James Cameron, one of the best known directors for his works; Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009). He is now one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood thanks to the success of these movies. To analyze James Cameron's directing style and what makes James Cameron's movies so successful, I decided to compare my favorite movie of all time by him, Titanic (1997) and the first movie he ever directed, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981). While comparing these two movies, I picked up on a few of his key components that tend to be his signature traits, which are usually very artistically done and entertaining to watch. In this review of these two movies, I will focus on the techniques/forms (lighting, color, music, dialogue, theme, setting, etc) used and what made them effective or not.
The first film I looked at was James Cameron's debut as a director, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning from 1981. Piranha Part Two: The Spawning is about a scuba diving instructor, her biochemist boyfriend, and her police chief ex-husband who try to link a series of bizarre deaths to a mutant strain of piranha fish whose lair is a sunken US freighter ship off a Caribbean island resort. This movie has a great scientifically fiction baseline story that had lots of potential, however, it was also ridiculously fictional that it didn't quite make it as a scary movie, and appeared more as a spoof instead. The setting of the first scene is in a dark, isolated boat off the Caribbean island resort coast, where we are introduced to a couple preparing to go for an "intimate" swim. This scene helps to set the atmospheric mood of suspense because of the music, the actor's jumpiness, the lighting and the camera angles. It immediately jumps into the horror of the "piranhas" that lurk in the water, and has a rather fast-paced, action-packed storyline. From the unrealistic scene of the piranha jumping out of the dead human body and attacking another victim, to the special effects of the attack of the flying piranha to the explosion of the helicopter. Although, these scenes didn't make total sense, they made the audience continue watching because they were anticipating more action and expecting answers. They were left with a feeling of longing at the end of the movie, even though the music indicated that the "piranha" problem had been resolved, and everyone would live happily ever after. The different camera angles used throughout this film helped to show not only what was going on with the actors but the surrounding areas around the actors. The dialogue used throughout the movie is somewhat believable, however could have been better. The piranha-like creatures were so unbelievable that you couldn't help but laugh at certain parts. The scary soundtrack plays an important and effective part throughout the entire movie, since it helps the audience to know when the creatures are coming, and therefore builds suspense in the audience. Although, even though the music playing in the background helps to build suspense, the second you saw the creature, the suspense and horror was replaced with a humorous outlook. Therefore, the suspense in the movie didn't necessarily seem to match the thrill of being scared. This isn't a movie I would ever watch again, especially if I was looking for a horror movie, because it didn't fulfill the thrill. However, this does not mean that this film is the worst film ever, but James Cameron is capable of SO MUCH MORE, which is clearly evident in Titanic.
The second film I looked at, was James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Titanic is about the re-telling of a 100-year-old woman named Rose DeWitt Bukater's experience on the Titanic 84 years before. She speaks about her life set in April 10th 1912, on a ship called Titanic when young Rose boards the departing ship with the upper-class passengers and her mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater, and her fiancé, Caledon Hockley. Meanwhile, a drifter and artist named Jack Dawson and his best friend Fabrizio De Rossi win third-class tickets to the ship in a game. She explains the whole story, including the romantic storyline of her and Jack, from departure until the death of Titanic on its first and last voyage April 15th, 1912 at 2:20 in the morning. There are three main themes in Titanic; the romantic storyline of Jack Dawon and Rose DeWitt Bukater, the superb technical achievement which gives the audience the full experience of Titanic, and the prominent symbolism regarding nature and the value of time within the human experience. The dialogue is witty, humorous, and intelligently written. It is believable and helps to create the perfect atmosphere for each scene. Cameron uses lighting to effectively add to each dramatic atmosphere; bright and cheerful during exciting scenes, and dark and eerie during the scary and intense moments in the film. He used a blue light to illuminate Rose's face during her suicide attempt scene, and uses a bright light to illuminate Jack's to help illustrate hope and optimism. Cameron also uses the absence of light to add a dramatic atmosphere. The scene in which Rose is frantically searching to find help to save Jack's life from the Master At Arm's room, Cameron dims the lights to help create a scared and dramatic atmosphere. Camera angles used in this film were just as important as the lighting used in this movie, Cameron was very specific when he chose the placement of the camera; he not only showed the actions of what the actor's were doing and their point of view, but tended to zoom out and show the overall picture of the surroundings and what was going on. An example of this, is the scene when Rose comes up from beneath the water's surface, frantically looking for Jack. The camera then zooms out to show that hundreds (1,500) of others are experiencing the same panic as she is. The camera angles helped to add definition to every scene, and allowed the audience to get a real idea of what the experience would have been like, if they had actually been there. On top of the highly effective use of camera angles, lighting and dialogue, the soundtrack helped to set the mood. The music played throughout the movie, was rather repetitive, however this was done on purpose. Throughout the movie, Cameron used the same song repeatedly to remind the audience of events that occurred earlier in the movie, and to remind them of certain characters. Every song played had a particular role and was used to inflict emotion on the audience. The filming of Titanic was very artistically done; from the graphic reconstruction of the sinking of Titanic, to the smooth transitions between the wreckage to the "new" Titanic, to the shots incorporated in the film itself. Especially the shot of the girl dressed in white floating in the water inside the Titanic. Only James Cameron can take such a horrific event, such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic and tell such a beautiful story with it.
James Cameron is a fantastic director, and no one can take that from him. There is clearly an evolution in his directing style from 1981 to 1997 although both movies have similarities since his directing style itself is still the same, just more advanced now. In both of these movies, James Cameron has portrayed a woman in a strong female role. In Titanic, Rose is a well-educated and informed young lady, who has a fire within her that her fiancé tries to control. In Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, Anne Kimbrough is a scuba diving instructor who is the "hero" of the storyline; she discovers the "piranha-like" creatures responsible for killing many innocent people, and when her advice to stop all water activities is ignored, she takes the safety of everyone into her own hands and "saves" the innocent people at this Caribbean island [resort]. Both films have water or the ocean as a central theme; Titanic since everyone is on a sinking ship, and Piranha Part Two, because the creatures live in the water, and therefore both included scenes filmed in the deep blues. James Cameron depicted children in some kind of danger in both films, and showed close-up shots of feet, usually in a trampling scene. During a few of the conversations between two characters, Cameron liked to zoom in to their faces, or placed the camera over their shoulders. In both movies, at least one character yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" and nice, effective cuts were made. From these two movies, it is evident that Cameron has a distinct directing style that involves the same key themes that help to present a unified illustration of his artistic vision. However, Titanic was more successful overall than Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, because it was more realistic. Cameron created a world that virtually sucked the audience into the storyline, and created the feeling as if they were experiencing the events first hand, where as the Piranhas Part Two: The Spawning was unrealistic and was hard to get involved in the storyline. Titanic conveyed the prominent symbolism regarding nature and value of time within human experiences, which helped to create that realism experienced throughout the movie. I thoroughly enjoy James Cameron's movies, and regard him highly as a director. He has changed the style of directing for years to come.