We all know why Arnold did it. After taking a serious beating with the Herculean misfire Last Action Hero, he needed to prove that he could stop with all the Pirandellian showboating and deliver the thrills and dry humor that made him a star. So he came naturally to the megabudget live-action cartoon True Lies, playing a spy whose life gets complicated after his bored wife, who for years has thought him a computer salesman, discovers his actual profession. The question is, why did James Cameron make this movie?

While Cameron’s fascination with F/X pays off in the movie’s action sequences, True Lies represents a big step backward for the man who was at one time the most ambitious of American sci-fi moviemakers. The film banks on its scope and sweep to camouflage a loutish, bitter heart, while Cameron’s previous work strove to capture the difficult but always abundant humanity behind the action. This shortcoming might have seemed less evident when you were watching Lies on a big screen in a good theater, but the just-released video version amplifies the movie’s curdled tone. What should be an exhilarating experience turns out to be a sour one.

Which makes this Cameron’s only misstep since his first directorial effort, the forgettable Piranha 2: The Spawning. This cheapie, in which the title fish learn how to fly, sort of, and from which Cameron was fired before completion, wouldn’t even be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that getting bounced from the project triggered nightmares that Cameron would draw on for inspiration when writing The Terminator. That movie delivered Cameron from obscurity and provided the first indication that Schwarzenegger (who played an implacable killing machine sent from the future to slay the woman who would give birth to a 21st-century freedom fighter) had the potential to be something more than a novelty.

The movie’s kineticism and suspense, combined with strongly conceived characters — would-be victim Linda Hamilton grows from an ordinary L.A. single into a woman warrior right before our eyes — made Cameron an instant hero to genre fans sick of seeing dashed-off exploitation jobs passed off as real sci-fi; it also made him a talent to watch.

His next project was, like Piranha 2, a sequel to a movie he had nothing to do with, but he made Aliens his own, replacing the chilly outer-space spook house of Ridley Scott’s first film with a roller coaster that caused some white-knuckled critics to wonder if the movie was actually too intense for human consumption. While the crew of the Nostromo in Alien was not a particularly engaging bunch, Cameron provided Ripley( Sigourney Weaver), here recruited to investigate an alien infestation on a recently colonized planet, with a terrifically motley military unit. The tension of the interpersonal relationships in the movie amplifies its visceral shocks, and Ripley’s maternal bond with little Newt (Carrie Henn), the last human on the planet, heightens its emotional punch. While some of the effects were ragged, Aliens showed the masses what genre addicts already knew: that Cameron was a rare action director who understood that you can blow up as much stuff as you want, but if you don’t people your work with involving characters, nobody’s going to care much.

Accordingly, a rocky marriage was at the heart of his next movie, The Abyss. The real conflict of this underwater spectacle is stated early on: ”I hate that bitch,” rig engineer Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) mutters after getting chewed out by the rig designer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). ”Then you probably shouldn’t have married her,” a crew member comments. As in Aliens, Cameron again delves into the dynamics of a close-knit group united to perform near-impossible tasks. Add to that an epic story line that involves intercepted nukes, underwater aliens, a near-apocalypse (at least in the expanded director’s-cut edition), and much more.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was an equally convoluted undertaking, both technically and in terms of the plot machinations required to bring the Schwarzenegger character back from the ”dead” and make him a good guy. Reprogramming Schwarzenegger’s marauder as a ”good” Terminator assigned to protect a young John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a more advanced model, Cameron overturned expectations by making the new Terminator a sleek, lithe figure (brilliantly embodied by Robert Patrick) who can shift shape at will. For much of the movie, the director made the young John Connor actively unpleasant, and Sarah Connor a bona fide nutjob. But when the three main characters band together to alter an apocalyptic future, they change each other, forming a very strange but very real family.

True Lies, in contrast, has very little humanity. Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker is a smooth operative but an emotional infant; his partner Gib (Tom Arnold) is an emotional infant with a foul mouth. That the movie fairly wallows in misogyny — the words bitch and whore occur with regularity — may have something to do with the fact that old collaborators Gale Anne Hurd and Linda Hamilton aren’t around (the producer was once married to Cameron, and Hamilton and Cameron are a current item). If so, Cameron ought to be ashamed — it’s a betrayal of the steps forward he made with Aliens and the Terminator movies. While nobody should count him out on the basis of one movie, True Lies strongly suggests he needs to spend time away from his high-tech tools and get back in touch with the world that informed the three-dimensional characters who made his previous films so convincing. True Lies: C Piranha 2: D The Terminator: A- Aliens: A The Abyss: B Terminator 2: A-

The Terminator
  • Movie
  • 108 minutes