There was a time when James Cameron’s technical inventiveness was only surpassed by the creative fervor that burned so brightly in his early films. Before he was the King of the World, Cameron — a scrappy young special effects wunderkind who cut his teeth doing models and mattes for the King of the B-Movies, Roger Corman — displayed a preternatural ability to turn craft into art. Channeling Hitchcock, Cameron took escapist ideas and high concepts and used them to tell compelling character stories; but the beauty of Cameron’s great films has always been his ability to awe viewers– or, as Spielberg said of his own Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cameron’s movies have a ton of WOW!
The preeminent sage of technical paranoia, Cameron has spent his career using state-of-the-art effects and cinematic wizardry to depict dystopian near-futures, where technology has turned on us; the innovations dominate the innovators and the engineered oppress the engineers. He synthesized the far-off prescience of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, added a splash of Philip K. Dick, and injected his serum into escapist action films. But Cameron’s troubled production of Titanic, a film that was unlike any he’d done before (a tragic epic of ill-fated love at sea), marks the point in his career that James Cameron became an entirely different kind of filmmaker.
When Titanic crashed into theaters in 1997, people scoffed at Cameron’s audacity. He’d already made the most expensive film ever twice (1991′s Terminator 2: Judgement Day and 1994′s True Lies), and now he’d done it again, having gone way over budget and overshot his shooting schedule by several months. Titanic cost an ineffable $200 million in 1997, which would come to something in the ballpark of $300 million if adjusted for inflation.
But then the movie came out on January 2, and everyone had to see on what, exactly, Cameron had spent the GDP of a small country. Titanic debuted at No. 1 and held the position for 15 weeks; it actually gained viewers every week until April 10, and even then it stayed in the top 10 until June 19.