SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Apparently, there’s no such thing as a quiet little corner of the world when your name is James Cameron. “Welcome to the wind tunnel,” the 56-year-old filmmaker said as a Santa Monica sea breeze gusted through the French doors of his beachside hotel room on a recent afternoon. A hard-backed “Avatar” poster flew off a tripod stand in the corner and the filmmaker chuckled.
“Look at that, Neytiri just leaps at you the moment you walk in the room.”
Surprise attacks and second winds are fitting imagery these days. “Avatar,” the December release that stands as the highest-grossing film in history and was still showing on 500 screens as recently as mid-April, will return to theaters Friday with nine minutes of additional footage and somewhat uncertain ambitions.
The ubiquitous “Avatar” pulled in $2.4 billion in worldwide box office, which raises the question of who the target audience is for the release of “Avatar: Special Edition” — how can moviegoers miss a film if it never really went away? More than that, “Avatar” now stands as the bestselling Blu-ray ever and in its first three weeks on shelves the film sold a record-breaking 19 million units on DVD and Blu-ray.
“This is the big experiment — we’re coming out after the home-video release and relatively close on the heels of that home-video release,” writer-director Cameron said. “That’s what’s weird about this. Most people would say that ends the life cycle. But we know that there were not enough 3-D screens out there to support two big pictures when ‘Alice in Wonderland’ opened (on March 5) and then ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ they took half our screens. We know there were a lot of people at that point who wanted to see ‘Avatar’ in 3-D on a big screen. Does all that go away after the home-video release? My instinct is that people who wanted to see it on a big screen will still want to see it on a big screen.”
Cameron says he hopes to pull in moviegoers who typically dislike sci-fi but may have softened their stance while watching “Avatar” win the Golden Globe for best picture and earn top Oscar nominations, including best director and best film. Most of all, though, he is counting on the true-believer constituency being lured back by the new scenes, which include a dramatic hunt sequence that pits Na’vi spears against the sturmbeest, a large herd animal that Cameron calls “Pandora’s answer to a buffalo.”
“I think a large number of people who go see this will be the repeat offenders, absolutely,” Cameron said with a smile. “I didn’t want to do so much that it became a different movie. I wanted it to be the same movie you remembered if you’ve already seen it but with some little special jelly beans along the way. There are some real chunks with some real payoffs in and of themselves but other ones are just little 20-second bits here or 40 seconds there, enough to add a little bit but not enough to break up the flow or the pace. It’s all the same experience but with a little bit more of Pandora.”
As for that additional footage, there are three with the sturmbeest. Why so many? Cameron says two shorter scenes with the burly creature were edited out when that primary hunting sequence ended up on the editing-room floor. “The other little scenes felt like orphans with the big-tuna scene so we took them out as well. Now you see the sturmbeest in the battle scenes toward the end of the film.”
“It’s not all endless stuff of people talking back at the base,” he said. “It’s all CG stuff or a few live-action shots with CG elements. It’s the good stuff.”
There’s also more of the iridescent rain forest-at-night scenes, a new flying sequence with the banshees, the winged dragon-like creatures that glide past the hovering mountains of Pandora. More compelling from a narrative standpoint, however, is the restored death scene of Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso), the strong, scowling Na’vi tribesman who is betrothed to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) before the arrival of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as the earthling intruder in the dangerous Eden that is Pandora. Cameron had joked that he faced a near mutiny from his creative team when he decided to chop out the evocative battlefield death scene. Now he concedes that his team might have been right.
“This was a powerful emotional scene that we took out because I thought it was almost too many emotional beats toward the end of the film,” Cameron said. “I was really worried about fatigue. I started to think I erred on the conservative side.”
It goes unsaid by Cameron, “Avatar” producer Jon Landau and their team, but there’s a sense that they will be watching the rerelease as a bellwether of the sort of connection that exists between their Pandora mythology and fans. Be it with toy-shelf ventures, video game releases or the wildly ambitious online tie-ins, Cameron and company have approached “Avatar” as a candidate to join “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” as omni-media franchises that inspire pop-cultural tribal followings across decades.
At this point, though, “Avatar” might just as easily go in a different direction and become a cinematic phenomenon with narrower life off the screen — like, say, “The Matrix” or Cameron’s own “Terminator” films. If that happens, it won’t be for lack of trying by Cameron.
The filmmaker, for instance, is finishing a companion novel to “Avatar” that will go further into the characters, the history and the environs presented in the movie’s story. At one point he had hoped the book would be finished in time for linked release with the film last year, but that didn’t happen.
Cameron said it may be on shelves in time for the holidays.
“It gets into the nuts and bolts of the Na’vi culture, their lore and mythology, and has more about Dr. Grace (Sigourney Weaver’s character) and her time on Pandora, but it doesn’t go beyond the end of the film other than to tease a little bit about what’s going to happen next. It will also be the bible for any future publication, a look-up guide for future writers who can come in and work within the world…. Think about all the ‘Star Trek’ novels and how they contradicted each other for a few years and it made it tricky to be a Trekkie for a while.”
The novel will tune Cameron up to write the scripts for the next two “Avatar” films to be released this decade.
“It will steep me in the stuff so I can write the two-film story arc that I want to do next,” Cameron said.
Cameron admires the universes created by George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry and the man who now has the two highest-grossing films of all-time (Cameron’s “Titanic” from 1997 still floats there at No. 2 worldwide with $1.8 billion) openly admits that he aspires to compete with his own cosmic aspirations.
“You’ve got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the ‘Star Wars’ and the ‘Star Treks,’” Cameron said. “People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora.”