n 1977, a 22-year-old truck driver named James Cameron went to see Star Wars with a pal. His friend enjoyed the movie; Cameron walked out of the theater ready to punch something. He was a college dropout and spent his days delivering school lunches in Southern California’s Orange County. But in his free time, he painted tiny models and wrote science fiction — stories set in galaxies far, far away. Now he was facing a deflating reality: He had been daydreaming about the kind of world that Lucas had just brought to life. Star Wars was the film he should have made.
It got him so angry he bought himself some cheap movie equipment and started trying to figure out how Lucas had done it. He infuriated his wife by setting up blindingly bright lights in the living room and rolling a camera along a track to practice dolly shots. He spent days scouring the USC library, reading everything he could about special effects. He became, in his own words, “completely obsessed.”
He quickly realized that he was going to need some money, so he persuaded a group of local dentists to invest $20,000 in what he billed as his version of Star Wars. He and a friend wrote a script called Xenogenesis and used the money to shoot a 12-minute segment that featured a stop-motion fight scene between an alien robot and a woman operating a massive exoskeleton. (The combatants were models that Cameron had meticulously assembled.)
The plan was to use the clip to get a studio to back a full-length feature film. But after peddling it around Hollywood for months, Cameron came up empty and temporarily shelved his ambition to trump Lucas.
The effort did yield something worthwhile: a job with B-movie king Roger Corman. Hired to build miniature spaceships for the film Battle Beyond the Stars, Cameron worked his way up to become one of Corman’s visual effects specialists. In 1981, he made it to the director’s chair, overseeing a schlocky horror picture, Piranha II: The Spawning.
One night, after a Piranha editing session, Cameron went to sleep with a fever and dreamed that he saw a robot clawing its way toward a cowering woman. The image stuck. Within a year, Cameron used it as the basis for a script about a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of a future rebel leader.
This time, he wouldn’t need any dentists. The story was so compelling, he was able to persuade a small film financing company to let him direct the picture. When it was released in 1984, The Terminator established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a huge star, and James Cameron, onetime truck driver, suddenly became a top-tier director.
Over the next 10 years, Cameron helmed a series of daring films, including Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies. Generating $1.1 billion in worldwide box office revenue, they gave Cameron the kind of clout he needed to revisit his dream of making an interstellar epic. So in 1995, he wrote an 82-page treatment about a paralyzed soldier’s virtual quest on a faraway planet after Earth becomes a bleak wasteland. The alien world, called Pandora, is populated by the Na’vi, fierce 10-foot-tall blue humanoids with catlike faces and reptilian tails. Pandora’s atmosphere is so toxic to humans that scientists grow genetically engineered versions of the Na’vi, so-called avatars that can be linked to a human’s consciousness, allowing complete remote control of the creature’s body. Cameron thought that this project — titled Avatar — could be his next blockbuster. That is, the one after he finished a little adventure-romance about a ship that hits an iceberg.
Titanic, of course, went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. It won 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director. Cameron could now make any film he wanted. So what did he do?
Cameron would not release another Hollywood film for 12 years. He made a few underwater documentaries and did some producing, but he was largely out of the public eye. For most of that time, he rarely mentioned Avatar and said little about his directing plans.
But now, finally, he’s back. On December 18, Avatar arrives in theaters. This time, Cameron, who turned 55 this year, didn’t need to build half an ocean liner on the Mexican coast as he did with Titanic, so why did it take one of the most powerful men in Hollywood so long to come out with a single film? In part, the answer is that it’s not easy to out-Lucas George Lucas. Cameron needed to invent a suite of moviemaking technologies, push theaters nationwide to retool, and imagine every detail of an alien world. But there’s more to it than that. To really understand why Avatar took so long to reach the screen, we need to look back at the making of Titanic.