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The Days Before ‘The Terminator’
Aside from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, it’s hard to think of a more important blockbuster director in the past half-century than James Cameron. With a filmography that encompasses only eight feature films (counting only direction credits), Cameron has managed to build something of an empire for himself, starting with ‘The Terminator’ in 1984 and reaching a climax with ‘Avatar’ in 2009. ‘The Terminator’ was, on its own, a fairly humble production, starring a famous bodybuilder who had not acted in many films at the time. It almost seems like a freak accident, how Cameron would go on to win various awards (including three Oscars) for big-budget blockbusters with groundbreaking special effects, from ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ to ‘Titanic.’
As it turns out, though, Cameron’s career started on a considerably more humble note than ‘The Terminator’; before he was a director, he was a VFX wizard — a borderline prodigy whose most notable early work consisted of practical special effects and set design. Cameron’s early projects were also not even remotely respectable genre outings — but rather pure schlock, some of it under the guidance of legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, over at New World Pictures. Join me as I take us on a bit of a journey through the morning hours of the career of one of the most important (and more eccentric) filmmakers working today.
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‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980)
James Cameron began with a short film, which like any short film by a now-famous director stands as long-forgotten: ‘Xenogenesis’, made on a budget equivalent to off-brand potato chips, and released in 1978. The short film as a whole is nothing to write home about, but the ingenious effects (considering the lack of budget) seemed to catch the eye of Roger Corman, and it didn’t take long for Corman to hire Cameron as a production assistant. In 1980, Corman produced a shameless ‘Star Wars’ ripoff, titled ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, a full-on space opera that mixes elements of ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, and ‘Seven Samurai.’ Cameron initially served a somewhat minor behind-the-scenes role, but was soon kicked upstairs to supervise much of the film’s special effects.
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Of the three films I’m covering in-depth for this article, ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ is easily the best — a consistently entertaining space-faring romp that manages to hold its own against its contemporaries, in no small part due to Cameron’s impressive effects work. The film had a budget of $2 million (expensive for Corman, but rather meager for a space adventure), but it doesn’t feel quite that cheap. The spaceships are these bulky creations that give a proper sense of scale, with blasters that go pew-pew and bwoooong in ways that sound deliciously meaty, making sure that even the sound design of the space battles is compelling. There are several alien species at play here, and while they generally follow the guy-with-rubber-forehead formula, some of their cultures and abilities are fairly unique. One of the spaceships, which inexplicably has an overt breasts-and-ovaries look to it, has to also be one of the most Freudian ship designs in the history of Cinema.
On a final note, not only did James Cameron work on ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, but the late James Horner also composed the score; this has to be one of those happy coincidences, considering Cameron and Horner would later become regular collaborators.
‘Galaxy of Terror’ (1981)
Cut to a year later, and we have ‘Galaxy of Terror’, a sci-fi/horror piece of schlock that was made on an even lower budget than ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, and is frankly not as good a movie — although, strangely, it might be more indicative of the direction James Cameron’s career would take. Once again, we have Corman as producer, but we also have an R rating (‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ was rated PG), which means more violence and a good deal of nudity added to the equation. Cameron, this time around, took on an even more prominent role in the film’s making, acting as both the production designer and the second unit director.
It would have been hard to guess at the time, but ‘Galaxy of Terror’ would serve as perhaps the biggest blueprint for two of Cameron’s directorial efforts: ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’, especially the latter. The interior sets in ‘Galaxy of Terror’, with their tight corridors and filthy-on-purpose aesthetic, are strongly reminiscent of the interiors used for the bulk of the action in ‘Aliens.’ Indeed, ‘Galaxy of Terror’ feels in part like a low-budget test run for ‘Aliens’, except that the latter movie is actually well-made on the whole. On top of the production design, this movie has more complicated (certainly slimier) aliens than those present in its predecessor; the highlight is a giant maggot-like monster that does some pretty unseemly things to a human woman, but there are other effects worthy of admiration, even if the film’s scale is evidently constrained.
Given the talent on display, a chance for Cameron to step into the director’s chair seemed almost inevitable, and he would get such a chance with his next feature — sort of.
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‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ (1982)
The year was 1982: the year of ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘The Thing’, ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ — and ‘Piranha II: The Spawning.’ ‘Piranha II’, unlike the other aforementioned films, is not a sci-fi classic; it doesn’t even show up as a blip on most schlock junkies’ radars. Incidentally, the original movie was directed by Joe Dante in 1978, at the outset of his career (also under Roger Corman’s wing), and that movie was financially successful enough to warrant a sequel; thus, we have ‘Piranha II’, an American-Italian co-production that did not even have James Cameron as director — at first. There is debate as to how much of a role Cameron played in the filmmaking process here, as there was some behind-the-scenes drama with the Italian side of production. In an interview with Kenneth Turan in 1991, Cameron said, “Technically, I have credit as the director on that film. However, I was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks by the Italian producer. He just fired me and took over, which is what he wanted to do when he hired me.”
‘Piranha II’ is a strange movie, for a few reasons; of the three films discussed here, it’s the least indicative of what Cameron would do later, despite being his directorial debut. What we get is mostly a standard creature feature (violence, boobs, you know the drill), with a few giallo trappings, including a funky soundtrack done by Stelvio Cipriani. Ovidio G. Assonitis, the Italian producer Cameron had mentioned, did in fact work as an uncredited director for the film — although Cameron by himself still got the final credit. The most Cameron-eseque element of ‘Piranha II’ has to be actor Lance Henricksen in a major role; Henricksen is probably most famous for playing Bishop, the benevolent android in ‘Aliens.’ Have I been making several ‘Aliens’ connections because it’s my favorite James Cameron movie? Probably.
Of course, now that Cameron had a directing credit under his belt, he finally had the means to start working on his real debut — and the rest was history.
James Cameron – The Apple Didn’t Fall Far from the Tree
James Cameron is one of the true pioneers of the post-CGI age, with films that broke new ground in the realm of special effects on more than one occasion. However, it’s important to remember that Cameron is also a massive nerd; of his eight features, only one can be classified as neither action nor science fiction (yes, that one exception is ‘Titanic’). ‘The Terminator’ and its sequel are glorified B-movies that add some style to well-worn sci-fi conventions, with the former even running into legal trouble with the late Harlan Ellison, notorious genre author, and (until a few years ago) A Man Too Angry To Die. ‘Avatar’, as big of a deal as it is, is also a pulpy sci-fi adventure on a distant planet, and quite possibly an unauthorized adaptation of a short story by Poul Anderson, titled Call Me Joe. I actually recommend looking into the backstories for ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Avatar’ — they’re arguably just as interesting as the movies themselves.
With that said, though, Cameron’s background in schlock is not undermine his meteoric success; if anything, I would argue that Cameron’s mixed history as a prestigious filmmaker and a student of the B-movies, only makes him a more intriguing figure. In the decade-and-change since ‘Avatar’ hit theaters and blew people’s minds, it’s easy to forget that James Cameron is a real filmmaker — an artist with a remarkably high batting average. We ought to pay our fair respects to this man, who has had such a monumental impact on the film industry, but we probably won’t be able to do that for a few more decades.
‘Avatar 2’, the first of the planned sequels to ‘Avatar’, is set for release in December 2022 — but I wouldn’t hold my breath on it.
By Brian Collins
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