James Cameron: tantrum-prone master of monster epics

Macho director James Cameron is back. His latest film, Avatar, is a $500m blockbuster which is already smashing records - as the most expensive film ever made.

"The master of epics and monster budgets" is back, says The Sunday Telegraph. Indeed, James Cameron's 3D space fantasy, Avatar, is seen by some as "the future" of film. Others gleefully predict a box-office flop of colossal proportions: at $500m and counting, Avatar is already smashing records as the most expensive film ever made.

Cameron, 55, is part megalomaniac, part control freak, part genius, says The Independent. Stories of his excesses on set abound. "He has a temper like you wouldn't believe," according to actress Kate Winslet. During recent shooting he apparently thought nothing of whacking one of the stars with a ten-foot rubber stick to get the right reaction in a battle scene. The director is no favourite of the US Screen Actors Guild, which accuses him of mistreating his casts, says The Sunday Telegraph, and five marriages "testify further to the challenging complexities of his personality".

But Cameron's devotion to his craft is undisputable. Having dreamt up Avatar, he waited 14 years for the right technology with which to realise his vision (see below). And his work ethic is legendary. "God took six days creating the universe and then put his feet up," observes Entertainment Weekly. "James Cameron would consider that slacking."

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A Canadian, Cameron was born in a small mining town near Niagara Falls in Ontario, the son of an engineer and a painter. He learnt discipline from his father, who "disapproved of his geeky son's addiction to sci-fi comics, which he would throw in the bin", says The Sunday Times. Cameron's chief inspiration as a teenager was the release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. He saw the film ten times and was inspired to start experimenting with his father's home-movie camera.

When the family later moved to America, Cameron flunked classes at California State University to escape to a nearby film archive, later dropping out completely to scrape a living as a truck driver. In 1978, he made his first film, Xenogenesis, with two friends. That won him a series of jobs designing sets and models for low-budget sci-fi films. The big turning point came in 1984 when he got his first directing break with The Terminator, a low-budget thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film's unexpected success (it ended up earning a remarkable $78m) "marked the end of Cameron's deference to studio bean-counters", says The Sunday Telegraph, and a string of hits notably Aliens in 1986 ensued.

Cameron thrives on machismo (he enjoys driving into the Californian desert to fire machine guns), but lives a little too dangerously for many studio executives, says The Sunday Times. He nearly had a breakdown when Titanic went wildly over budget amid rumours that it could ruin 20th Century Fox. "The pressures on Cameron are extreme," notes The New Yorker. And he never forgives his enemies. More than a decade on, he's still ranting violently about the critics who panned Titanic and how he eventually trounced them when it went on to gross a still unrivalled $1.8bn. With the fate of Avatar still up in the air, the next few months could prove interesting.

Avatar: a unique spectacle that could 'save cinema'

Is Avatar, which opens this week, worth $500m? "Anticipation has been intense, to put it mildly," says Entertainment Weekly. So far, the film's trailers "have been greeted with both rapturous enthusiasm and withering scepticism". Variety says the film set a century in the future and about the Earth's colonisation of a moon called Pandora delivers "unique spectacle, breathtaking sights and narrative excitement". Yet Gawker calls it "vomit-inducing". Other critics have labelled Cameron's alien blue humanoids "elongated Smurfs".

The film is dense with political themes: from green issues to the invasion of Vietnam and Iraq. Indeed, it may be that rare thing: "a blockbuster that makes people think", says The Sunday Times. But the special effects are the real star. At their heart is an innovative camera, designed by Cameron, which can film computer-generated onscreen forms. The overall effect is "like a big, powerful game machine".

Yet Cameron isn't just aiming to add to his Oscar collection. Some think Avatar could "save cinema itself". Its revolutionary 3D-effects cannot be downloaded from the internet and are impossible to reproduce at home for the foreseeable future at least. Avatar is thus just as much a fight against contemporary pirates on planet Earth as it is against the rabbit-eared, blue aliens of James Cameron's imaginary future.