Avatar 2 Flips the Script on Steven Spielberg’s Most Important Blockbuster

Indeed, the two directors have long seemed to stand at the top of the heap of epic populist entertainment over the past four decades. Sometimes the comparison is less clear since Cameron has averaged about one film a decade for the last 20 years, however each has an apparent gift for anticipating what will dazzle audiences—and where the inflection points in the industry are for technological innovation.

Tellingly, both Spielberg and Cameron pursued the rights to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel when they became aware of it—with Spielberg and Universal having the inside track thanks to the director already befriending Crichton while developing what became the television series E.R. But while Cameron’s Jurassic Park would have undoubtedly been a different animal (Cameron reportedly wanted to make a more adult, R-rated sci-fi thriller with dinosaurs), both filmmakers saw the obvious potential in the concept to move the needle and wow audiences.

Indeed, the ILM wizards who ultimately convinced Spielberg to go all-in on CGI for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and thereby ushering in the current age of CG spectacle, were the same guys Cameron handpicked to develop the innovative CG characters in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day a few years earlier. All of which looks like a warm-up act in retrospect—a teaser to the almost entirely digital worlds of the Avatar films.

Be that as it may, it all goes back to Jaws, a seemingly simple tale that, like The Way of Water, touched on iconography from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick novel in order to tell a popcorn-laden adventure about man versus nature. Also in Jaws, as with Moby Dick, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and so many other primal tales of men sailing to the seeming edge of the world and looking down, it becomes about a man overcoming the might of nature—usually in a bid to save himself from his own demons.

Cameron is also interested in man versus nature, but in his film, nature is the hero, and man the monster. After spending decades trying to raise awareness about the beauty, and fragility, of our oceans and their ecosystems, Cameron has little interest in depicting the capitalist exploiters of Pandora’s resources as anything more than greedy cartoons.

The image of Capt. Scoresby with a harpoon intentionally echoes memories of Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick or Robert Shaw’s mercurial and fascinating Quint in Spielberg’s Jaws. And those were the most interesting characters in their respective works. Scoreseby though? He’s an underdeveloped cardboard cutout of a villain. A fiend who despite being in a three-hour-plus movie has no more motivation or depth than a puddle draining on the decks of one of his ships.

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