The Futurist (Book Review)

The FuturistJames Cameron has had one of the most storied careers in Hollywood:  from working-class Canadian roots to the creation of film icons like the T-800, and to the pinnacle of box office success with both Titanic and Avatar, Cameron has consistently captured the imaginations of audiences across the world with his stunningly-realized visions of the world.  Even though his directorial catalog includes less than a dozen movies, nearly every one of his films has pushed the limits of filmmaking as FX houses and creature studios have struggled to keep pace with Cameron’s wild imagination.  Always looking to the cutting edge of technology for his movies, Cameron has also infused his creations with visions of the future of humanity and allegorical tales of what we could become should certain paths continue to be taken.  It through this lens that Rebecca Keegan views the director in her book “The Futurist,” as she weaves an absolutely compelling personal biography with behind-the-scenes glimpses at each of Cameron’s films, including the underwater documentaries he directed following the release of Titanic.  A futurist is someone who, quite simply, speculates about the future.  And James Cameron, argues Keegan, fits the bill perfectly.  Having recently finished the book, and gone back to re-read various portions as well, I was impressed with how thoroughly Keegan documented so many aspects of the filmmaker’s life, from his personal life to his directoral persona, and left virtually no stone unturned in her quest to delve into the mind of a true futurist of our time.

Far from a gossip piece, though, The Futurist is simply an examination of Cameron’s life from the perspective of someone who wants to know just what it is that makes this man tick.  Keegan begins clear back with Cameron’s great-great-great-grandfather, the member of a prominent Scottish clan, and illustrates how his free-thinking spirit and alpha-male tendencies ultimately, generations later, helped shape the man who brought us such celluloid classics like Terminator and Titanic.

James Cameron

Cameron involves himself in every aspect of his films, from concept art to cinematography and even the editor's chair.

I appreciated this perspective, and even though some might find it a bit silly to go that far back in a man’s ancestry, it seemed wholly appropriate to provide a type of long-term context for understanding who Cameron is.  The first chapter is mostly focused on his childhood and early adult life,  and details the experiences with his four younger siblings and neighbors that built up his creative spirit and fiercely competitive tendencies.  Growing up in Canada provided ample opportunities to study nature and test personal limits, and living near a creek helped inspire some of the watery sequences in The Abyss.  Between Cameron’s boredom with school studies, enthusiasm for home movies, and adventurous outdoors spirit, it’s easy to see how these times helped shape one of Hollywood’s most ambitious directors.

For the rest of the book each chapter focuses on one of Cameron’s films, with the exception of Titanic, which pulls double duty.  Since there are only a handful of movies in his resume, the amount of information is not only manageable but fairly in-depth too.  But only to a point, as some chapters could have easily been lengthened and still been just as engaging.  Through interviews with Cameron as well as myriad individuals who have shaped and influence him over the years, including Kathryn Bigelow, Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, Jon Landau, and yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Bill Paxton, Keegan paints a vivid portrait of a perfectionist who not only strives to continually push himself to the limits, but often everyone around him as well.  The chapter on the making of The Abyss was particularly insightful, as the behind-the-scenes drama in creating the harrowing underwater sequences were filled with far more tension and drama than the story that plays out on screen.  But such is the norm for Cameron and his crews–always going over budget, pushing the physical and technological limits of moviemaking, and producing world-class blockbusters in the process.

Virtually all aspects of Cameron’s life are laid bare, and presented almost as black-and-white as storyboard cutouts.  From his childhood, to his relationships with his parents, siblings, wives, and children, to his commanding presence on movie sets, to friendships with the most powerful individuals in Hollywood, we see into all facets of his complex persona.  Indeed, it is also testament to the character of Cameron that he gave Keegan such personal access to his own life and let the good be told along with the bad.  But instead of taking the cheap way out and crafting a tabloid exposè, Keegan describes the events that led to the creation of Cameron’s films, the failed romantic relationships that have led to three divorces, and the fierce loyalty exhibited by several of his longtime collaborators.  From his intimidating tenacity on set to his personal challenges like diving thousands of feet in tiny submersibles to explore shipwrecks, Cameron is never one to settle for second-best, and vigorously pursues any goal he sets his sights on.  Thankfully, Keegan clearly had a similar work ethic when compiling this book, and her gift for research is matched only by her ability to tell an engaging story.

James Cameron Academy Awards

The king of the world. Don't believe him? Just ask him--he'll tell you.

Cameron often looks to the future not only with respect to technological advances in moviemaking such as the groundbreaking visual effects in The Abyss which were further refined in Terminator 2, or the 3D camera system with which he filmed Avatar, but also with the portrayal of future scenarios in his movies.  The marine exo-suits in Aliens, the over-reliance on technology (which could lead to disastrous results) in the Terminator movies, the looming threat of nuclear warfare, and even an earth which has literally run out of natural resources in Avatar, are all very real-life scenarios that are playing out on the world stage today.  In one particularly interesting anecdote, Keegan offers a snippet from Cameron in his early days of moviemaking in which he predicted, with astounding accuracy, a future in which surveillance from government and private organizations would literally be everywhere–a scenario which is all too true today.  And it should also be noted that Cameron, in creating one of the first female action heroes, saw a future in which women were no longer second class citizens, even in areas typically dominated by men.

As a long-time fan of Cameron’s movies, particularly Terminator 2 and the oft-maligned True lies, I found The Futurist to be wonderfully insightful and thoroughly enjoyable.  At just under 300 pages, its only fault is its length–each chapter could be a book in its own right, and I often finished a chapter wishing for much more.  I try to only buy DVDs that have commentary tracks, as I find the thoughts of directors, actors, and film crews extraordinarily insightful, and The Futurist is a brilliant commentary track on the life of one of the great filmmakers of our time.  An outstanding read.

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