The Middlebrow

James Cameron

Will the Titanic director ever resurface?

On Friday, Jan. 28, James Cameron unveiled his latest cinematic marvel: a 3-D IMAX documentary called Aliens of the Deep. The title, which has the pleasant hum of an Ed Wood picture, will remind fans of Cameron’s gory, eye-popping spectacles: The Terminator (s), Aliens, and The Abyss. But after seeing Aliens of the Deep, fans are more likely to recall a different Cameron epic: Titanic. Like the boat, the director’s career seems headed for a watery grave.

What happened to James Cameron? He hasn’t directed a feature since he began working on Titanic 10 years ago, delving instead into utterly safe—and utterly mediocre—documentaries. Critics have mockingly compared him to Steve Zissou, the hero of The Life Aquatic, and like Zissou, Cameron seems waylaid by a severe case of filmmaker’s block. His is an unusual problem: Hollywood has polished his reputation too much. Titanic and its attendant glory lent him a Spielbergian gloss of respectability, and Cameron, a B-movie wizard who was never high on respectability, doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. He’s an auteur turned recluse—Cameron obscura.

Aliens of the Deep—the third documentary Cameron has filmed since Titanic—is an enthusiastic piece of self-aggrandizement. Cameron spends most of the film at the conn of a submarine, bathed in powder-blue light. He lovingly films exotic deep-sea creatures, then neglects to identify them, reducing them to his own bug-eyed reactions: “It’s like the ugliest fish in the world!” The movie exists to bless the director’s favorite hobbies: oceanography, submarines, and himself. “I’m James Cameron,” he barks, in his best faux-Ahab style, “and here’s the deal: I love this stuff.” It’s like watching a megalomaniac narrate his summer-vacation video.

Before making Titanic, Cameron wrote and directed with an exploitation artist’s dark heart. A native Canadian, Cameron got his start as art director and set builder for schlock god Roger Corman, then directed the horror film Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.His directorial tics are malicious, even sadistic. For instance, he always places a woman or child in peril—usually at the hands of terrorist or robot—and seems smitten with the sound of crunching human bones. David Edelstein notes that a Cameron film always includes at least one gruesome act of self-sacrifice: exposure to icy water (Titanic),molten metal (Terminator 2), or lung-crushing depths (The Abyss). Even True Lies, his otherwise goofy caper with Arnold Schwarzenegger, contains a scene of unimaginable cruelty, in which Schwarzenegger’s character tricks his wife into performing a striptease, while he watches with his face covered in shadow.

Not—I quickly add—that there’s anything wrong with that. In an age of uplifting blockbusters (i.e., Pearl Harbor), Cameron’s jaundiced eye is often bliss. You can’t imagine him making E.T., but you can’t imagine him making The Color Purple, either.

After his low-budget The Terminator (1984) earned $38.4 million, Cameron transformed himself into a tinkerer, forever fiddling with new technology. In The Abyss,he used computer effects to create gorgeous, translucent aliens; two years later, in Terminator 2, he had so perfected CGI that you gawked at the shape-shifting terminator instead of the movie’s revolting level of gore. In a recent interview, Cameron pinned his reluctance to direct on the fact his 3-D cameras are too technologically advanced for most theaters—shooting with old equipment, he said, would be like going from “a car to a bicycle.”

Titanic, released in 1997,turned Cameron into a Hollywood saint.After earning jeers from the press for its $200 million budget, the filmearned $600 million in the United States and more than $1.8 billion worldwide. Titanic was a technological marvel—Cameron’s obsession with computer-generated effects taken to glorious extreme. And as with his Terminator movies, he hatched an ingenious way to frame the story, moving swiftly from present to past and back again. The movie also contained the director’s typically ham-handed dialogue—”Rose, you’re no picnic”—and villains straight out of silent melodrama. But it didn’t matter. The accumulated weight of a record 11 Oscar statuettes made Cameron—like Forrest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis before him—seem like a high-end auteur—an important director—rather than a sci-fi magician.

Wearing his newfound decency like a yoke, Cameron can’t decide what to do next. He’ll flirt with gaudy science-fiction spectacles and then, at the last moment, back away. He has been attached, at various times, to an untitled “Mars project” and a sci-fi script of his own called Avatar. Earlier this year, he announced he had finally settled on a directorial project, a sci-fi feature called Battle Angelthat takes place in the 26th century; who knows if that will ever be made, either. In the meantime, Cameron has contemplated his own journey to the stars: Newspapers report he was first in line to buy a $200,000 ticket aboard Virgin’s new commercial spacecraft.

You can catch a glimpse of Cameron’s cosmic yearnings in Aliens of the Deep.Unsatisfied with showing undersea wonders, Cameron theorizes that ocean life might resemble as-yet-undiscovered aliens on one of the moons of Jupiter. So with the magic of CGI, he places a submarine full of real-life scientists under the frozen crust of Europa, where they encounter waterborne aliens who look like iridescent slugs. This is not the most ludicrous part. The most ludicrous part comes when the slug leader—the slug lord?—places a bifurcated tentacle on the window of the submarine. One of the human scientists reciprocates in a Kirk-to-Spock-like gesture of intergalactic brotherhood. Then the camera pans to the side, revealing that the slugs have constructed a glittering Atlantis beneath the ice. A round, bearded man at my screening was so moved that he remarked, “This is gonna kick marine biology in the ass!”

Or, with any luck, Cameron. Why should he feign interest in sea life when what he really wants to show us are queer extra-terrestrials? The most charitable reading of Aliens of the Deep is that it contains a coded message to Cameron’s devoted fans. Don’t worry, the director is saying, I’m only slumming in documentaries until everyone forgets about Titanic. Then I’ll return with more bug-eyed aliens and whirring, indestructible terminators. I’ll be back.