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Monsters Vs. Aliens: James Cameron’s Love/Hate Relationship with Technology

Monsters Vs. Aliens: James Cameron’s Love/Hate Relationship with Technology (photo)

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[Major spoilers ahead for “Avatar” and other James Cameron films.]

Like all of James Cameron’s six previous films, “Avatar” is a war of worlds both literal and figurative. Colonists from the planet Earth do battle with the native inhabitants of a moon named Pandora over the right to mine a rare and powerful mineral. Cameron casts the struggle as a conflict between the technological world (the humans and their advanced military) and the natural world (the natives, known as the Na’vi, who share a symbiotic relationship with their environment). Given that the humans are characterized as greedy and violent while the Na’vi are portrayed as caring and spiritual, it isn’t particularly surprising that the movie ultimately treats the Na’vi as the heroes and the humans as villains. But it’s a little curious when you consider that this condemnation of industrialization appears in a film made using some of the most cutting-edge moviemaking technology ever devised by man. To put it another way: A big magical tree like the one the Na’vi live in and worship as a conduit to their god didn’t help James Cameron make “Avatar,” sophisticated performance capture equipment did. But it’s the magical tree that Cameron prefers.

Cameron’s films have always have had a complex relationship with technology, both in front of and behind the camera. Cameron got his start on the technical side of the movie business, making effects and doing production design for Roger Corman before graduating to directing pictures of his own. Though we often associate Cameron’s work with major advances in the field of special effects – think of the watery alien tendril in 1989’s “The Abyss,” or the liquid metal T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – his movies consistently paint an unflattering portrait of technology, one that depicts it as something that is, at best, inadequate or, at worst, downright malevolent. Every film he has made since the original “Terminator,” even the ones that aren’t science-fiction or fantasy films like “True Lies and “Titanic,” has used state-of-the-art filmmaking tools to tell stories about the way technology fails human beings.

12242009_Terminator.jpgIt’s not hard to find either of those ideas in his “Terminator” films, which depict a world where technology grows so powerful it becomes capable of starting an apocalyptic nuclear war without any prompting from its human creators. Throughout the first “Terminator,” Cameron reinforces the idea that technology is an ever-present danger to society with several clever scenes that turn seemingly benign pieces of everyday mechanical equipment against their owners. Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) roommate doesn’t hear the Terminator sneak into her apartment because she’s wearing her Walkman and headphones. In the next scene, Sarah calls too late to warn her; the answering machine picks up instead (the recorded greeting: “Hi there. Hahaha, fooled you! You’re talking to a machine!”). Sarah leaves a message warning her already dead friend and telling her where she’s hiding. The Terminator, still in the apartment, hears the messages, and sets off to find her.

The series’ second entry features two Terminators: one highly advanced (Robert Patrick) and the other (Arnold Schwarzenegger) too obsolete to stop him. This is technology at its most all-consuming, even of itself; the newer Terminator doesn’t just try to kill the future leader of the human resistance, John Connor (Edward Furlong), he tries to destroy his predecessor in the process. Both Terminators also have the disturbing ability to pass for living beings, a concept that would continue in the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) from “Aliens” and reappear in new form in the avatars of “Avatar,” human piloted Na’vi bodies that look exactly like the real thing and are capable of walking amongst their society.

The more specific idea of the natural world coming into conflict with the technological one that’s so crucial to “Avatar” is not a new one for Cameron, either. In “The Abyss,” a highly sophisticated mobile drilling station is no match for Mother Nature, which nearly destroys the Deep Core base during a particularly nasty hurricane. Later, Ed Harris’ character goes on a dangerous mission to the ocean floor using a state-of-the-art diving suit with liquid breathing capabilities designed to withstand the crushing pressures of the deep. He needs to disarm a lost nuclear warhead (technology as danger), and while he is successful, he does not have enough oxygen left in his suit to return to Deep Core (technology as inadequate).

12292009_aliens.jpgEven earlier, Cameron made “Aliens,” the nightmarish counterpart of “Avatar”‘s utopian dream. In both films, human colonists and strange aliens clash on a distant planet; in both films, technology proves ill-equipped to defeat the natural world. It’s interesting, though, to consider how much Cameron’s new film inverts the earlier one, despite their numerous similarities. In “Avatar,” the Na’vi are basically alien hippies; in “Aliens,” the titular creatures are remorseless, bloodthirsty xenomorphs. In “Aliens,” the heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) agrees to join the Colonial Marines on their mission only when they agree to annihilate, not subdue, capture or study, the aliens. In “Avatar,” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) rejects his own species and decides to help the Na’vi because of the Marines’ desire to annihilate anything that stands in the way of their acquiring the minerals they’re looking for. Both films end with a showdown between an alien and a human inside an enormous robotic suit, though the ultimate outcome and the character who the audience is supposed to root for is quite different from movie to movie.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.