Book Review: The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron

     March 2, 2010


Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with The Terminator, James Cameron has managed to consistently capture our imaginations in a way that few other filmmakers have been able to. Simply put, his movies possess the most jaw-dropping visuals and intense, satisfying action sequences you’re liable to come across in a movie theater. In the decade that he was absent from the marquee, maybe some of us started to forget what we were missing. However, now that he’s come roaring back with Avatar, we remember in a big way, which makes this about as good a time as any to read The Futurist. Pieced together from Cameron’s own personal recollections as well as those of his closest friends and collaborators, Rebecca Keegan’s biography of the reclusive Canadian director offers an engaging insider’s look at the life and films of one of the true masters of the craft. More after the jump.

furturist_james_cameron_01.jpgFeaturing detailed accounts of the making of his biggest films chock full of compelling anecdotes and just the right amount of witty commentary and analysis from the author, The Futurist should appeal to anyone (and I have to assume this is just about everyone) who’s been impacted by one or more of Cameron’s epic masterworks.

In all, the book contains ten chapters; the first two take us from his early life growing up in Ontario, Canada through the time he spent cutting his teeth at Roger Corman’s B-movie factory, New World Pictures; along the way, Keegan highlights such things as the future king of the world’s artistic and scientific genius, the various interests (including sci-fi, comics, and ocean exploration) that would inform his future as a director, and his learning curve as a filmmaker. Then, we get into the good stuff. Every one of the subsequent chapters (except for one detailing his post-Titanic hiatus) focuses on one of Cameron’s epic blockbusters, beginning with The Terminator and continuing all the way through to Avatar; each of these contains a detailed look at the filmmaking process, from pre-production to reception.

Learning how these seminal works were conceived of, how the productions were mounted, and all the drama that arose along the way is really the essence of this book’s appeal. As someone who grew up with Terminator 2 on a continuous loop in his VCR, getting to read about things like Cameron’s first meeting with Schwarzenegger while casting the original film or how the T-1000 was designed and brought to life was a rare pleasure. And even if you’re not that invested in any given work, there are still a lot of colorful behind-the-scenes stories that prove pretty interesting; while filming The Abyss, for instance, the director had to perform CPR on a lab rat that didn’t take too well to having that pink womb-fluid stuff forced into its lungs. And one day during the Titanic shoot, someone spiked the crafts service clam chowder with PCP, leading to the stoned but still acerbic director getting stabbed in the face with a pen by one of his ADs. Some of these stories you’ve undoubtedly heard about before, but there are probably at least a few that you haven’t and, either way, getting the insider’s perspective makes things more interesting.

In addition, we’re afforded a fairly in-depth breakdown of all the amazing visual effects that have blown our minds over the years. From the painstaking modeling and set construction that nearly drove his English crew to mutiny on Aliens to the 80-foot-deep, 7.5-million-gallon water tank in which Cameron nearly drowned while filming The Abyss to the “gray-painted triangles and polygons… [used] to create topography for the actors to navigate” on the motion-capture shoot of Avatar, film buffs will find a diverse array of filmmaking techniques to study. Indeed, if you’re interested in the technical side of the craft, you’re unlikely to come across a more compelling body of work.


Throughout all of this, Keegan writes briskly and with wit; what’s more, each chapter is broken up into 5-8 shorter sub-titled segments that will prevent you from getting too bogged down in detail. It makes for a light but nonetheless engrossing read.

For the most part, the author limits herself to relating Cameron’s story; however, near the end of each chapter, she provides some analysis of how his use of technology in filmmaking and/or his vision of the future as expressed by his films were predictive of industry trends or social realities that would actually emerge years later. At times, Keegan stretches a bit in her assertions, but for the most part, this presiding thesis of the work is well proved and we’re given a real sense of just how cutting-edge Cameron has been over the years.

james_cameron_image__2_.jpgHowever, what really stuck with me from this work, more so than the “futurism,” is the fascinating portrait of a man that is, as Keegan puts it, “equal parts calculating gearhead and romantic artist.” It’s this duality that’s at the heart of Cameron’s immense success as a filmmaker. On the one hand, he’s a brilliant and capable an engineer; on the other, he’s a tremendous visual artist with a vivid imagination. The result of the combination is a director who can do practically every job as good or better than the members of his crew can, and, as such, is able to insist that absolutely everything measure up to his vision, as opposed to relying on his collaborators to fill in the blanks, as most directors must. This has led to his signature hands-on perfectionism, a quality that has notoriously rubbed many a cast and crew member the wrong way over the years. However, through Keegan’s account, we come to understand why exactly he functions this way and to appreciate how it is this quality that makes a Cameron film such a uniquely captivating creation.

Ultimately, I have to acknowledge that the main reason I found The Futurist to be so compelling was probably nostalgia. James Cameron is the creator of some of the most beloved films of my youth, and it was a lot of fun to go back and learn how flicks like Aliens and T2 (my personal favorites) came to be. Given his career box-office tally, I suspect that most of you feel more or less the same way as I do about this filmmaker, and if you do, you’re definitely going to want to give this book a read. However, there’s plenty here to hold the interest of film enthusiasts in general; Cameron is an undeniably compelling figure, and the way he’s gone about making movies throughout his career is anything but boring.

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