The Once and Future King of the World

An edifying look at James Cameron's first movie, Piranha II: The Spawning

In the bluish-green depths of the ocean, we see the deck of a sunken ship. Out of the murk, two pinpoints of light approach--humans, lured to this wreck by irresistible curiosity. It's the beginning of a James Cameron movie, but it's not that James Cameron movie. It's the first shot of the first film Cameron ever directed. Since Titanic hit the video stores September 1, it may be time to wonder: With Titanic, was Cameron merely going through the motions of themes he'd already explored with daring and youthful imagination in his 1981 debut?

Cameron was in his mid-20s when he accepted the assignment of directing the sequel to Piranha, the witty Joe Dante-directed/John Sayles-scripted shocker of 1978. A graduate of Cal State with a degree in physics, Cameron had worked on only one previous feature--he was a model builder, art director and special-effects man on the 1980 space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, produced by--who else?--Roger Corman.

Piranha II: The Spawning was largely financed with Italian money and made by an Italian crew, which, amazingly, prompted nobody to declare it a spaghetti disaster film. Fortunately, Piranha II is available on video (on Embassy Home Entertainment). A back-to-back viewing of the two films will quickly show you how the burden of a $200 million budget can bloat and homogenize the bold vision of a true artist.

Some, I suppose, might look at Piranha II's special effects--right down to occasionally visible wires suspending the title fish--its offbeat editing, the cinema verite, porno-movie patina of its cinematography, and its cast of unknowns--and assume they were watching a cheesy, low-budget genre exercise by a hopelessly inexperienced young filmmaker, showing, at best, only a few flickers of nascent talent.

But the more perceptive amongst us can see deeper. After all, what, besides massive length, does Titanic have on Piranha II? Well, okay, exquisite production values and big-name actors. And, sure, Titanic is about the disaster that movingly symbolized the cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th centuries, and is full of colorful historical figures and visual spectacle, while Piranha II is about an attack on an island resort by swarms of flying, carnivorous mutant fish. I suppose that some might regard that as a less exalted theme.

But look closer--aren't the differences really only superficial? Take that aforementioned opening scene: The approaching lights are carried by two scuba divers, a man and a woman, scantily clad--this is the Caribbean, not the North Atlantic. They enter the wreck, and the camera follows the man as he swims off by himself. Suddenly, the woman returns--naked but for her mask--and she and the man begin to make out underwater. Her hand strays down to his ankle, and she draws out his knife--might she be treacherous?

No, just playful--she uses the knife to cut away his Speedo. Come to think of it, I guess that is sort of treacherous--what's he going to do when they get back to the resort? Alas, we never get to find out. Before this soft-core sex scene, perhaps the strangest in the history of cinema, can be consummated, the two submarine lovers are devoured by a ravening school of piranha. As in Titanic, a touching love affair is cruelly intruded upon by the implacable dangers of the sea. And, once again, it turns out that human technological hubris and greed have also played a cruel part in the disaster.

The ichthyologists among you are already snorting with disdain, because the piranha, of course, is a freshwater fish. Just be patient, all will be explained in due time. Remember, you're in the hands of a master moviemaker.

Not that anyone knew it in those days, from the nonreception that Piranha II got. I saw it with a friend in 1981, in an otherwise empty theater in Pennsylvania. Notice of the film has remained extremely scant, even in comprehensive reference books. It's called "a lame debut" in Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia. Leonard Maltin's Movies on TV opines, "You'd have to be psychic to have spotted any talent in director Cameron in this debut picture," a sentiment echoed by the usually more open-minded Psychotronic Video Guide: "Nobody could have predicted from this that James Cameron . . . would . . . later become one of the highest-paid directors in the world." Another friend of mine, a Cameron fan, watched the movie at my suggestion and later rechristened it The Abyss-mal.

Philistines. Just call me psychic; I liked the picture back in that empty multiplex in '81, and I have to admit that sitting through Titanic's three hours again isn't nearly as cheery a prospect to me as sitting through the brisk, economical 88-minute running time of Piranha II again.

It's all there. The deadly fishies, you see, are the result of a busted government defense project: They're the products of a gene-splice of piranha, flying fish and grunion. There's your technological hubris.

When the marine-biologist heroine tries to warn the jerk resort boss of the danger, he sneers at and then fires her and forges ahead with his tourist activities. There's your greed.

There's tragedy, when an old fisherman loses his son to the fish. There's a noble sacrifice at the finale; and here, too, the brave heroine survives her ordeal at sea because, well, because she hangs on.

But what, you may ask, about the noble, heart-lifting romance of Titanic? Piranha II has plenty. First of all, the central characters are involved in a romantic triangle. The pretty marine biologist is separated from her husband, the police chief of the island. There's a guest at the resort who's trying like crazy to romance her. It turns out that this guy has a dark side, and knows more than he's telling, yet he emerges as strangely sympathetic--a level of character complexity never aspired to in the creation of the storybook lovers played by Leo and Kate.

Innocent storybook romance does have its representatives in the film, however. The marine biologist and the cop have a son, and he ends up stranded with the pretty daughter of the yacht owner for whom he's crewing. At the height of the crisis, the girl breathlessly says, "We're lost . . . lost at sea! How romantic!"

How much more Titanic could dialogue get?

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