[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.
It’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).
Even 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.