It’s the little things that distinguish James Cameron from other visually impressive action directors like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. Case in point, Cameron has a strict moral code when it comes to his action sequences that help the audience root for the good guys while also justifying over-the-top brutality and thrills. He always presents his heroes as people of good moral character. Let’s go through examples of how he does this in all his films.
The Terminator – Kyle Reese at the Tech Noir
The first time we see Kyle Reese, he steals a homeless man’s pants, as well as some other clothes, shoes, and a shotgun. But that’s in contrast to the way we saw the Terminator get his clothes through murder and intimidation, so it’s definitely the lesser of two evils. We don’t really know Reese’s intentions until we see him spring into action in the Tech Noir. Sarah Connor, the woman he’s sworn to protect, is being approached by the Terminator, and she is just seconds away from being shot in the head. And how does Reese respond? Does he immediately start blasting the Terminator to keep her safe? No. He takes the time to protect innocent bystanders by pushing them out of the way first.
Sure, you could say that he’s just trying to get a clear line of sight to his target, much like what the Terminator was doing by walking past a number of dancers. But this subtly shows us that Reese isn’t an inhuman killing machine. He’s here to protect life, and not just Sarah’s. Even though later he steals money from someone and illegally takes a man’s truck, we can forgive him for those faults because we see that he’s a good man doing the best he can in a nearly impossible situation.
Aliens – Ripley Protects Newt
Lt. Gorman panics when the aliens start attacking the marines under his command. Ripley screams at him to do something and tries to tell the surviving marines to fall back. But after all of her attempts at reason fail, she is forced to take charge of the situation. In another director’s hands, she would immediately jump into the driver’s seat and get the APC moving to save the marines. But Cameron takes a moment to have her put a seatbelt on Newt and gently tell her to hold on. This shows us where her priorities are. Yes, she’s disgusted by the bureaucracy and desirous to save as many lives as possible. But Newt is her number-one priority.
I should add that Newt promptly gets out of her seatbelt and hides in a corner of the APC, but that speaks to her character more than Ripley’s. She’s learned to survive by trusting her instincts and crawling away from danger. She doesn’t fully trust Ripley yet, but she certainly does later.
The Abyss – Bud Goes for Coffey’s Gun
Bud Brigman is probably my favorite character in a James Cameron movie. He’s just so affable, and we know exactly where his priorities are at all times. He cares about his people, and he always wants to do the right thing. So what happens when a good man like that comes into contact with a trained killer who’s suffering from a rare condition that is causing him to lose his mind and act irrationally? You see, Lt. Coffey has threatened Bud’s estranged wife twice and is threatening to detonate a nuclear device that will kill everyone aboard Bud’s undersea oil rig. When Bud has an opportunity to end the madness by using the element of surprise to sneak attack Coffey, he hesitates. He thinks Coffey’s gun is loaded, so it would be a good idea to disarm him before striking just in case he has time to recover and fire.
This is a brilliant move on Cameron’s part because if Bud had swung and knocked Coffey out or killed him, there would be no exciting third act to the film. Also, it would be out of character because Bud is a man of honor, and sucker punching Coffey, even if he deserves it, doesn’t seem fair. By giving Bud a reasonable excuse not to attack Coffey right away and instead have a gun shoved in his face, we get to see that Coffey deserves absolutely no mercy. He was ready to murder Bud, so Bud is totally justified in letting him have it with a couple of swings of his giant hammer.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day – John Connor’s Rule
The Terminator in Terminator 2 doesn’t have the same moral code as Kyle Reese in the original. He just does what he’s programmed to do. So when John Connor sees that he’s perfectly fine with murdering people in cold blood, he puts a stop to that in a hurry. He makes the Terminator swear not to kill anyone. This forces him to get creative in achieving his objective of protecting John from police officers armed to the teeth.
He also shoots a lot of people in the knees and uses other methods to incapacitate humans who get in his way. Contrast this with the scene where Sarah Connor tries to kill Miles Dyson. She takes on the role of a Terminator in this scene and becomes a frightening figure because of how little she cares for human life. In her mind, Dyson is responsible for all of the death and destruction to come in the future. But she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger and end the life of a man who is oblivious to any wrongdoing, especially when he’s surrounded by his family.
True Lies – Harry Tasker’s Bathroom Fight
Harry Tasker does not have a fun time one evening when a group of terrorists stalks him. He and the terrorists utterly demolish a bathroom while one innocent bystander is just trying to do his business in peace. Thankfully, he emerges unscathed and Harry even apologizes to him for all the craziness on his way out.
He continues to apologize and excuse himself as he takes a police officer’s horse and proceeds to chase a terrorist through city streets, onto an elevator, and on top of a skyscraper. It’s a wonderful scene made better by the fact that Harry is so concerned with inconveniencing everyday people and putting them in harm’s way.
Titanic – Jack and Rose Try to Save a Kid
After freeing Jack deep within the ship while the Titanic is sinking. Rose is at a loss to find her way back to the main deck. While Jack and Rose are contemplating their next move, they hear a young boy crying for his father. They don’t know him from Adam, but they still feel the need to help him because they’re good people and, even in the midst of untold suffering, they don’t want to leave someone to die alone.
Even though it’s a futile effort, it proves that Jack and Rose are worthy of surviving this ordeal because they aren’t just trying to save their own skins at everyone else’s expense.
Avatar – ???
I don’t remember any moment of moral clarity in Avatar. That may be why I dislike the movie so much. It violates James Cameron’s strict moral code when it comes to doing action sequences. The good guys need to act honorably and have something noble that they’re fighting for beyond their own lives. I get that Sully wants to protect the tree and the Navi, but at a huge cost of human lives. I can’t get behind someone who’s so calloused toward humanity. Perhaps one of my kind readers could clue me in to a scene where Sully or one of the other heroes does something akin to Kyle Reese, Ellen Ripley, Bud Brigman, John Connor, Harry Tasker, Rose Calvert, or Jack Dawson. I just can’t think of one.
In Avatar, James Cameron seems to have forgotten the entire premise upon which his films’ moral code is based. He captured it perfectly in this one line from True Lies when Harry is forced to tell his wife the truth about his work as a spy:
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