This is the fifth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.
James Cameron stands atop an incredible legacy of innovation and execution, a proven patriarch of popular cinema. He exhibits a persistent boldness and a hearty liberal idealism, a paternal spirit, whose familiarity settles into a sort of conservatism, at least in its respect and expectation for the status quo. This makes him the Emperor, whose merits are stability and strength of character -- who wields authority and commands respect, even from his detractors.
This is all built on an early bedrock of fantastic successes, a miraculous sequence of great film projects that propelled Cameron into the ranks of Hollywood royalty. He capitalized ruthlessly on his mixed experience directing Piranha II: The Spawning, finding a studio to produce and distribute The Terminator, and from that springboard, he vaulted into big-budget cinema, directing the military sci-fi-horror Aliens and the maritime science fiction saga The Abyss. Finally, like a conqueror expanding his capital city into the surrounding countryside, he directed Terminator 2, the boundary-pushing sequel to his breakout film.
I will maintain to my dying day that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was not only one of the better science-fiction films since Star Wars, but one of the greatest action films that has ever been produced, or will ever be. It was dizzyingly ambitious... whereas many blockbuster films have zero compelling characters, T2 had three compelling main characters, a terrifying villain, and even its side-characters (Miles Dyson and Dr. Silberman, for instance) were engaging and memorable. John Connor's search for a mother figure in the militant survivalist Sarah Connor... Arnold as a cyborg Judas, enlisted by human rebels to destroy the very technology that would eventually create it... Sarah as the tortured prophet, endlessly reliving the pain of a apocalypse that hasn't happened yet... the mythic and the timeless were woven deeply into the fabric of Terminator 2, and then the whole construction was disguised as a story about fucking robots shooting at each other.
Cameron has done all the necessary lifting to earn his place as an Emperor. His reputation is built on the sci-fi action film, a credit to his masculinity, and he's proven adept at directing militaristic action and suspense. At the same time, he's faithfully represented the demographics that are traditionally marginalized by his genre: with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, he's given women an unparalleled place alongside men in his films. He has contributed to the infrastructure of Hollywood by championing its emerging technologies... CGI in T2, 3D in Avatar. Finally, having demonstrated both his authority and his sensitivity, he's taken on a certain idealism in his later films... Avatar is unmistakably anti-corporatist and environmentalist, even to the point of being paternalistic (a fault that history will forgive, though many audience members will not).
So yes, Cameron is the reigning Emperor of Blockbuster Cinema, and he has a great deal left to give us. As his fans and critics, we will get to see whether he drifts out of date with his medium, or goes mad with power and goes out with a bang of absurd passion projects. Either way, we will remain thankful, and his name will be inscribed in the undying ledger of Hollywood.