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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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