Director of PR

Titanic honcho James Cameron has some advice for NASA on how to both seduce and educate a jaded public

After exuberantly declaring himself king of the world at the 1998 Oscars, you’d think James Cameron might sit back, relax, and survey his kingdom. Instead, having conquered Hollywood, the Terminator/Titanic auteur has been busily turning his passion, salesmanship and eye for the spectacular to the worthy end of securing nothing less than the future of science and exploration.

It’s not an outrageous leap, actually. Cameron has been a science buff since his childhood in Kapukasing, Ontario (he once sent a few doomed mice over Niagara Falls in a homebuilt submersible). Since dispatching his first remotely operated vehicles down to the sunken ocean liner during the filming of Titanic, he’s transformed himself into a dedicated undersea explorer. He’s also a member of the Mars Society and sits on the NASA advisory council. And he believes he can help the space agency sell its missions to an overstimulated and underinformed public.

Exhibit A in Cameron’s pro-science public-relations offensive is his new IMAX 3-D documentary about the unusual life-forms that thrive near hydrothermal vents, Aliens of the Deep, which premieres January 28. Having gotten an early look, I have one thing to say: Watch and learn, NASA.

Before seeing the movie, I was just as prone as the next science-steeped skeptic to reflexively dismiss the Hollywood fantasist’s white-knight impulse. What, I wondered, is his plan to inspire a new generation of scientists and science-supportive taxpayers? Outfit the next set of rovers with rocket launchers? Set a reality show on the International Space Station? (Two cosmonettes and a rugged American male put the spice back in science! Tune in to find out who gets ejected into the vacuum!)

But no, it turns out that Cameron’s strategy for sexing up science calls for strong characters, vivid images and eye-popping animation, all while remaining faithful to the facts. Indeed, in a 1999 speech to the Mars Society, Cameron suggested that science-fiction movies have actually hurt real-world exploration by infecting the public with unrealistic expectations. He cited the aftereffects of the Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s, when the reality of a lifeless, desolate martian surface proved a letdown after so many stories about grand canals, little green men and enlightened civilizations. The solution, he said, is to educate people so that they don’t have to be told why they should be excited about the discovery of, say, hematite on Mars, or a new species of squid kicking around a hydrothermal vent.

But there’s education, and there’s education. Aliens of the Deep features brief tutorials on seafloor spreading and the origins of vents, but it never lingers too long on the lessons. Cameron spends much more time on his characters. For the expeditions featured in the film–a total of 40 dives to nine hydrothermal vent sites–he brought along young scientists like Kevin Hand, a juggling astrobiologist from Stanford University, and space advocate Loretta Hidalgo, who reacts to the deep-ocean sights with the glee of a kid, shouting, “This is the bomb!”

He also made a star out of the film’s nonhuman character, Jake, a remotely operated vehicle steered in and around the vents by Cameron’s brother, Mike. Characters, after all, do not have to be people. Consider the twin Mars Exploration rovers: Cameron thinks NASA has done a nice job of selling the mission, but he believes there would be even more interest if the rovers were sending back self-portraits. As it is, the most striking images are the ones that show the rovers’ tracks, or even their shadows. He envisions a small camera that a rover would drop in the sand to snap photos of itself at work and later retrieve. The scientists would have to sacrifice precious payload, Cameron says, but they would reap huge dividends by allowing people to connect with the rovers on a deeper level. “You’re not going to sustain public interest if you don’t see a character up there doing something,” he maintains.

If Aliens of the Deep is any indication, this technique can’t miss. At one point, when Jake ventures too close to the superheated water rushing out of the vents, I found myself seized with worry about him/it–a contraption that looks like a toaster oven. My sympathetic response probably arose as much from the dramatic narration of these events as it did from the robot’s human name, but just in case, I suggest that NASA dub its planned 2009 Mars rover Frank. (Imagine the headlines: “Frank Lands on Mars!”)

Naturally, Cameron pushes powerful imagery, too. Thanks to the enormous IMAX screen and 3-D scenes, Aliens of the Deep puts you right down on the seafloor. Exotic creatures seem to float within a few feet of your seat. Eventually Cameron hopes to apply these techniques to a realistic 3-D film about a manned mission to Mars, a kind of fictional documentary. He and his group have designed a mission protocol, transit and surface habitats, and a pressurized rover. Yet he won’t move forward with the project because big questions remain about how an actual mission would be conducted–such as whether NASA would use chemical or nuclear propulsion–and he doesn’t want to get it wrong. “I want a better idea of exactly how we’re going to do it,” he says.

This devotion to accuracy is certainly a laudable one, which makes the ending of Aliens of the Deep all the more dismaying. In its final act, the movie ventures beyond Earth for a stirring animation of a mission to the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, including a sequence in which a nuclear-powered drill penetrates the ice and deploys a tethered probe. A few scenes later, on an unspecified planet, we find–well, I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that Cameron is hardly reducing his audience’s unrealistic expectations. But no matter. The rest of the film validates the director’s conviction that real science, rendered by a consummate showman, can be a breathtaking, inspiring spectacle.