The top-tiered action director of his generation, as well as one of the most allegedly demanding and precise, James Cameron reshaped 1980s and '90s Hollywood with a string of lucrative multimillion-dollar films remarkable for their marriage of technical wizardry and human sentiment.
The son of an electrical engineer, Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada, on August 16, 1954. He was fascinated with movies from a young age and would later cite Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as an early influence. Thanks to his father's job, Cameron and his family moved to southern California in 1971, and the director studied physics at California State University. Following his graduation, Cameron, who had already decided he wanted to pursue a film career, took a job as a truck driver to support his early screenwriting efforts.
Cameron received his first break at the hands of the legendary Roger Corman, who hired him as a model maker at his Roger Corman Studios. There, the director worked on his first movie, as art director for 1980s Battle Beyond the Stars. Thanks to a combination of skill and dedication, Cameron quickly ascended through the ranks, and the following year, was appointed second unit director and production designer for the schlock-fest Galaxy of Terror. The same year, he made his inauspicious directorial and screenwriting debut with Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), a natural horror picture about a government-engineered breed of mutated flying fish that descend on a Caribbean resort. Piranha II: The Spawning was delayed for two years and ultimately took its stateside bow in late December 1983.
Next, the professional relationship between Cameron and Hollywood mega-producer Gale Anne Hurd yielded one of the top grossers of 1984, which Hurd and Cameron co-scripted, Cameron directed, and Hurd produced. Something of an unofficial, moderately budgeted Americanization of George Miller's Mad Max series, The Terminator opens in the year 2024, when the ongoing battles between humankind and "The Machines" have sparked a nuclear holocaust and reduced much of contemporary civilization to dust. When humankind ultimately wins out, however, The Machines send a seemingly unstoppable warrior (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to 1984 with a mission to kill the infant who would grow up into the man ultimately responsible for their destruction, which sends his mother (Linda Hamilton) and her futuristic warrior-protector (Michael Biehn) on the lam. When it premiered in October 1984, The Terminator earned sensational reviews and became an instant runaway smash.
That same year, Cameron scripted Rambo: First Blood Part II (released 1985) for director George Pan Cosmatos, then signed to direct Aliens (1986), the sequel to the 1979 Ridley Scott sci-fi opus Alien. In retrospect, the connection between Cameron and the Alien franchise hardly seems capricious given Cameron's predilection for tough-as-steel heroines as his main characters, typified by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.
In the late '80s, Cameron began to envision and plan another mega-budgeted opus, this one about an oil rig crew's dangerous attempt to rescue the team on a sunken nuclear submarine. Released in August 1989, The Abyss performed disappointingly at the American box office, despite strong performances from all involved.
In 1990, Cameron rebounded from the disappointment of The Abyss by writing, producing, and directing Terminator 2: Judgement Day and enjoying the massive acclaim that it generated. The movie made an asteroid-sized splash at the box office and Cameron drew high praise for its revolutionary special effects and use of CG imagery. The director then inked one of the most infamous and lucrative studio deals in recent history, a five-picture contract signed with Fox in 1992. Cameron's next directorial effort, 1994's action comedy True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold, cost over $100 million; it also reeled in a massive take.
After a producing and screenwriting stint on the 1995 dystopian saga Strange Days Cameron shifted course and revisited the historical inspiration for many of the underwater sequences in The Abyss: that of the 1912 USS Titanic disaster. Titanic was troubled from the beginning on many fronts; by a budget of astronomical proportions, by on-set injuries and mishaps, and by the difficulty of filming the actual Titanic wreck on the ocean floor. Yet it reeled in Titanic-sized profits (over $600 million in the U.S. alone). The film would receive a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, eventually winning 11, and pulled in well over $1 billion at the international box office. Upon receiving the film's Best Picture Oscar and after winning Best Director earlier in the evening, Cameron exulted "I'm the king of the world!" -- a line exclaimed by Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson in the film itself.
After Titanic, Cameron temporarily retired from the production of big-screen fictional narratives, and segued into other areas of filmed entertainment, most immediately the Fox network's highly touted action series Dark Angel (2000-2002). Though hopes swung high for Dark Angel, the series was canceled after only two seasons.
After producing the 2002 Steven Soderbergh-directed remake Solaris (the original having been directed by Tarkovsky), Cameron segued into several underwater-themed documentaries, notably an official follow-up to Titanic called Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). In that effort, Cameron and friend Bill Paxton (who co-starred in the Titanic movie) take 3D cameras underwater to locate and film the "final resting place" of the infamous, ill-fated 1912 vessel, from the inside and out. The IMAX picture received generally (if not unanimously) enthusiastic reviews when it premiered in spring 2003. For Cameron's follow-up documentary, the 2005 Aliens of the Deep, the director pursued far more ambitious concepts, and (perhaps as a result) reactions waxed far more favorably. In that picture, Cameron used advanced CG imaging, a team of NASA researchers, and concepts from astrobiology to "imagine" what creatures on neighboring planets might look like. Hailed by critics, Aliens of the Deep caught fire with the public when it premiered in January 2005.
Cameron then decided to return to feature filmmaking for the first occasion in over 10 years, with 2009's mega-budgeted sci-fi opus Avatar. The original story of the picture, as authored by Cameron in the late '80s, tells of a paraplegic military veteran (Sam Worthington) who undertakes a colossal interstellar journey and settles on an alien planet. The finished product was widely considered to be a technological state-of-the-art spectacle, and proceeded to shatter box-office records around the world. Cameron was nominated for best director by the Director's Guild and the Academy, and won that trophy at that year's Golden Globes ceremony. In the period that immediately followed, speculation swirled around the question of what Cameron would do next. The trades announced not one but two Avatar sequels slated for production and release - Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 - each with Cameron directing.
In 2012 he appeared in the documentary Side By Side, extolling the virtues of digital technology over traditional celluloid.