In April 2008, in a windowless Los Angeles warehouse where Howard Hughes built his airplanes some 70 years earlier, James Cameron, in a hockey jersey and jeans, was doing something élite directors do not do holding a camera. "Why can't I see anything?" he yelled from an apparently empty warehouse floor to a small crew huddled over computer monitors in a corner. "Oh, oh, oh, I'm in the monster's head!" Cameron backed up, and a peek through his camera lens revealed blackness giving way to a thick and vivid rain forest where a tall, blue, alien version of Sigourney Weaver was battling the monster whose head had just blocked the director's view. On the warehouse floor there was no rain forest, no monster, no Weaver just a bunch of guys and their computers. But Cameron's camera was allowing him to shoot inside a virtual universe of his own creation. He swooped in over the monster's shoulder and entered the world of Avatar.
Equal parts artist and gearhead, Cameron, 55, has brought to film the time-travel saga of The Terminator, the watery depths of The Abyss and the sinking deck of Titanic. But more than any of his previous movies, Avatar is wholly Cameron's world. The 2½-hr. sci-fi epic follows an ex-Marine named Jake Sully as he struggles for survival on an alien moon called Pandora, home to a tall, blue, humanoid species called the Na'vi and to a mysterious resource called unobtainium, which draws humans in a future century to colonize the planet. Jake (Sam Worthington) must inhabit the body of a human-alien hybrid, or avatar, to breathe the noxious air on Pandora. There he falls in love with a Na'vi woman and finds himself at the center of a human-Na'vi battle. The story had been knocking around in Cameron's brain since the 1970s, when, while driving a truck for Southern California's Brea Olinda Unified School District, he began to paint some fanciful scenes that would linger in his mind: flying jellyfish, wood sprites (which he called "dandelion things"), blazingly colorful bioluminescent forests, fan lizards and big-eyed cats.
Years in the making, and with a production budget from $200 million to $300 million plus marketing costs, Avatar arrives in theaters on Dec. 18 to colossal expectations. The movie industry hopes its immersive special effects spark a big-screen renaissance. Fans crave the next Star Wars. It's a heavy burden, even for a man who seems to enjoy doing only things that are hard. Cameron first laid out his vision for the technology he would use in the film in a digital manifesto in the early 1990s; he then labored to perfect it over the course of a decade and a half, creating cameras that let him peer into virtual worlds and pushing for the industry's adoption of a digital 3-D format. The result is as if the director has broken through the screen and pulled the viewer by the hand into a new, exotic world.
Bringing Pandora to Life
Despite Cameron's success with Titanic the highest-grossing movie of all time and winner of a record-tying 11 Oscars Avatar was not an easy sell to his home studio, 20th Century Fox. Since 1997, Cameron had been largely absent from the Hollywood scene, riding in submersibles, shooting documentaries and building new filmmaking toys. In 2005, Fox funded a $10 million, 5-min. prototype for the movie, but when Cameron delivered a 153-page draft of the script months later, the studio balked. Here was an ambitious project with a lot of risky elements, including unproven technology, blue protagonists with tails and a script that wasn't based on a comic book, novel or video game making it unique for a big-budget film in its time. In September 2006, Fox formally passed on Avatar. Only after another studio (Disney) seemed poised to take it on and after Cameron made concessions in both his script and his compensation did Fox green-light the film. Now he just had to make it.