Wise men say, if you want to rediscover yourself, look back to your childhood self. And so, I watched James Cameron’s Xenogenesis for the first time a few days ago and rediscovered my admiration for the revered Hollywood film director, producer, and screenwriter who is best known for making science fiction movies.
Xenogenesis is the first ever screenplay and film by James Cameron. Released in 1978, it is a short science fiction thriller about two rebels who try to fight back against an extraterrestrial race that has invaded a human civilization. Interestingly, Cameron raised $20,000 from a consortium of local dentists to fund the movie, which was mostly shot in his living room using self-taught methods and techniques. This is a testament to the dedication and passion with which Cameron approaches his work, which makes me wonder, who is James Cameron the man?
JAMES CAMERON THE MAN
James Francis Cameron was born in Ontario, Canada to a father who was an electrical engineer and an artist mother. At age 17, Cameron and his family moved to California where he attended Sonora High School, and then Brea Olinda High School. Rather than jostling for a spot on the football team or some other sport, Cameron preferred to build things. As his former classmates recall, “He enjoyed building things that either went up into the air or into the deep.”
After high school, Cameron enrolled at Fullerton College to study physics. But that did not last long as he soon dropped out of college to work odd jobs, including as a truck driver and janitor. In his own words, he dropped out of college because he was “too busy making films to do anything else.”
He wrote in between jobs and his free time. He often visited the library where he learnt about special effects by reading students’ work on anything related to film technology. When George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977, Cameron was so inspired by the film that he quit his job as a truck driver and threw himself headlong into the film industry.
JAMES CAMERON’S XENOGENESIS – THE ANALYSIS
By 1978, James Cameron’s Xenogenesis film demoed, and apparently tanked, as the dentists who funded the film pulled out of the project after the screen demo. Luckily for future generations of movie goers the dentists did not have the last say. Cameron got a lifeline when Roger Corman, a film producer who at the time was a trailblazer in the world of independent film, considered Xenogenesis to be advanced enough to earn Cameron a Special Effects Director role on Piranha II and Battle Beyond the Stars.
James Cameron’s Xenogenesis short film opens with a narration of the following intro:
“They made him a machine, trained to deliver man from the final cataclysm. They built him a machine, the most awesome ship ever constructed and with a mind of its own. She was raised by a machine, but alone knew the power of love. Together, they searched the wilderness of stars for a place where the cycle of creation could begin again. Xenogenesis, Man’s ultimate adventure.“
A sequence of illustrations run alongside the narration. I read somewhere that James Cameron is also an artist, but I am not sure if these illustrations were done by him. At any rate, we are soon introduced to one of the main characters, Raj.
Raj is wandering around what looks like an abandoned spaceship, talking to someone on the intercom strapped to his shoulder. I am guessing he is the machine trained to deliver man from the final cataclysm, but he looks, talks, and walks exactly like a regular human. The video I watched is super grainy so I could not make out all the details, but the interior of the spaceship appeared to be sterile and had bright light sources juxtaposed against the dark background. It made me think of a gigantic circuit board.
The people who once lived in this sector have been dead for fifty thousand years, and yet it seems to be in such good condition. Just as Raj is wondering who has been doing the dusting, the gigantic doors behind him slide open and out rumbles a tank-like machine. It turns out that the person he was talking to is someone named Laurie because he whispers into the intercom:
“Laurie, it’s one of those machines we saw before, only this one’s moving!”
This sentence is loaded. It implies that the machine was once a regular machine, an inanimate object until a human came along to activate it. But now somehow it has become self-aware. Or perhaps it is being remotely controlled by some entity. This immediately reminded me of the scene in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, when Lieutenant General Brewster unwittingly uploaded Skynet onto the Cyber Research Systems network.
Cyber Research Systems is the military’s in-house software developer, which means that the now self-aware Skynet has control over all the military weapons and machines connected to its network. Could Cameron have already anticipated vast computer networks when he made Xenogenesis back in 1978 more than a decade before the Internet was invented?
The machine starts to clear away the bits of metal parts and debris littering the floor. With the dusting done, it is about to leave by the same door it came through when it suddenly realizes that curious Raj is following behind. They regard one another for a moment. I would like to believe that each recognizes the other as a fellow machine, and both are trying to decipher whether they are friends or foes seeing as they look completely different from each other.
That moment passes, however, when the machine raises its hand and shines a bright light in Raj’s face that sends him hurtling to the floor. Grimacing in pain, Raj finds the strength to scramble to his feet and flee down an alley. The machine pursues him, shooting laser beams at everything in its path. One of them catches Raj and once again he is sent hurtling to the floor. This time the force is so strong that he falls off the edge of the path and tumbles over a sharp ledge.
Holding on to the ledge for dear life, Raj takes a quick peak over his shoulder at the cyber abyss waiting to swallow him should he fall. Meanwhile, the machine menacingly approaches. It is just as well that Laurie was already on the way. She arrives on the scene manning a quad mech, and just in time to rescue Raj from the machine. A battle of the machines ensues. Laurie at the controls of the quad mech tries to ward off the machine while Raj dangles on the edge.
I, for one, am impressed at how smooth the live action in this sequence is, especially considering that Cameron probably used stop motion to achieve it. Over forty years since it was made, the film may seem rather rudimentary now. But if you consider that Cameron was working on what at the time could be considered a high concept film with very limited resources, then you will recognize Xenogenesis for the gem of experimental film that it really is. I certainly would have never guessed that most of it was shot in his living room.
The film is less than thirteen minutes long, and yet using innovative techniques such as the illustrated narration at the beginning of the film and smart dialogue, Cameron manages to tell a story in a fraction of the time it would have taken less competent and creative storytellers to do. The only thing that I don’t get about the movie though, is how Cameron imagined that a human and an android would begin the cycle of creation again.
THE LEGACY OF XENOGENESIS
I think we can all agree that Cameron got his big break when he made The Terminator. When it debuted in 1984, the concept of a cyborg sent back through time to carry out a deadly mission that would change the future was revolutionary. The terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a cyborg assassin from 2029 who travels back to 1984 to kill a Los Angeles waitress going by the name of Sarah Connor.
Unbeknownst to the waitress, her yet to be conceived son will one day become the leader of the human resistance that will save mankind from extinction at the hands of a hostile artificial intelligence in a machine dominated, post-apocalyptic future. The machines figured that if they prevented the resistance leader from being born by killing his mother, the future human uprising would preemptively be thwarted.
The Terminator opens with the following intro:
“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present.
I could not tear my eyes off Linda Hamilton in her role as Sarah Connor. It is an impressive performance where she pulls off the difficult balance between delicate and vulnerable on the one hand, and hard and resilient on the other hand. And her physicality throughout the intense scenes was convincing.
And then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger who is masterful in his role as the stoic and dreadful cyborg assassin from the future. To this day I cannot think of anyone who could have played the terminator better than Schwarzenegger. It is funny to think that back in the day, his gigantic muscles were rumored to have been achieved by the trickery of clever special effects.
The Terminator is a slick, high-tech offering jam-packed with thrills and action from start to finish. But to me, it is reminiscent of James Cameron’s Xenogenesis film. There are so many concepts that are carried over that it seems to me that Cameron had unfinished business in Xenogenesis which he was able to resolve in The Terminator.
Just look at the opening scene of The Terminator. A tank-like machine rumbles over a pile of human skulls, shooting laser beams at a resistance soldier who dodges in and out of the rubble as he tries to escape the attack. It is almost a blow-to-blow reenactment of the scene in Xenogenesis where Raj flees from the machine.
While Xenogenesis ends on a literal cliffhanger with Laurie’s quad mech driving the other machine right to the edge from which Raj is dangling, The Terminator ends with a heavily pregnant Sarah Connor driving off into the sunset in her Jeep, lulling us into believing that the enemy has been vanquished. But of course, we know from the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, that it is far from over. Through Skynet the machines rise again – bigger, better, and more vengeful than before.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day is set ten years after the events in the first Terminator movie. The Terminator returns. But there is a twist. This time he has been sent from the future to save the young John Connor. The John Connor in the future had captured the cyborg and rewired him with a command to protect the younger version of himself at all costs.
The threat this time around is a more advanced and lethal terminator, the T-1000. Brilliantly played by Robert Patrick, this liquid-metal, shapeshifting cyborg has been sent back in time to kill John Connor and prevent him from becoming the leader of the human resistance. We can already see elements of this concept, Battle of the Machines, emerging in James Cameron’s Xenogenesis film. Quite like the future John Connor manipulates the terminator to fight the T-1000, Laurie controls her quad mech to fight the other machine.
Much as the opening scene of the first Terminator movie was chilling, with the machine bulldozing its way through piles of human skulls, I think that the similar scene in Xenogenesis was more eerie in that there was not a single trace left of the human civilization that once inhabited the sector. It’s like a cautionary tale of what would have happened had the human resistance in the Terminator movies not persevered.
Undoubtedly, there is a giant leap in technology, technique, and quality between Xenogenesis and the first Terminator movie. However, the underlying theme of doomsday as one species, civilization, or intelligence attempts to take over another that reoccurs in many of Cameron’s later movies was well established in Xenogenesis.
NEVER SAY DIE!
Whether it be in The Terminator where machines want to take over humanity, or in Aliens where aliens want to take over human civilizations, or in Avatar where humans want to take over alien planets, or even in Titanic where spurned fiancé, Cal Hockley, wants to possess Rose even as their ship is sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, Cameron has mastered a genre that chills and thrills us all – the relentless assailant that will not stop in its deadly mission even when it has burnt and crashed and been reduced to a pile of smoldering ash.
Let us for one moment imagine an alternate universe where James Cameron’s Xenogenesis film had never been made. Would The Terminator and all the other films that followed it have been realized? Would James Cameron, the revered Hollywood director, have been actualized?
If you enjoyed reading this, you might like my blog post, Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness: Fiction, Future and Beyond.
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Filmtrepreneur. (2019, Sept 20). James Cameron’s Xenogenesis (Terminator Short Film in 720pHD). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysrN6HnmzD8
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (2021, July 28). James Cameron. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cameron