James Cameron has left an indelible mark on our culture, breaking his own record with two of the top grossing films of all time. Pioneering special effects technology in Avatar and manning extensive expeditions into the wreckage of Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic. His films are often discussed as massive technological undertakings, but I would argue that, even more than his gift for theatric visuals, his greatest strength as an auteur is his uncanny ability to write with empathy, and creating rich characters that exhibit relatable human responses to the danger around them which ups the stakes, creating palpable terror.
Big budget special effects films can often become fuzzy when it comes to the characters on screen caught in the crosshairs. Rather than people, they’re treated like catalysts, moving the action along, or worse yet, firing off quips in response to a life threatening catastrophe. But Cameron leads with emotion first, focusing on human moments and it’s clear that even small characters are approached in a thoughtful way. Two of his films, Aliens (1986) and *Titanic (1997) feature lived-in characters with fear responses that connect with the audience. These films, in the hands of a different director, would have potentially been unable to permeate our culture without the engaging emotional resonation.
It’s also worth noting that the two leads in both Aliens and Titanic are fully-drawn, interesting women – a concept which should feel less novel than it is. His talent for writing women is something for which he’s garnered a lot of praise. In an interview with The Guardian he said "I do think Hollywood movies get it wrong when they show women in action roles – they basically make them men. Or else they make them into superheroes in shiny black suits, which is just not as interesting." These dimensional characters bring weight and become the emotional heart of these stories.
In Titanic we meet the protagonist, Rose (Gloria Stewart) at the end of a full life. She’s surrounded by photos of her family and experiences, in a home filled with color and art. She’s plunging her hands into clay invoking a sensitivity and recklessness. I can imagine a version of this story where an ancient Rose is plopped in briefly with character notes like “old” and “lady” and “sad”. You get the sense that he’s lived in her shoes, imagined her experiences and not just during the ship’s sinking, but throughout her long life. It helps us remain invested in a story occurring decades in the past and unfolding in a three-plus hour runtime, and makes the action on the screen ultimately worth-while.
The main takeaway for Titanic’s popularity with young women is usually the love story and of course, the juggernaut that was Leonardo Dicaprio’s teen heartthrob status. As a middle-schooler at the time of the film’s release, I distinctly remember a shared obsession among 6th grade girls that bordered on creepy, even for 6th grade girls. But I think if Rose had been an empty vessel moving through the story, girls would have been less likely to return to it dozens of times. There’s catharsis in seeing someone they could relate to on screen.
Young Rose (Kate Winslet) feels real, she’s fun, spoiled and smart. She throws shade at the stuffed shirts around her, running circles around them with her intellect - casually schooling them in fine art and the teachings of Sigmund Freud. It’s interesting that her greatest frustration is that she feels the trajectory of her life is already out of her hands, but unlike a lot of characters in a big-budget film (especially in the case of a young girl) she makes a lot of decisions. Some of them are very bad, e.g. jumping back onto the sinking ship, but because we can understand and connect with the character, her actions in disaster become more engaging.
Admittedly, Ridley Scott’s Alien did some of the leg work on the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but the detail Cameron zeroes in on in Aliens is the trauma she’s experienced. She survived and escaped the Xenomorph attack on her ship, the Nostromo, and is completely alone after her 57-year hyper sleep and plagued with nightmares. This is another woman in crisis without options who no one is listening to. We see her survival story as harrowing, but in her deposition with the Weyland Yutani Corporation, “the company”, they’re more focused on the cost of the ship she blew up.
In trying to warn them of the danger of a Xenomorph making it to Earth, Ripley says, “this bullshit you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye.” We feel her frustration, I can’t be the only one who still jumps out of my seat to yell at that stupid board! We get a glimpse of her sad life before she heads to the colony, in a dystopian, late capitalism future, she’s toiling away at a menial labor job to survive. Seeing her misery and struggles with PTSD helps us understand her choices going forward, and it helps us care.
Ripley is often talked about as being a “bad-ass” but her character looks pretty different from what we’ve come to expect from a tough, female protagonist. She doesn’t go looking for a fight, quite the contrary. She leans into her femininity, mothering 10-year-old Newt – the colony’s sole survivor – and comforts her with sincerity that never feels like an overreach. She’s warm, but capable, and believably afraid of what she has to face. She’s traumatized, feels useless (which turns out to be unfounded), and agrees to head back to LV-426 which is where her crew was infected with the face-hugger, because she knows that these people are underestimating the threat this mission poses and she cares about keeping humanity safe.
In the film’s third act, when we see her leave the safety of the ship to retrieve Newt who has been taken and entombed in alien boogers, she’s suiting up in what I think we’ve come to associate with the pumped up tough character moment. I can imagine this scene in a different kind of movie with a thumping soundtrack. Instead, she’s breathlessly afraid, blasting her flamethrower around every corner in case a Xenomorph is lurking. Her terror is engaging, and makes us admire her character that much more for going back.
Time spent on main characters does a lot to invest us in their stories, of course, but the stakes are truly elevated in these films thanks to the attention to detail when it comes to smaller characters. The hopelessness of the Titanic disaster heightens as the film progresses. We’re lulled into a feeling of superiority in the dramatic irony as characters repeatedly refer to the ship as unsinkable and even scoff at the superfluousness of the insufficient lifeboats in the first place. As the situation becomes more precarious and people, including children become more desperate, we see the tension ratcheting up in human responses to the action around them.
Cameron slows down on moments like Captain Smith deciding to go down with the ship after a woman holding her baby asks desperately where she should go. Or the moment when First Officer Murdoch who, in an extreme overreaction to try to keep order, shoots two innocent men, and chooses to end his own life. It’s clear that there’s gravity given to these moments by the way Cameron chooses to linger on characters’ faces as they come to realizations about their situations and make decisions. That repeated effort reminds us as an audience that this isn’t an exciting disaster film to feast on ghoulishly as we’ve perhaps been primed for in other movies. There’s an authenticity to the characters that extends down to the extras. He never lets us disassociate and write people off as red shirts adding to the disposable body count, we constantly see people in terror, terror that drives them to make stupid, heroic and desperate decisions.
In Aliens, we spend a lot of time getting to know the Marines, watching them fire off Jesus pull-ups, reminiscing about “Arcturian poon-tang,” and of course Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) excellent “pack of bad asses” monologue. Cameron let the actors who were part of the squad get to know each other before filming so that there would be a believable camaraderie among them when we see them eat together in the mess hall. There are specific, thoughtful details in their costuming and a sense of history between characters. (Although it’s a standout moment, I do have to wonder how many people seriously injured their fingers trying to do that knife trick.)
Based on the damage one Xenomorph did in the first movie, the audience could probably do the math that these soldiers are woefully unprepared. But we recognize these soldier archetypes, complete with big guns, fatigues, cocky attitudes, and swelling muscles. We’ve been primed to expect them to act a certain way, i.e. tough and unfazed. We know them as guys who walk away from an explosion without flinching. Instead, after a painfully long tension building sequence on their rescue mission, when finally faced with a pack of Xenomorphs it does not go well.
There’s chaos, the music is lilting, the visuals are distorted, they’re dying faster than we can count, and all we can focus on is the terror in their faces on the monitors Ripley is watching as they run for their lives. Seeing the “ultimate pack of bad-asses” scared out of their minds makes the audience feel hopelessly terrified of their situation. Even the occasional “tough guy” catch-phrase moments feel more like last-ditch efforts to take back control than cocky affirmations of their fearlessness as is the case in two of the greatest sound bites of all time: Vasquez’s “Let’s Rock” and Ripley’s “Get away from her you bitch.”
When the soldiers die it has an impact – they’re not flippant and fearless; they don’t want to die and they don’t want their friends to die. Even if we don’t associate ourselves with the soldiers on screen, their palpable terror cues us to how impossible this situation will be for a woman and child we’re now invested in to extricate themselves. The stakes and believable terror are what keep us glued to the screen. Which is why by the time we get to the scene where they’re watching the Aliens close in on them on the motion tracker, it’s almost unwatchable in its intensity.
In an interview with The Talks, Cameron explained, “We still have to stay connected to the human heart; you want to make the audience feel something, maybe even cry. It’s important to not get too absorbed in the tech and to remember to actually tell a good story. You have to do both.” At its best art can inspire you to think outside of yourself, outside of your experiences. It can help you connect with something or someone you did not before you consumed it. Great art doesn’t just amaze us with visuals or excite us with spectacle, but also moves us deeply with its authenticity. There’s something so refreshing about a piece of art massive in scale that still feels built from the bottom up.