"I'm living the fantasy," he says. "And the fantasy is that I'm living in a science fiction story. I'm at the cutting edge of technology, I'm exploring, I'm in a little spacecraft and I'm seeing something that no one's ever seen before. I'm not just along as a visitor. I'm part of the process. I'm a crew member on the first human expedition to Jupiter. That's how I see it."
In following these passions, Cameron believes, he is simply fulfilling a
basic biological drive, one that many people have been distracted from. "I think exploration is a fundamental aspect of the human character," he says. "And I think as a culture we have sort of reached a point where we view exploration as a kind of extreme sport, like bungee jumping, with no greater value. But in fact, if you look at the history of human civilization and our survival to this date, and our accomplishments, the cultures that were dominant were always the ones with the strongest exploratory nature: the British, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Portuguese. You know, these are the cultures that have become technologically dominant, and therefore economically dominant."
I ask him whether he consciously thinks he's doing his bit for the future prosperity of North American civilization.
He laughs. "I don't give a shit about that," he says. "Not at all. I couldn't care less." For Cameron, his filmmaking is the excuse that justifies his exploration. "I think that it's much easier to find a moral justification or an ethical justification for going and doing these things if you're bringing the experience back, and you're sharing it," he says. "Let's say I want to spend $50,000 to have somebody guide me up Mount Everest. Mount Everest has been climbed. We have pictures of it. There are oxygen bottles lying all over it. To do that is to give oneself a $50,000 present of an experience. It's not something that gets shared with the human race."
When Cameron visited the Titanic for the first time, back in 1995, he said it was to collect footage for the movie. He now swears that the truth was the other way around. "I don't think the studio executives believe it, but I wanted to make Titanic because I wanted to dive the wreck. I thought: How can I dive the Titanic and get somebody to pay for it? I'll make a movie."
So, I clarify, the biggest-grossing movie in motion-picture history is just a little side effect of a personal whim?
"Exactly." He reconsiders the question, as though pondering whether I have somehow slighted him. "It's not a whim," he objects. "A whim implies 'I think I'll go play pool tonight.'"
"Quest," he agrees. Quest is a much more James Cameron word. "That's good," he says.