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The Abyss (1989)


About two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water. While science has pretty well figured out what lives on all the landmasses, the depths of the ocean remain a mystery. So far we’ve only caught glimpses of the strange, nearly-alien lifeforms that can withstand the crushing pressure in the deepest portions of the ocean, and its unlikely that were can ever know everything about the sea. We can only hope that whatever’s down there is friendly.

The Abyss is a science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Beihn, and some really neat CGI effects created the hard way. Because it’s a James Cameron film, that’s why.

It is the height of the Cold War. When the U.S.S. Montana sinks near the Cayman Trench after an encounter with something unknown, the Soviets waste no time in sending ships and subs to recover the submarine and its warhead. With a hurricaine moving in, the Americans decide that the quickest way to get to the sub before the Soviets do is to insert a team of Navy SEALs into a privately-owned experimental underwater oil platform called the Deep Core and use that as a base of operations. Lindsay Brigman, the designer of the platform, insists on going along, even though she knows that her estranged husband, Bud Brigman, is serving as the platform’s foreman. Things get complicated when the salvage team tries to determine the cause of the Montana‘s failure, and spot strange, apparently intelligent creatures down there with them. The situation goes from bad to worse when the hurricaine hits above them and they are unable to untether themselves from the Benthic Explorer before its crane breaks off in the storm, nearly pulling the Core into the Trench. Now trapped far underwater, they must decide the best method of recovering and disarming the Montana‘s nuclear missile, while all the time something unknown and inhuman is watching them…

James Cameron does not make small movies. Even when he has a small budget, he makes big movies. For The Abyss, he had a big vision that, unfortunately, outstripped the capabilities of special effects at the time. As a result, almost a half hour of footage was cut out of the theatrical release until Cameron was able to find a way to make it look good. Fortunately, I had the privilege of watching the Special Edition (sometimes erroneously called the Director’s Cut, even though Cameron did the original surgery himself), and it definitely fills in a few of the holes leftover in the theatrical release, like why are the water beings there and what the hell happened to the hurricaine at the end. The underwater setting is spooky and haunting, reminding us how little we know about this particular biome, and the interior shots are claustrophobic in a way that reminds me of the original Alien, and for similar reasons: there is nowhere to run. There is no escape. In this case, though, the main internal threat comes in the form of a Navy SEAL suffering High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, one of many true-life phenomena that Cameron included to give the story a nice ring of verisimilitude.

The plot was slow to develop, but engaging all the same. While the first third seemed like it was just going to be a deep sea drama, giving the audience time to meet the characters and learn about the setting and its hazards offered a chance to identify with the cast before weird stuff starts happening. As such, I had a chance to sympathize and care about these people, and I was definitely rooting for Bud during his moment of truth in the Trench. Some people criticized the Brigman estrangement subplot, pointing out the possibility that it had been inspired by Cameron’s own pending divorce, but I felt it added a layer of human drama to it, setting up a believeable reconciliation at the end. The alien beings were alien enough that they were definitely outside the realm of People in Suits, and the fact that all their technology was water-based offered a glimpse of the true possibilities of intelligent alien life. Interesting note: At the time this movie was made, CGI technology didn’t exist to create effects that shared a scene and interacted with human actors, so for example with the water tentacle Cameron made live-action models of the tentacle, and filmed the set from every angle so it could be digitally recreated with the water tentacle in place. In the end, ILM spent six months to create 75 seconds of really awesome looking footage.

If you’re in the mood for a sci fi drama with just as much drama as sci fi, check out The Abyss. It doesn’t get overwhelmed by the special effects, and in the end the human plot is every bit as crucial to the story as the alien plot. James Cameron wins again.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


With every successful movie, there is a good chance that the studios will want to repeat their success. Occasionally, this may result in an unrelated film being repurposed as a sequel, but more often the same people will simply make a sequel. As sequels go, there are three basic types:

  1. Sucky sequel: This sequel falls short (often far short) of its predecessor’s level of quality, and comes off as an obvious, half-assed money grab.
  2. Equivalent sequel: The sequel does not fall short of its predecessor’s level of quality, but neither does it improve on things.
  3. Improved sequel: A rarity, the improved sequel not only meets but also exceeds the quality of its predecessor, taking the concept in new directions that still fit with the established storyline.

In a pleasant surprise, this film finds itself in the third category. And it kicks all kinds of ass.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a science fiction action film directed by James Cameron, and is the first sequel to The Terminator. It stars Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, and some really cool CGI effects.

It has been eleven years since Sarah Connor was last menaced by the (nearly) unstoppable Terminator. John Connor, the future savior of humanity, is now a troubled youth of ten, living with foster parents in Los Angeles after his mother was arrested for trying to bomb a computer factory and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even though he spent his entire childhood being prepared for the impending apocalypse, John isn’t sure what to believe now. Little does he know that in the future, Skynet is going to make another temporally-assisted attempt on his life, this time with the T-1000, a newer and more dangerous model of Terminator composed of liquid metal, with the ability to mimic anything it touches, including people. Fortunately, the human resistance is able to send back yet another guardian, this time a familiar face – a T-800 identical to the one who previously tried to kill Sarah, but reprogrammed to defend John. The two converge on John in a desperate race, and their mutual target is about to learn that his mother’s crazy rantings are anything but delusional…

When I first saw this movie, I hadn’t seen the original in years, but I heard all the hype about the groundbreaking computer generated effects – only two years since The Abyss, in which Cameron also used groundbreaking CG effects, except the hard way. It was amazing to see the advances in CG since then, even though in the fifteen minutes or so of transformation time the T-1000 had, only a relative handful used CGI. And it looked amazing. As the first movie which had a major character be partially (and in a couple scenes completely) created in CGI, the results were impressive and eye-popping. Even though morphing effects had been in use since Willow, and CG-created characters were as old as Young Sherlock Holmes, this time through it looked amazing. Arnie, of course, gets enhanced with old-school makeup effects and animatronics, and the two types of effects mesh well.

The acting was also superb. Linda Hamilton, having previously played Sarah as a meek little mouse of a woman being menaced by things that technically hadn’t happened yet, buffed up to play Sarah Connors, Mother of the Human Resistance, and I could easily believe that she was a little unhinged, albeit with a very good reason – she’d been beaten over the head with a really bad future, she was having nightmares about the impending nuclear apocalypse, and she’d been told that her son was the only thing standing between humanity and its own annihilation. The movie does make it clear that even though John loves his mom, her behavior does not make her a good mother. If anything, it makes her borderline psychotic, to the point that she nearly tips over the edge into the same territory as the focused, emotionless killers whose creation she was trying to prevent. The opens the door for a surprisingly philosophical discussion about humanity, as the inhuman T-800 turns out to be a more dedicated parental figure to John than even Sarah was. Robert Patrick makes an effective rival Terminator as well, sleeker and faster than the T-800, in effect a leopard compared to Arnold’s grizzly bear. Also, sharp-eyed fans of the first will recognize Earl Boen reprising his role as Dr. Silberman, the police psychiatrist in the original, now responsible for Sarah’s care in this one (and about as effective), though of course he gets belted across the face with the truth in a very satisfying sequence at the psychiatric hospital.

It is very rare to find a sequel that improves so drastically upon the first, but it is not surprising to find that James Cameron managed to pull it off. If you enjoyed the first but felt it needed something more, watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and then just sit back and enjoy the action.

Aliens (1986)


It has been decades since Ripley last tangled with the ultimate killing machine. She never wanted to go back to LV-426, but in the time that she was in cryosleep, somebody had a great idea: establish a colony there and terraform the dead planet to make it habitable for human life.

No, wait. That’s not a great idea. That’s a bad idea.

So now Ripley has to go back to the place of her nightmares, just because Weyland-Yutani decided to be an idiot…

Aliens is a science fiction action movie and the first sequel to Alien. It was written and directed by James Cameron, and stars Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, and Bill Paxton, plus the creature effects of Stan Winston.

When Ellen Ripley, sole survivor of the massacre and subsequent destruction of the Nostromo is rescued and revived from hypersleep, she discovers that 57 years have passed since her harrowing ordeal. Called to task for the Nostromo‘s destruction by a panel of Weyland-Yutani executives, her account of a hostile alien life form accidentally picked up on LV-426 is met with skepticism, because she blew the thing out an airlock to save herself rather than capturing the specimen for study, and because, to her horror, there has been a terraforming colony living there for the past 20 years, and they haven’t griped about any hostile wildlife. Her judgment is called into question, and she loses her piloting license. Not long after, W-Y loses contact with the terraforming colony (surprise!), and she is called in as a consultant on how to handle these monsters that don’t exist, but which haunt her nightmares every night. Reluctantly she agrees to go, hoping that facing her fears with help her get a good night’s sleep, and she is sent with a squadron of Space Marines aboard the Sulaco to check out the conspicuous absence of communications. The Marines are confident that they will be able to handle whatever is wrong, because they’re Space Marines, dammit, but Ripley has seen one of these things plow through six of her seven-man crew on the Nostromo, and has her doubts, made worse by the inclusion of android artificial person Bishop, who fortunately is a newer model that is Three Laws compliant. When they arrive, they find the colony almost completely abandoned save for a traumatized young girl named Rebecca Newt, who saw her entire family slaughtered by the things. Hilarity ensues when xenomorphs attack, wiping out most of the Space Marines and taking out the dropship that would have taken the survivors out of there. Now Ripley and the others will have to draw upon all available resources and their own ingenuity to survive…

I was impressed when I saw this movie for the first time. Building on the plotline established by Alien, this is a sequel that doesn’t feel like a sequel so much as a natural extension of the first – something that is apparently really hard to do, to judge by 95% of the sequels I’ve seen. Ripley is actually realistically affected by the horrors of the first movie, suffering from nightmares and flashbacks consistent with PTSD, and who could blame her? Then W-Y throws her under the bus regarding her actions aboard the Nostromo (kind of a dick move on their part, but a logical reaction to an apparently unbelieveable story), only to make it clear later that, yeah, we knew about them the whole time, and we didn’t want you jeopardizing access to possibly the coolest living weapon of our generation. Even here their motives make sense in a dystopic sort of way.

The acting here is also very well-done. Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as Ripley, demonstrated that Alien wasn’t just a fluke (as she has continued to prove in the decades since), and Paul Reiser is affably slimy as Carter Burke, the guy who manages to wrangle Ripley back to LV-426 with the promise that W-Y will do everything he can to ensure the Xenomorph colony is destroyed (*cough*liar*cough*). And if creature effects can be considered actors, then Stan Winston’s Alien Queen rig, the most detailed single monster he had ever built to date, is still one of the most impressive animatronic puppets I have ever seen, alongside, er… much of Winston’s other work. The establishment of a hive society with a central breeding Queen takes its cue from the social insects of Earth, but ups the ante from fighting a single individual to outmaneuvering hundreds of Xenos, all coordinated with a single, thoroughly badass matriarch.

If you enjoyed the original Alien, I highly recommend Aliens. While it’s more action than horror, it’s a satisfying continuation of Ripley’s story, and capably expands on the cold insectile ways of the Xenomorphs to make them seem more like an organic species, intelligent, deadly, and brutally efficient. Every sci fi fan should have this in their collection.

Titanic (1997)


He was a boy, and she was a girl.
Can it be any more obvious?
He’s lower class, she’s upper crust–
What more can I say?
He wanted her, she’d never tell
Coz she was betrothed to somebody else
And all of her friends stuck up their nose;
They had a problem with his ratty clothes.

Titanic is sweeping, epic romantic disaster movie written, co-produced, and co-edited by the god of epic movies, James Cameron. It features a soundtrack by James Horner and stars Leonardo “Inception” DiCaprio, Kate “Quills” Winslet, Billy “The Phantom” Zane, Kathy “Misery” Bates, Frances “Unforgiven” Fisher, Gloria “The Invisible Man” Stuart, Bernard “True Crime” Hill, Victor “Legally Blonde” Garber, Danny “Crimson Tide” Nucci, and Bill “Twister” Paxton.

In 1996, a treasure hunter named Brock Lovett (Paxton) and his team search the wreckage of the RMS Titanic for a necklace set with a large blue diamond called The Heart of the Ocean, last known to be in the possession of one Cal Hockley (Zane). Instead of the necklace, in Hockley’s safe they find a nude sketch of a young woman wearing the necklace, dated the night of the Titanic‘s sinking. An elderly woman named Rose Dawson Calvert (Stuart) learns of the drawing and contacts Lovett, telling him that she is the young woman in the drawing. She and her granddaughter visit Lovett’s team on their salvage vessel, revealing that she is actually Rose Dewitt Bukater, a passenger believed to have perished, and tells them the story of her experience aboard the Titanic.

In 1912, Rose (Winslet) boards the Titanic with her abusive boyfriend fiance Cal, the son of a wealthy steel tycoon, and her mother Ruth (Fisher), who plans to use Rose’s marriage to solve their family’s financial problems. Too bad Cal is a dick – so Rose plans to commit suicide by jumping off the stern of the ship, only to be rescued and dissuaded by Jack Dawson, a drifter and artist who won tickets for his voyage on the Titanic in a card game. Ruth and Cal forbid her to see Jack, considering him a bad influence, but she vastly prefers Jack to Cal, and the two enter into a whirlwind romance, two star-crossed lovers fated never to be together, while they evade the violently jealous Cal, with whom Rose wordlessly breaks her engagement by leaving in Cal’s safe Jack’s nude sketch of her wearing the Heart of the Ocean, intended as Cal’s engagement gift to her.

And somewhere along the way a ship sinks or something. I wasn’t paying attention.

I found Cameron’s recreation of the ill-fated Titanic to be absolutely breathtaking, rendered down to the tiniest detail like the patterns on the china. Something like this simply couldn’t be done believeably with models alone, and the CGI blends almost seamlessly with the live action shots in most scenes. Admittedly, in a few shots (like the iceberg strike) you could tell that certain things were fake, but they are quickly swept over by how completely amazing everything looked. I read that he’d researched the hell out of the Titanic for this movie, and it definitely shows. The costumes are beautiful, and the scenery shots are made even more beautiful for the fact that you know they’re all going to be trashed and flooded by the end.

To my surprise, the love story between Jack and Rose doesn’t seem shoehorned in; rather, the Titanic is a symbolic backdrop for the ultimate fate of their relationship. Both events carried the hope of a long and happy future, and both were doomed to utter failure. I did find the car sex to be a bit awkward, though; I mean, it’s only 1912, and people are already having sex in cars? I was very tastefully done, though, and more a factor of Rose trying to break away from her accepted role in society than Cameron going, “We need a sex scene here, viewers love boobs!” In fact, the only nudity was during the sketch scene, and elderly Rose was cheeky enough to point out that the salvagers were all thinking that OMG ROMANTIC ART SCENE would naturally turn to OMG SEX SCENE.

Even considering the retelling of a famous historical event, this movie had me engaged the whole way, to the point that I was genuinely in tears at the sight of all the floating bodies of those who had drowned or frozen to death in the wake of the sinking. I was expecting a straight-up disaster movie, but Cameron had taken it and made it into so much more. If you want a heartbreaking love story and/or a disaster movie that genuinely feels tragic, try Titanic.

Avatar (2009)


Great things happen when James Cameron makes a movie these days. Sometimes it’s spectacular, frequently it’s philosophical, and occasionally there is a fresh, deep, multilayered plot with excellent writing and interweaving plotlines. Often new filmmaking techniques must be devised to convey his sweeping vision. Did Cameron succeed with Avatar? Having had good experience with his movies in the past and having heard all the hype surround his latest Biggest Movie Ever, naturally I wanted to know.

Avatar is an epic science fiction film directed by (who else) James Cameron. It stars Sam “Remake of the Titans” Worthington, Zoe “Vantage Point” Saldana, Stephen “Project X” Lang, Michelle “Resident Evil” Rodriguez, Joel David “Grandma’s Boy” Moore, Giovanni “Gone in 60 Seconds” Ribisi, and Sigourney “Get away from her, you bitch!” Weaver.

In the year 2154, the RDA corporation is mining a mineral called unobtanium on a lush, jungle-like moon called Endor Pandora, a planet where absolutely everything is deadly to humans, but not to the Na’vi, a race of Native American cat girls nine foot tall sapient humanoids, who live in harmony with nature and follow a mother goddess they call Eywa. To interface with the Na’vi and learn about Pandora, the researchers use genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called Avatars, controlled from afar via mental link by genetically compatible operators. Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine from Earth, is recruited to replace his dead twin brother, a scientist for whom the body was originally created, but who was murdered during a robbery. Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), the head of the Avatar program, doesn’t think Sully is sufficiently prepared for intergalatic diplomacy, but when he is separated from the group to whom he was assigned as a body guard, attacked by native predators, and rescued by a Na’vi named Neytiri, he is brought to a local village, as signs portend Great Things for him. The Na’vi teach him the native ways, and Colonel Badass Miles Quaritch, who to judge by his facial scars has already had a less than diplomatic encounter with the Na’vi, promises to help Sully walk again if he gathers intel on the Na’vi, but plans to get his Unobtanium by any means possible. But then the plot gets lost in the goddamn beautiful scenery.

This movie is really frapping gorgeous. The lush jungle scenes are filled with plantlife that you would expect to find on an alien planet, but with enough parallels with Earth flora that you almost recognize many of them. Some of the glowing blue ferns look like something from the bottom of the ocean, and the trees are huge, organic, old-growth behemoths that look like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. The wildlife is vicious but plausible, with claws and spikes and armor that have a purpose other than for sheer scary factor, and the Na’vi are believeable as a native race, with their own ways and customs, and a unique appearance that automatically precludes the “dude in a suit” limitations that less ambitious directors might try. 95% of Pandora is completely CGI, and Cameron worked with a small army of designers, artists, costumers, linguists, botanists, anthropologists, and CGI creators to bring this alien world to life. Which would be great if this were a pure mockumentary of Pandora, and we had time to explore without worrying about any plot-based reasons for being there. Unfortunately, the plot that we are given is fairly thin and derivative, and easily gets lost in the beauty of this created world.

When I saw Avatar in theaters, my main impression was, God, that was pretty. And… that was pretty much it. While the visuals were impressive, like I’d come to expect from Cameron, the actual story was kind of disappointing. It was like, okay, there’s this alien world with this really awesome stuff on it that humans want (and I have a hard time taking Unobtanium seriously as a scientific name since they used it with a straight face in The Core), but OMG LOOK AT THE PRETTY PLANET AND THE AWESOME HALF-NAKED CATGIRLS and wait, we need an actual story? Meh, just retell Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves, nobody will notice.

So, if you’re looking for impressive visuals and an overall very shiny movie, see Avatar. On the other hand, if you want a unique, well-developed story that doesn’t ride exclusively on visuals, give this one a miss.

The Terminator (1984)


“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

In 1984, the idea of the implacable, unstoppable killer was not new. Halloween did it in 1978, and Friday the 13th did it in 1980. Then James Cameron had himself a nightmare about an implacable, unstoppable, cyborg killer from the future, and a franchise was born.

The Terminator is the first movie in that franchise, which Cameron directed, as well as co-wrote with William Fisher, Jr. It stars Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger, Linda “not an action girl yet” Hamilton, Lance “Aliens” Henriksen, and Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn. It is worth noting that O. J. Simpson was considered for the role of the terminator, but Cameron didn’t think he would be believable as a cold-hearted murderer.

In 2029, intelligent machines seek to exterminate what remains of the human race. Standing in their way is John Connor, a freedom fighter who has united humanity against them. With the Resistance on the verge of victory, the machines send back a cybernetic T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to hunt down and kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Hamilton) before he is even conceived, thereby accomplishing a retroactive abortion. The humans, however, send back an agent of their own, a soldier named Reese (Biehn) to defend Sarah from the terminator. Sarah, meanwhile, is a mere waitress at a diner, and has no idea yet what’s going on. However, there are three Sarah Connors listed in the local phone book, and the two time travelers race to find the correct one first, in order to either kill or protect her.

This is one of my favorite sci fi movies. James Cameron’s twist on the Implacable Killer theme works on so many chilling levels, even with the tiny budget he had. The “post apocalyptic future” scenes were plausible, considering that they were accomplished with scale models, forced perspectives, and matte blocking, and Stan Winston’s stop-motion endoskeleton, though slightly dated, is thoroughly calculating and looks like it really wants to eat your face. The facial surgery sequence doesn’t look quite as real at is might have, but I heard they scaled back the realism to keep it from being too disturbing. Seriously, the Terminator just sliced out his eye with an Exacto knife – how is that not supposed to be disturbing?! Stan Winston was and still is an FX genius.

And of course, rather than riding completely on special effects, this movie (like so many 80s sci fi films) relies on its acting to carry the terror of the concept. Biehn, as usual, plays an intense military type desperate to convey the gravity of the situation to his terrified charge in a limited period of time, and Hamilton is plausible as the unsuspecting civilian caught between faction in a war that hasn’t even happened yet. And… Arnold. Arnold, you terrifying, machinelike bastard. Where would this franchise be without you? (Probably trying to do the same thing with another bodybuilder, with less impressive results, but I digress…) He has maybe 18 lines in the whole film, but he makes it work, even with his heavy accent, almost like they were still ironing the kinks out of the vocal synthesizer. Although, if you’re acting like an emtoionless machine, is it still really acting?

In all, if you want to see a thrilling, suspenseful sci fi action flick, if you want to see where the whole Terminator franchise started, or even if you just want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger clad only in shadows for about a minute and a half, rent this movie. You will not fail to be impressed.