The James Cameron Formula: Why'd We Expect Any Different?

As I was (only partially) watching The Abyss last night, I started wondering... why is everybody riffing on Avatar so much? Really, what did they expect it to be coming from James Cameron? Plus, all it really promised was a change in the visual style of movies, which it delivered on. I know it didn't deliver on deep characters or anything, but let's look at Cameron's older movies for a minute.


- Woman wants to save child from alien race while others want to blow them up.
- Little girl must live like the aliens to survive.
- Static bad guys.
- Commended for visual effects.

The Abyss

- People want to make contact with and learn about alien race with other want to blow them up.
- Alien acts like humans at times.
- Static bad guy.
- Commended for visual effects.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day

- Robot wants to save human from robot race to stop the world from blowing up.
- Boy teaches robot how to be human.
- Static bad guy.
- Commended for visual effects.

True Lies

- Double agent wants to save wife and stop terrorists from blowing things up.
- Like I said, double agent.
- Static bad guy.
- Commended for visual effects.


- Guy pretends to be upper class to fall in love with rich girl before boat, well, starts to explode and fall apart.
- Guy infiltrates upper class and teaches rich girl how to be poor.
- Static bad guy.
- Commended for visual effects.


- Guy pretends to be alien race to learn their ways and help them stop bad guys from blowing them up.
- Aliens teach human how to be alien.
- Static bad guy.
- Commended for visual effects.

So, seriously, what was everybody expecting? It's the same formula that Cameron has used in practically all his other movies. People were promised outstanding visual effects... well, he tends to deliver on that, and he did. Really, the only movie that doesn't follow this formula is the original Terminator (which is why it's not on that list), except for the 'static bad guy' and 'commended visual effects' part. But that one was made before all those others, so it's not like it interrupted the formulaic flow.

I think somewhere in translation the promise of "amazing visuals" turned into "original story" and "greatest movie ever made," which shouldn't have happened. Because, really, looking at the previous films, I wonder how people would have thought he'd do something any different.

OK, I'm done. You can now hit me with "Well, Cameron himself stated..." and "He had 10 years to work on story" and "well, at least those other movies had memorable characters" all that other stuff :P . Honestly, I just wanted to point out similarities. All in good fun.

1 comment:

  1. Very good post.

    I think the main difference being that, with each subsequent film, the expectations and, more importantly, the hype have gone up each time. Had people been touting The Abyss or True Lies or even T2 for Best Pic and calling them "game-changers" every other second (warranted as that might be in many cases), I think you'd see a similar backlash or general reaction.

    The 10 years business has an impact, too, though that just ties into the hype machine more than anything. For his next movie, he'll have to make 100 billion dollars (insert pinky into mouth) and REINVENT THE WAY PEOPLE THINK ABOUT MOVIES IN TOTALITY for it to avoid the hate. And even then it will get it.


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