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Reel Streaming: James Cameron's Magic Began in the '80s

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 111

By Laurence Lerman / New York City

James Cameron directing Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron directing Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984)

First things first: James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the highest grossing movie in history, 2009’s $2.9 billion-earning Avatar, is poised to be another box-office smash for the filmmaker and distributor Disney. Industry analysts are projecting that the three-hour-plus 3D movie will ring up $175 million on its first weekend of release beginning this Friday, Dec. 16, which is no doubt what movie theater owners and executives want to hear after nearly three years of disastrous theatrical business.

Now, let’s talk about Cameron, the man behind the curtain who is considered one of the film industry’s most innovative filmmakers and whose movies have grossed approximately $2 billion in North America and $6 billion worldwide. (Whoops, it’s hard to avoid coming back to the dollars…) It’s vital to remember there was a time when Cameron was not working with a budget of $400 million for a sequel that took some 13 years to get made. Four decades back, in fact, Cameron was a low-budget genre film craftsman who got his start as a helmer-for-hire on a quick flick about flying piranha fish.

But like those carnivorous critters from his debut outing, Cameron would soon sink his teeth into prime projects—ones that he himself initiated—and do what appears to come naturally!

Cameron first began directing films in the early 1980s and that decade remains the one that offers his broadest spectrum of work. It also primed Cameron's progression towards the ground-breaking filmmaking technologies that define his later work (and that weren’t yet available when he attempted to make piranhas fly!).

So on the eve of the opening of Avatar: The Way of Water, let’s take a look back at the decade that launched Mr. Cameron’s career.

Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

A special effects artist for low-budget film impresario Roger Corman, the 26-year-old Cameron snagged his first opportunity to get comfortable in the director’s chair with this shoddy sequel to the Corman-produced 1976 cult favorite Piranha. Fired several weeks into the production by the film’s Italian executive producer Ovidio G. Assontis, Cameron’s debut was savaged by critics and audiences alike, with the film’s genetically modified winged piranha fish looking more like long-finned salmon with dentures. Cameron largely disowned the film for decades but finally acknowledged it as his directorial debut on a 2010 installment of 60 Minutes, where he described it as “the best flying piranha movie ever made.”

The Terminator (1984)

The time-tripping sci-fi action thriller that truly launched Cameron’s career and solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger’s status as a leading man cost a modest $6.4 million to produce, with the filmmaker using all the skills he developed during his low-budget beginnings at the House of Corman.

With its clever special effects (most of them practical) and Cameron’s engrossing script and taut, economic direction, the film is still a killer, holding up marvelously nearly 40 years later. And its action sequences—Arnold’s assault on the police precinct, the car chase through an underground garage complex and co-star Linda Hamilton’s climatic endoskeleton-crushing termination of the cyborg assassin from the future—are as wild, effective and watchable as ever. And thus began a franchise that continues to this day.

Aliens (1986)

Cameron’s muscular script and direction sends a group of equally hard-hitting space marines and star Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley to a distant planet to take on a hive of alien predators, one of whom killed Ripley's crew in the original Alien from 1979. As he did with The Terminator, Cameron gets a lot of mileage out of a relatively tight budget (here it was $18.5 million) and generates a surfeit of tension and terror in a futuristic sci-fi atmosphere. It was a huge international hit and rightfully so.

As he did with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator, Cameron creates a female protagonist who takes care of business with the strength, intelligence, grit and cunning that none of the men around her appear to possess. Ripley’s terrifying mano-a-talon showdown with the Alien Queen over the fate of an orphaned little girl remains cinema’s greatest-ever female-driven action sequence.

Martini Ranch: Beach (1988)

Before embarking on his next feature, Cameron cleansed his palate with a music video featuring the forgotten band Martini Ranch, a Devo-styled American duo comprised of guitarist Andrew Todd Rosenthal and actor Bill Paxton, who had appeared in supporting roles in both The Terminator and Aliens. A western/biker-themed video that also offers three female bodybuilders, other alumni from his previous films, and his soon-to-be-wife (for a couple of years) filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, it’s not a very memorable piece But there are a few occasionally sly bits that include a mariachi trio, a tarantula and a pickup truck dragging the band members through the dust.

The Abyss (1989)

Though The Abyss didn’t measure up to the tidal wave of enthusiasm and box office returns of his previous two features, Cameron’s underwater fantasia about an deep water drilling team’s close encounter with an alien aquatic species marked his ascension to the top ranks of action-adventure filmmakers. Defying genre confines in terms of its expansive themes and revolutionary visual and audio technologies, the film remains his most original startlingly original work until Avatar. The effects he created with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic laid the groundwork for the morphing and liquid metal sequences that would highlight 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The first of his films that took a long time and a lot of money to produce, with a budget estimated at more than $70 million, it also marked the first time Cameron injected environmental themes into his work, concerns that clearly meant a lot to him.

In a story that Cameron has recounted regularly in the lead-up to this weekend, and one that represents his methods and determination well, back in 2009, a studio executive reportedly took issue with Avatar’s environmental focus and he went so far as to ask Cameron if he could remove the “tree-hugging hippie bullshit” from the film.

As Cameron relates the story, his response was, “I’m at a point now in my career and in my life where I can pretty much make any movie I want. And I want to make this story because of the tree-hugging hippie bullshit.”

See you at Avatar: The Way of Water!


Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site



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