Love him or hate him, director James Cameron has never been one to play it safe. But Cameron just announced that he is not open to developing any projects, original or otherwise, in the near future. Instead he will focus entirely on directing sequels to his groundbreaking 3D epic Avatar. This is cause for concern. In the past, some directors opted to coast off huge successes and ended up irrevocably damaging their reputations. The most notable of these being George Lucas with his Star Wars franchise. Will James Cameron follow in his path?
In analyzing the careers of George Lucas and James Cameron, there are similarities, and it was Star Wars was the film that inspired Cameron to quit his truck driving job and go to work at Roger Corman Studios. Both are notorious gear-heads. The two men also hit tremendous creative highs after difficult first films with American Graffiti and The Terminator.
George Lucas’ second feature, American Graffiti, was and remains the director’s most personal endeavor, touching on many elements from his teenage years, including small town living, troubled relationships, and cruising. To tell his story, Lucas employed the use of several daring and innovative devices like crossing-cutting narratives, title cards, and a musical score comprised entirely of period rock songs. American Graffiti helped revive interest in the 50s era. After that, Lucas was viewed as being one of Hollywood’s brightest talents, a young artist of seemingly unlimited potential.
Like Lucas, James Cameron experienced overnight success with his second directorial effort. From its inception, everything about The Terminator screamed ‘B-movie trash’. After selling his original screenplay for $1 dollar and an agreement to direct, Cameron was able to muster a paltry $6.5.million budget and cast relative unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead. Against all expectations, Cameron came out on top. The Terminator was a taut, tense, and supremely intelligent thriller that was miles beyond most of the mindless action fare released in the mid 80s.
It was what George Lucas and James Cameron did after hitting it big where their careers diverged. For Lucas, America Graffiti was a revelation. Unfortunately, the film was swallowed up by the phenomenon of Star Wars. Many felt that Lucas reached new artistic peaks with Star Wars‘ elaborate costumes, creatures, and production design, but all those were cosmetic. In terms of storytelling, Star Wars was really a classic coming-of-age tale played against the backdrop of war. While the narrative was certainly well-structured, it lacked the originality and emotional resonance of Lucas’ earlier efforts. After Star Wars, Lucas was either unwilling or unable to recapture that ambition and creativity which led him to create American Graffiti. Instead, he milked the Star Wars brand for all it was worth, releasing an endless stream of toys, games, books, television series, inferior prequels, and a horrid holiday special. Today, the franchise has become something of a running gag even among the most loyal fans.
James Cameron took the high road after The Terminator, directing a series of epic, yet diverse, blockbusters that always managed to push the envelope in terms of visual storytelling. After a 12 year break from film-making, he returned in 2009 with Avatar, a film which was very much in the same vein as Star Wars, and there’s where they begin to interest again. Both were overly hyped sci-fi epics with young stars, groundbreaking visuals, and shopworn plots. In addition to becoming the highest-grossing films of their time, they were also wrongly praised as being their respective directors’ finest achievement.
Right out of the gate, James Cameron expressed a desire to helm an Avatar sequel. Evidently that desire has morphed into something else with Cameron’s proclamation that he will just be in the “Avatar business” from now on and is developing three more installments. But isn’t this creative wheel-spinning? Unfortunately, this may very well lead to his downfall based on George Lucas’ history with Star Wars. Currently James Cameron deserves some benefit of the doubt based on his body of work. However, the day he announces plans for an Avatar holiday special, I’m heading for the hills.
Do you think James Cameron will become the next George Lucas?