Time may have ever so slightly mellowed James Cameron’s combative, take-no-prisoners approach to life and filmmaking, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t get a kick out of rocking the boat on the way to the bank.
So, as his sci-fi epic “Avatar” sails past $2 billion in worldwide box office, breaking the record set by “Titanic,” his last movie, Cameron takes no small delight in the way conservative commentators have attacked the movie.
“Let me put it this way,” Cameron says during a recent dinner conversation at a Hollywood cafe. “I’m happy to piss those guys off. I don’t agree with their world view.”
Cameron, though, does take exception to the imprecision of the attacks. Right-wing pundits have called “Avatar” a “deep expression of anti-Americanism” (the Weekly Standard), “anti-human, anti-military and anti-Western world view” (blogger and filmmaker Govindini Murty) and “ ‘Death Wish’ for lefties” (Big Hollywood).
All off base, Cameron says -- though the “Death Wish” reference does raise a chuckle.
“I think there’s something amazingly satisfying when the hammerheads come out of the forest and start mowing down all the bad security enforcers,” Cameron says, referring to the movie’s climactic creatures-versus-humans battle sequence. “Nature gets to fight back. It’s ‘Death Wish’ for environmentalists. When did nature ever get to fight back in a movie?”
That question contains the core concept Cameron wanted to present in “Avatar.” Yes, the movie boasts insane technological leaps for the medium. And, yes, there’s a rock ‘em, sock ‘em action story with greed-head, colonial-minded humans battling blue-hued humanoid aliens over the resources of an Eden-like planet. But those elements are the hook, Cameron says, to make audiences absorb the movie’s pro-environmentalist “medicine.”
It was a medicine that 20th Century Fox executives tried to talk Cameron out of administering. When they read Cameron’s screenplay, the reaction, according to the director, was: “We really like the story. It’s great. But, well, is there a way to not have so much of this tree-hugging, ‘Ferngully’ stuff in it?”
“I said, ‘Not with me making it,’ ” Cameron remembers. “Because that was my purpose in making the film. I wanted to make an environmentally conscious mainstream movie. And to be fair to 20th Century Fox, any of the other studios would have said the same thing. Fox ended up being enormously supportive and wrote this huge check. But they would have been much more comfortable if I had eliminated what they called the ‘tree-hugging’ elements.”
One of the movie’s key images -- the violent destruction of the towering Hometree, the center of the Na’vi world -- directly evokes the collapse of the World Trade Center. Cameron says the connection wasn’t purely intentional. He was just looking to deliver an emotional gut-punch and make an explicit link to the damage he believes humans are inflicting on Earth, a planet that has become a “dying world” in “Avatar’s” not-so-distant future.
‘Live with less’
“And it will be a dying world if we don’t make some fundamental changes about how we view ourselves and how we view wealth,” Cameron says. “I consider the wealth of this nation its natural resources, not the things that we’re brought up to think of as wealth. We’re going to have to live with less.
“And I know people will look at me and say, ‘Oh, he’s a rich guy. What does he know about living with less?’ I admit it’s difficult once you’ve reached a certain level in your life. But I think there’s a way to live and raise your kids with a set of values that teaches them the importance of hard work, the importance of respecting other people and the importance of respecting nature. And that it’s not this consumer society where you buy something and then throw it away when you get the next new thing, filling up huge landfills with plastic and electronics.”
It should be noted that this doesn’t come off as a rant or a lecture or a slice of king-of-the-world arrogance. It’s Cameron, at 55, a father of three young children and still every inch the science geek he was as a kid, speaking from the heart. And just as high school whiz kids are often despised for their aptitude and the whiff of know-it-all vanity that comes with it, there are plenty of people in tight-knit Hollywood reeling at the thought that Cameron might again find his way to the podium come Oscar night, as he did twice on Globes night.
These people don’t even register with Cameron. But, during dinner, he circles back several times to the idea that he’s somehow anti-military because of the way he depicts the corporate military contractors -- “Blackwater types,” he calls them -- in “Avatar.” The director repeatedly expresses his support for the armed forces, noting his Marine brother’s service in Kuwait and professing deep respect for the sense of teamwork, duty and service that he believes form the heart of the Marine Corps.
His question -- and since this is Cameron, he already knows the answer -- is: Can you be pro-military but oppose the choices made by what he considers to be a corrupt Bush administration? The prevailing motif in “Avatar” about opening your eyes (it’s the last shot of the film and the central image of the one-sheet) can be seen as Cameron’s direct response to the Iraq war.
“I probably shouldn’t have put in the direct references to the language used with the Iraq war, the ‘shock and awe’ line, because it takes you too much there,” Cameron reflects. “But what I really was saying was, ‘Listen to what your leaders are saying. Open your eyes. And understand what the run-up to war is like, so the next time it happens, you can question it.’ ”
Cameron has no patience for anyone attempting to make direct parallels between “Avatar” and Iraq, like the German journalist who told Cameron during a recent media conference that the film seemed like the story of the Taliban told from the movement’s point of view. He finds that kind of literalism “egregious” and “willfully ignorant of the power of allegorical storytelling.”
“If ‘Star Wars’ had been made after the Iraq war, people would have called it anti-American,” Cameron says, laughing. “I mean, it was a story of a small, ragtag band of insurgents fighting a major imperial power. George Lucas would be running for his life.”
Not that Cameron would ever call himself a “Star Wars” fan. He likes his science-fiction dystopian, eschewing pure escapism. It’s hard to imagine Ewoks having a place in Cameron’s future worlds, unless they’re part of the food chain. Myths are fine but, for him, there has to be some sense of purpose behind their use other than a simple celebration of human heroism.
Best of both worlds
And what of those critics who say that “Avatar” is a success despite its message? Can audiences enjoy the movie’s fantastical elements and have its cautionary content fly over their heads?
“The movie is designed to work as a straightforward adventure and a romance, and if that’s all you want from a movie, that’s fine,” Cameron says. “But the message isn’t going over people’s heads. That kind of talk trivializes the movie in the same way ‘Titanic’ was trivialized by saying it was a movie for 14-year-old girls.
“The thing is, you’re not going to convert people with a popular movie, but you can resonate with things they already believe. So the fact that ‘Avatar’ is resonating is meaningful. Maybe that’s what gets these guys more riled up than anything, the fact that maybe they don’t have their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist like they think they do.”