Green Groups to Cameron: Be King of the Environment!

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WETA / 20th Century Fox

This ancient willow tree is the epicenter of the Na'vi people.

James Cameron: nature filmmaker? It's a title even the director himself — a self-described tree hugger — might not have expected. After all, in his budget-busting moviemaking career, Cameron has engineered a planet-killing nuclear holocaust (The Terminator), created acid-blooded extraterrestrials (Aliens) and made a villain out of an iceberg (Titanic). His latest film, Avatar, the record-setting sci-fi epic filmed mostly with motion-capture cameras and computer graphics, is about as unnatural as a movie can get.

But green groups are desperate for Cameron to name himself King of the Environment. Days before the Academy Awards on Mar. 7 — Avatar is up for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director — a coalition of environmental groups launched a campaign to highlight the movie's not-so-hidden green subtext, and to prevail upon the director to use the awards-show platform to send the world an environmental message.

Led by the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network, the enviro-alliance bought ads in the Hollywood trade press this week to highlight the similarities between Avatar's plot — the pristine planet of Pandora, 4.37 light-years away, is imperiled by a rapacious Earthly corporation bent on destructive mining — and environmental hotspots on this planet. The groups have also launched a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook urging Cameron to talk about Avatar's pro-environment theme at the Oscars. "There are so many situations like what happens in the film happening on planet Earth," says Orli Cotel, deputy communications director for the Sierra Club. "And if it takes Pandora to get people to care about planet Earth, that's fine with us."

In one ad, the coalition compares the plot of the film to the battle over oil sands in Canada. Getting oil out of oil sands is incredibly destructive to the environment; old-growth boreal forests must be stripped away, and enormous amounts of water are polluted in the process. There are other obvious parallels to the movie, of course: producing oil-sands petroleum is expensive, and our quest for it suggests we're getting desperate for fossil fuels, the same way our future selves in Avatar have been forced to leave a wasted planet Earth in search of pricey, and presumably necessary, "unobtanium." "The tar sands in Canada are like [the forests of Pandora in] Avatar — without the blue people," says Cotel.

Another green battleground has even stronger parallels to Avatar. In the Ecuadorean Amazon, indigenous groups have been waging a decades-long fight against the international energy company Chevron, claiming that years of poorly managed oil drilling has all but destroyed their ancestral forest homes. (Most of the work was done by Texaco, but Chevron bought the corporation in 2000.) There's currently a $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron — perhaps the largest ever such case concerning pollution — making its way through Ecuadorean courts, and a ruling is expected soon.

To green groups, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador — the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa, and Huaorani — are the Na'vi. They're fighting the same battle to preserve their wooded home and way of life against the encroachment of a foreign corporation. "There are so many parallels to Ecuador [in the film]," says Maria Ramos, director of the Rainforest Action Network's Change Chevron campaign. "We want Avatar fans to take off the 3D glasses and support a real-life struggle."

Cotel hopes that Avatar — already the biggest-grossing film in history — will become a "landmark for younger viewers," as the environmentally friendly Bambi might have been for their parents. But for all the talk of Avatar's nature-is-good-and-corporate-greed-is-bad message, it's probably fair to say that viewers like the movie because it's a feat of technology, not of political will. (And also because they probably liked the film the first time around, as Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas.)

It's not that Avatar isn't a green film. The director himself says it is, and he's right. "I wanted to do a film that had a deeply embedded environmental message," Cameron told the film critic Elvis Mitchell at a recent fundraiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My feeling was if we have to go four light years away to another planet to appreciate what we have here on Earth, that's okay."

But that's the problem. Pandora is a nonexistent place, dreamed up by one man's imagination — and brought to life with cutting-edge technology and about $310 million of News Corp. studio's money. The overwhelming success of Avatar points to a future where more and more of our experiences might be virtual and passive, just like those of the movie's hero, where the air and water of the outdoors will matter less than what technology and the human mind can offer us in a climate-controlled studio.

So, in the end, Avatar's influence may depend on whether its fans can turn away from it, take off the tinted glasses and take a look at the real world.