror was already slowly beginning to make its way into all of our homes: the personal computer, and with it, the microchip.
In Cameron’s eyes, we were inviting this fear into our very own homes, and if we were not careful, it was this same technology that would one day try to wipe us all out.
Made on a budget of $6.4 million The Terminator did well enough at the box office, but it was on home video (a new technology at the time) where the movie really found its success. As a result, a sequel was made seven years later (I discuss this film further in the article).
There are many movies Cameron made before this film, and arguably the movie that most defines his issues with technology and humanity came right before this one. However, I want to take a nonlinear approach to his movies and jump right into this one. Also, there is another side to his combination of science and art that is only hinted at in other movies but is more fully defined here.
Fifteen years later, Cameron took a more personal look at the dangers of technology, scaling it down from the destruction of the world to the destruction of the home. In a successful attempt at merging action and comedy, he showed us how the misuse of technology can doom a marriage.
1994. Based on the French comedy La Totale! (The Total), True Lies feels downright lighthearted after T2. There are no machines with the ultimate goal of wiping out humanity, there isn’t murdered foster parents or a mother in a mental institution, or even a substitute father figure who ultimately commits suicide.
True Lies instead follows the exploits of Harry Tasker, a top agent for the ultra top secret agency called The Omega Sector (The Last Line of Defense), who is partnered with an agent played by Tom Arnold (whose angry comedy, though a tad misogynistic, is responsible for most of the lightheartedness of the movie). Harry is married, and he keeps his secret agent status a secret from his wife. Bored with her life with him, Harry’s wife, Helen, begins an affair with a man named Simon (hilariously played by Bill Paxton). Harry finds out about the affair. He is crushed, and immediately forgets about his priorities as a secret agent and pours his spy resources into watching his wife.
True Lies never approaches the gravitas of The Terminator, nor does it quite deliver the pulse-pounding, nerve-racking action of the same movie. True Lies is not without its merits. Let it never be said James Cameron can’t do comedy.
(Arnold coined this phrase WAY before The Donald.)
The reason this movie is not quite remembered as a comedy, and one reason that True Lies feels like such a minor entry in Cameron’s filmography is the lack of three-dimensional and meaningful bad guys. They are terrorists from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Though Middle Easterners can make easy fodder for bad guys, however, without giving them specific backstories, it can come across as racist and pandering. I have no doubt Cameron did not intend for any of that, but despite this, it is one of the reasons why this movie is perhaps the weakest entry in Cameron’s cinematic composition.
Another reason is for the less than mild misogyny running through the story.
This is not to say anything of the extremely creepy way Harry used his wife, Helen, as a pawn in a game to bring them closer, and I don’t mean the striptease scene, but the very uncomfortable interrogation scene; where Harry and Gil again misuse their spy technology to distort their voices and keep Helen completely off guard.
Aside from that, though, in keeping with his theme about technology being bad in movies that start with T, and good in movies that start with A, Cameron warns us about the misuse of technology in this one. In this case, Harry uses the technology of The Omega Sector to keep tabs on his wife, a definite no-no.
It is safe to say, at this time, Cameron was ruminating upon a sequel to The Terminator, but he didn’t just want to repeat the story. He wanted to give us something more, and he wanted to give himself a challenge. He had an idea, but he wasn’t sure it would work, and he is practical enough to know he couldn’t just ask the studio to give him money to see if his idea would work. He knew he had to test it, and he did so in 1989; putting his experiment in the middle of the movie so that if it didn’t work, the sequence could be excised from the movie without affecting the story. But if it did…
1989. Inspired in part by an 1897 H.G. Wells’ story about alien life in the deep sea called In the Abyss, The Abyss began life as a short story Cameron wrote in high school. The other part of the inspiration came when Cameron attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by a man, Francis J. Falejczyk, who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs in experiments conducted by Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra. Attracted again to a new technology, and to the idea of aliens living underwater, Cameron set his story on the edge of the Cayman Trench; which is situated in the Western Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and at its deepest points, extends 25,217 feet into the earth.
Cameron’s story concerns a crew of deep-sea oil drillers aboard a submerged oil rig who are pressed into service by the U.S. Navy, and along with a small group of Navy SEALs, set out onto the edge the abyss to recover the nuclear codes on board a nuclear submarine that had sunk in the movie’s opening sequence. While searching through the sub, the blue-collar oil riggers and the SEALs encounter a form of alien life (called NTI’s in the movie for Non Terrestrial Intelligence). Without going into too much detail, the oil riggers are fascinated by this alien life, while the SEALs are terrified of it. They arm the warheads aboard the sub, and knowing it will wipe them out along with the underwater alien life forms, one of the oil riggers, Bud, chooses to take a trip into the abyss to disarm the warhead in order to save the rest of his crew and the NTI’s. It is a deeper dive than any human will have ever gone on before, and in order to reach that depth, Bud will have to breathe oxygenated fluid through his lungs. The NTI’s find him, rescue him, and make their appearance known to the world. Though the movie seems off, it still has a message: the NTI’s are stronger and mightier than the military, and now it’s time for the nations of the world to quit bickering like kids and learn to get along.
In the extended version (which was not the version released in 1989, but rather a version that found its way to home video in the early ’90s), amid the story of the oil riggers and the SEALS. There is growing tension between the Russians (who play a minimal part in the theatrical release) and the U.S., and as the story unfolds, the tensions mount and World War III seems imminent. That’s when the NTI’s unleash the tidal waves they have created, which drives home their message even more so.
As Bud sits on a small ledge in the abyss, out of air and out of fluid to breathe (knowing he will die), he is again visited by the NTI’s, and they are awed by his sacrifice. As it turns out, the NTI’s are harboring a technology of their own.
It was in this sequence that was designed to be cut from the movie, if the effects did not work, that the NTI’s, whose technology involves controlling water, visit the deep-sea oil rig to check out the humans; who have since been stranded underwater.
Yet, that’s not all the NTI’s can do with their technology. As Bud made his descent into the abyss, the NTI’s created massive tidal waves that appeared on every coastline of every major continent. With the earth on the brink of destruction at the hands of the NTI’s, they held the tidal waves in check. After rescuing Bud, and after seeing what one man was willing to do (with the help of the technology of the underwater breathing fluid in order to save the lives of the ones he loves and to ensure a small amount of peace for even just a moment longer), the NTI’s called off the tidal waves. Now, their message, which was slightly muddled in the theatrical release, is crystal clear: it’s time for all of you to learn to get along.
In this movie, unlike The Terminator and True Lies, the technology is a tool that can be harnessed and used as a benefit to mankind.
When it came to the technology behind the scenes of The Abyss, Cameron called what he had created in the scene he had designed to be lifted from the movie,“ the water tentacle.” Though it drove home the technology of the NTI’s, the water tentacle’s used in this movie was just a test; an experiment. Cameron was really laying the groundwork for his next movie; another movie that starts with the letter T; and another movie that would explore the dangers of technology when it was not kept in check by its creators. It was a movie that would show us how the machines might be mankind’s redemption if mankind doesn’t learn from its mistakes.
1991. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. After seven years of clamoring for a sequel, James Cameron and Arnold Scwarzenegger finally delivered.
However, Cameron wasn’t content to just repeat the story he had told already. He was going to up the ante both in special effects and emotional content. Though it was originally going to be a surprise in the movie, the “good guy” status of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator ultimately ended up being a major part of the marketing of T2; as it came to be known. Also, the bad guy was going to be the most audacious special effect of them all.
The water tentacle had served as a test for the liquid metal Terminator, called the T-1000. Had the water tentacle test failed, audiences might still be waiting for Terminator 2, but it worked! Now, there was nothing holding back Cameron’s imagination. His goal to blend art and science was at least truly coming to fruition.
Of course special effects are nothing without a good story to make them interesting, and Cameron infused with this story a boy in search of a role model, and a woman, who with a chip on her shoulder and a score to settle, who wanted to prove that she wasn’t crazy, or wasn’t delusional. There was a war on the way, and she was the only one who knew. More than that, she was the only one who could stop it.
It was Scharzenegger’s Terminator who would help them both.
As the story progressed, we saw Sarah’s son, John, bonding with the Terminator; opening up to him, and, to our surprise, we saw the Terminator bonding with John, too.
It was the Terminator who found humanity, and it was the once soft and wide-eyed Sarah Connor who had hardened, and in effect become a Terminator herself.
Finally, only through the love of her son was Sarah’s Terminator put to rest and her humanity found again.
Cameron didn’t stop there. He expanded upon the mythology of Terminators, Cyberdine, and Skynet. Whereas before we knew there had been a nuclear holocaust, now we were given the details of that nuclear fire called Judgment Day, and we knew when it happened August 29,1997.
As he’d warned us in The Terminator: giving the machines and technology the ability to think for us would be humanity’s fatal mistake, and just as he said in the clip above, Terminator laid it out for us in unspecific terms. “The system goes online August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”
In Cameron’s Terminator Universe, 25 days is the amount of time given to humanity once they let the machines make the decisions about strategic defense, but Cameron isn’t so grim as to leave us without any hope at the end of the movie. In a bold and stunning masterstroke, it is the Terminator who allows himself to be lowered into the molten steel in exchange that humanity is given a chance to survive. It is that hope that ends with the movie, with the now ever pessimistic Sarah Connor facing a future with a sense of hope because the Terminator had learned the value of human life.
In part two of this article, I will discuss a franchise into which James Cameron breathed new life and cemented its place in popular culture. I also converse on what may go down as his biggest movie that happens to be the ultimate parable of humanity vs. technology.