James Cameron Vs. Peter Jackson (Mania.com)
Date: Monday, December 14, 2009
In the field of genre cinema there are only a few filmmakers who have established themselves as both masters of their form and reliable box office draws. James Cameron and Peter Jackson have both achieved this status, earning critical respect for their work while simultaneously making phrases like “I’ll be back” and “My preciousss” into touchstones of global pop culture. The closely-scheduled releases of Cameron’s Avatar and Jackson’s The Lovely Bones have prompted us to ask: Which of these two directors has crafted the greater cinematic legacy?
Cameron Vs. Jackson
Round 1: Early Work
The Case for Cameron: The only movie Cameron directed before The Terminator (besides a 10-minute short film called Xenogenesis) was Pirahna II: The Spawning (1981). So, yeah.
The Case for Jackson: Jackson’s first feature, the low-budget gorefest Bad Taste, was riddled with technical limitations but showed enough wit and ingenuity to make it into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. His next film was 1989’s Meet the Feebles, a super-dark puppet-based comedy that flew mostly under the radar, followed in 1992 by Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), which has become a cult favorite among zombie fans and is often referred to as the goriest movie ever made. He took a more serious approach with the highly-praised Heavenly Creatures (1994), Kate Winslet’s big-screen debut. On the other hand, his last release before the Lord of the Rings trilogy was 1996’s goofy Michael J. Fox horror-comedy The Frighteners.
The Winner: Jackson, by a mile.
Round 2: Technical Innovation
The Case for Cameron: Cameron began his Hollywood career doing special effects work on movies like Battle Beyond the Stars and Escape From New York, so it’s not surprising that his films have had a significant impact on effects technology. They were especially important in the rise of computer-generated imagery, which, as we all know, has come to be used for almost all major cinematic special effects. The Abyss (1989) showcased the first-ever use of a 3-D computer-animated water effect, in the form of a sentient extra-terrestrial “pseudopod.” Even that, however, was small potatoes next to Cameron’s next film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which, by virtue of its liquid-metal T-1000, represented the first blockbuster film to use extensive, realistic-looking computer animation in a live-action context. This was a watershed moment in the mainstreaming of CGI. Cameron has also been pioneering 3-D filmmaking since before it was cool with his deep-sea documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005); he’s even helped to create a new kind of stereoscopic 3-D camera rig.
The Case for Jackson: Jackson is also a special effects wonk, but most of his advances (usually achieved through his collaboration with the New Zealand-based effects company Weta Workshop) have had more to do with the interaction between computer effects and live footage than with the effects themselves. For example, fantastical Lord of the Rings locations such as Helm’s Deep were created mainly through the use of miniature models, with computer animation being used only when absolutely necessary. Actors playing Hobbits could be scaled down by digitally compositing two different shots, or simply by having the actors kneel. The Rings films also made prominent use of motion capture technology, particularly in the case of Andy Serkis’ critically-acclaimed performance as Gollum. Serkis played an even more prominent motion-captured role as the title character in Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong.
The Winner: Cameron, for introducing the general public to now-omnipresent CGI.
Round 3: Box Office Receipts
The Case for Cameron: First of all, he directed Titanic (1997), which earned almost $2 billion worldwide and is still far and away the highest-grossing movie EVER. It’s also worth noting that T2 is within the 100 top-grossing movies of all time, even when adjusted for inflation.
The Case for Jackson: Each of the Rings movies individually earned about half of Titanic’s total. Cumulatively, they push Jackson’s lifetime gross total ($1.3 billion) above Cameron’s ($1.1 billion).
The Winner: In per-film potential, Cameron. Titanic made more money than God.
Round 4: Academy Awards
The Case for Cameron: Most of Cameron’s films received very little attention at the Oscars, partly because the Academy isn’t too fond of science fiction and prefers to encourage clearly superior works like The Reader. Titanic, however, cleaned up at the 1997 ceremonies, winning eleven awards (including Best Picture and Best Director)—more than any other movie besides Ben-Hur…
The Case for Jackson:…That is, until The Return of the King, which in 2003 also won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The first two Lord of the Rings movies won a total of six Academy Awards.
The Winner: We’ll call this one a tie.
Round 5: Critical Acclaim
The Case for Cameron: Cameron’s oeuvre tends to be more bloated and action-oriented than standard critical tastes are comfortable with, but most professional commentators still respect his storytelling abilities; for example, New York Times writer Janet Maslin called T2 “swift [and] exciting” and said that it “thoroughly justifies its vast expense.” Ironically, Titanic received slightly more mixed reviews than some of Cameron’s genre pieces, with a few critics calling it overlong or melodramatic.
The Case for Jackson: Jackson’s early horror-comedies were, not surprisingly, a tough sell for mainstream critics, but Heavenly Creatures, which Roger Ebert called “enthralling and frightening,” earned the director a lot of goodwill. The Lord of the Rings series was almost universally applauded; The Two Towers is rated at 100 percent on the Top Critics section of RottenTomatoes.com, lacking even one negative review. King Kong didn’t fare as well, and was referred to by many as excessive and indulgent. However, most critics enjoyed this summer’s District 9 (which was produced and “presented” but not written or directed by Jackson).
The Winner: Jackson. His best work earns more unqualified praise than Cameron has yet received.
The Overall Champion: James Cameron
This is a tough call, since Jackson has probably done more to legitimize and elevate genre entertainment. However, Cameron has had a huge influence on film technology and on Hollywood as a whole. Nevertheless, neither of these directors has retired yet. Fortunately for us, each one will have more chances to prove himself the Lord of the Biz.
See Other Director Brawls: Spielberg Vs. Lucas Raimi Vs. Nolan
See Superhero Fights: Superman Vs. Hulk & Batman Vs. Spider-Man
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