Oh, to have been in the audience at Stamford Collegiate in Niagara Falls, Ont., to watch the dawning of a fiery young talent. It was the early 1970s, the ecological movement was beginning to sprout - everyone was still talking about the oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif., two years earlier, and its legacy of sludge-coated birds featured on the cover of Time.
One student, who spent most of his time drawing fantastical creatures in his notebook when he should have been doing math, was infuriated enough to create his first major work, a play called Extinction Syndrome . He wrote it, produced it, created the special effects. The human species - too stupid or lazy to protect itself from the follies of its rulers - dies out, victim of an environmental catastrophe. It was a thematic wellspring he would return to, once or twice, in the decades that followed.
Directed by James Cameron, Avatar stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver.
"The idea that governments and corporations were utterly corrupt, evil … systemically wrecking the planet through wars and environmental carnage was pretty much the mainstay of my thought process as a teenager," says James Cameron, famous now for a few big-screen dystopian fantasies. Then, after a comic pause worthy of Stephen Colbert, he adds: "So you see I haven't moved very much."
Indeed, he has not. Cameron's new 3-D spectacle, Avatar , which at a rumoured $300-million (U.S.) would be the most expensive movie ever made, revisits familiar themes: At its centre is the story of rapacious humans, having depleted the resources of Earth, plundering the rich ecosystem of Pandora, a wondrous planet inhabited by blue aliens who live in harmony with their jungle environment. (The aliens' world is drawn in shades of sparkly purple, green and blue - imagine a six-year-old girl's idea of paradise, and you're close.) The alien race, the Na'vi, are nominally peaceful but don't take kindly to cigar-chomping mercenaries slashing and burning the trees they worship, and led by a disabled human marine (played by Sam Worthington), they prepare to defend the forest. If Silent Spring and Pocahontas had a 3-D baby, this would be it.
So, how does Cameron, 55, reconcile making a blockbuster movie - by definition a bit of a resource-gobbler - with its overtly green message? "It's an interesting problem," says the grey-haired, jean-clad director, seeming relaxed this morning, a couple of days after the world premiere of Avatar in London. "We were a relatively small-scale production."
"Relatively" is a relative term for a man known for his meticulous attention to detail - the luggage tags in his last film, Titanic , had to be authentic Edwardian ones even if the audience never saw them - and also for inventing new film technology if reality doesn't match his vision. That meant devising submersible cameras for Titanic , and a new system of 3-D filming for Avatar that involved shooting the actors using tiny cameras mounted on their heads.
"The greenest decision [we made]was not to shoot in a rain forest," he says. "The incursion of a film crew with its trucks and equipment would have had a devastating effect. It would be too strong an irony to make a film about protecting habitat and biodiversity while trampling and bulldozing plants."
Cameron hardly suits his popular image - or, at least, his on-set one - of a shouty, tyrannical bear. This may be credited to the pleasing first reviews of Avatar , which, like Titanic , had dire preopening word of mouth. There was talk that the film was too long, that Cameron's much-vaunted new 3-D effects caused people's stomachs to churn. But he appears to have pulled another one out of the bag, and reviewers seemed awed enough by the visual wizardry not to notice the triteness of the plot.
After moving to the United States from Canada 37 years ago, Cameron studied physics at California State University in Fullerton, before switching to an English major, and his films - Aliens , the Terminator s, The Abyss - have always explored humanity's dependence on science, which sometimes goes badly wrong. Does he ever feel that tension in his filmmaking? After all, he's the guy who's worried about the wires and the guy who writes the story. "I'm able to keep my techno-geek demon bullwhipped in the corner when I'm working with actors or when I'm writing," he says. As for the gee-wizardry, "there's no point in doing it if it's not in service of the story."
There are other familiar Cameron themes at work in Avatar - the physical act of seeing as a metaphor for wisdom; the presence of a tough broad who speaks as the voice of reason (Sigourney Weaver, in a slightly older version of Ripley from Aliens , is cast as a chain-smoking scientist.) But never mind the subtext. Cameron's explicit goal is to recreate the sense of wonder he felt as a movie-mad boy - and to draw people away from their tiny gadgets and their PCs back into the movie theatre. "Watching a movie on an iPhone," he says, "is not watching a movie."
He hasn't lost the memory of seeing Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts , two movies with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, which left him so awed, he says, that he didn't sleep for days after. Then came other touchstones - 2001: A Space Odyssey , which he saw at least 10 times in the theatre, and Star Wars and The Matrix . After making Titanic , he felt no need to go back to feature films, and would have been content zooming around in a Zodiac shooting aquatic documentaries, except those aliens that he sat drawing in high school just wouldn't leave his mind. That, and a certain messianic drive to "rescue people from their ADHD distraction." So although the technology he needed didn't exist, he set out, with the help of Peter Jackson's special-effects firm WETA Digital, to make it so: "I thought, I can do this. I can give people that sense of wonder again."
It's been a dozen years since the release of Titanic , the biggest-grossing movie of all time, which won 11 Oscars (and provided one of television's great cringe-making moments when Cameron shouted, on accepting the best director Oscar, "I'm the king of the world!"). Avatar took 41/2 years to make, a process he likens to "jumping off a cliff and knitting the parachute on the way down." And yes, sometimes it felt like the parachute wouldn't open, but that didn't seem as critical as it might have in earlier days. He's learned to put things in perspective. The director who once shrivelled even Kate Winslet's stout heart (she said it would take "a lot of money" before she'd work with him again) has given up on-set shouting … sort of.
"I'm just this big mellow pussycat," he says dryly. "No, I don't think anybody would put me in that classification."
The difference is that now he's got new priorities, the first being his family (he has three young children with fifth wife, Suzy Amis; and an older daughter). The second is "the life of the mind, curiosity, exploration," which led to the undersea documentaries that occupied him over the past decade. Then, trailing along in bronze-medal position, comes moviemaking.
"I think I may have mellowed out," he says. "It's not quite so life-and-death as it used to be."