The fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh for metal (and a celebration of flesh so taut it may as well be metal: Cameron’s camera loves to linger on the tightly muscled bodies, male and female, of the soldiers so often featured in his violent films), is a recurrent theme in the techno-blockbusters that cemented the director’s reputation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Aliens famously ends with Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, battling the dragonish alien monster queen after strapping herself into a giant forklift-like machine whose enormous pincers she mechanically controls by maneuvering her own slender arms—a technology that puts the puny human, finally, on a par with her gigantic, razor-toothed, acid-bleeding adversary.
This kind of exaggerated mechanical body gear, which endows people with machine-like strength and power, is a recurrent prop in Cameron’s films. It’s crucial in Aliens and it pops up again in his 1989 submarine fantasy The Abyss, which imagines an encounter between a deep-sea oil-drilling team and an ethereally beautiful, bioluminescent species of marine aliens. Even in Titanic (1997), the clunky “human interest” subplot, about a doomed romance between a feisty Main Line nymphet and a free-spirited artist in third class, cannot compete with the swooning representation of machines: the ship itself, the pumping turbines and purring hydraulics and, later, the awful, methodical disintegration of those mechanical elements—and a lot of glittering modern-day gadgets, too. For the famous disaster sequence is intercut with scenes of present-day dives to the great wreck, during which human operators remotely manipulate treasure-hunting drones by means of sympathetic arm movements.
A violent variation on the same mechanical bodysuits reappears, memorably, in Avatar, which culminates in a scene of bloody single combat between a Na’vi warrior and the evil Marine colonel, who has strapped himself into one such machine. If anything, the recurrent motif of humans inserting themselves into mechanical contraptions in order to enjoy superhuman powers reaches its fullest, most sophisticated expression in the new movie, whose characters can literally become other, superhuman beings by hooking themselves up to elaborate machines. All this seems to bear out the underlying truth of a joke that Linda Hamilton, the actress who played Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, told about her first, unhappy interactions with the director (whom she later married and divorced): “That man is definitely on the side of the machines.”
The awed appreciation for superhuman powers—and an understandable desire by human weaklings to lay claim to them, in times of great duress—that recur in Cameron’s work before Avatar surely betrays a lingering trace of his formative encounter with The Wizard of Oz, which so famously shows us a helpless twelve-year-old, set loose in a strange world inhabited by scary monsters and powerful aliens, discovering her own hitherto unknown powers (and learning that certain supposedly supernatural powers are produced by knowing how to maneuver the right gears and levers).
Another inheritance from that visually revolutionary work, of course, is Cameron’s taste for plots that have to do with encounters between humans and aliens of one sort or another. Avatar would seem to be the most obvious manifestation of this particular debt that Cameron owes to his favorite movie. Apart from a number of explicit allusions to Oz—the line about not being in Kansas anymore, a corporate stooge’s sneering reference to the Na’vi as “blue monkeys,” which recalls the blue-tinged flying monkeys of the 1939 movie—the encounter between the human world and the world of the Na’vi is imbued with a sense of thrilled visual amazement that deliberately evokes a similar experience provided by the Hollywood classic. In the latter, Dorothy’s life in Kansas was filmed in black and white; only when she awakes in Oz does the film move into dazzling three-strip Technicolor. In Avatar, Cameron quotes this famous gesture. Jake Sully’s world, the world of the humans—the interior of the marine transports and fighters, the hangars and meeting rooms, the labs of the scientists and the offices of the nameless corporation—is filmed in a drably monotonous palette of grays and blues (the latter being a favorite color of this director, who uses it often to represent a bleak future); the world of the Na’vi, in contrast, is one of staggering color and ravishing light.
The colors, apart from the opulent greens of the Na’vis’ jungle homeland, tend to be lusciously “feminine” on the flora—violet, mauve, delicate peaches and yellows. They grow stronger on the fauna, a series of brilliantly imagined creatures among which, persuasively, certain morphologies recur. (Crests, say, and hammer-heads.) All, the plants and animals both, share one trait that clearly owes much to Cameron’s lifelong passion for marine exploration, and which provides Avatar with much of its visual delight: bioluminescence. As the characters tread on plants or trees, the latter light up delicately, for a moment; the ritually important Tree of Souls looks like a weeping willow made of fiber-optic cables. It’s a wonderful conceit that had me literally gasping with pleasure the first time I saw the movie.
This visual ravishment—which is the principal experience of the movie and which is, too, enhanced by the surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology (there are gratifyingly few shots of objects projecting into the audience’s field; you just feel that you’re sharing the same plane as the creatures in the movie)—is part of a strategy intended to make us admire the Na’vi. Not surprisingly, given all this natural synergy and beauty, the native people, as we are told again and again, enjoy a special bond with all those colorful creatures and, more generally, with the ecosystem (to whom they have given the name Eywa; Cameron, apparently as much a stickler for linguistic as for biological verisimilitude, had a professor at the University of Southern California work up a functional Na’vi language).
This, in turn, is part of the film’s earnest, apparently anticolonial, anticapitalist, antitechnology message. These creatures, rather sentimentally modeled on popular notions of Native American and African tribes, are presented as being wholly in tune with nature—as preagricultural hunter-gatherers who subsist on the flesh of the animals they kill by means of their remarkable skill at archery. (When they do make a kill, they solemnly apologize to the victims: “All energy is borrowed and one day you have to give it back,” Neytiri rather officiously informs the avatar-Jake when he makes his first kill.) They stand, therefore, in stark contrast to the movie’s humans (the “sky-people”), with their heavy, rumbling, roaring copters and tractors and immense, belching, grinding mining-machines—the representatives of destructive “technology” who have, we are told, “killed their mother”: which is to say, destroyed their own planet.
All this would be well and good enough, in its ecofable, Pocahontas -esque way, but for the fact that Cameron is the wrong man to be making a film celebrating the virtues of pre- technological societies. As, indeed, he has no intention of doing here. For as the admiring scientists—led by a chain-smoking, tough-talking woman called Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver (the chain-smoking is an in-joke: Ripley had the same bad habit)—protest to the trigger-happy Marines, Na’vi civilization is in fact technologically sophisticated: by means of a pistil-tipped appendage, wittily described by Crain as a kind of USB cable, which plugs into similar appendages on both plants and animals, they can commune not only with other creatures but with what constitutes a planet-wide version of a technology with which we today are very preoccupied. “Don’t you get it?” an exasperated Dr. Augustine shouts at the corporate and military yahoos who clearly intend to blow all the Na’vi to kingdom come. “It’s a network—a global network!”
Dr. Augustine goes on to describe how, by means of the pistil-thing, the Na’vi can upload and download memories, information, and so forth—and can even communicate with their dead. One such upload to Eywa herself, transmitted through the Tree of Souls by Jake’s avatar, will, in the end, help lead the Na’vi and their furry friends to victory over the human exploiters. (This, of course, is the Dances with Wolves paradigm.)
In its confused treatment of that favorite Cameron preoccupation—the relationship between the natural and the technological worlds—the film, for all its richly imagined and dazzlingly depicted beauties, runs into deep and revealing trouble. As we know by now, Cameron’s real attraction, as a writer and a director, has always been for the technologies that turn humans into superhumans. However “primitive” they have seemed to some critics, the Na’vi—with their uniformly superb, sleekly blue-gleaming physiques, their weirdly infallible surefootedness, their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself—are the ultimate expression of his career-long striving to make flesh mechanical. The problem here is not a patronizingly clichéd representation of an ostensibly primitive people; the problem is the movie’s intellectually incoherent portrayal of its fictional heroes as both admirably precivilized and admirably hypercivilized, as atechnological and highly technologized. Avatar ‘s desire to have its anthropological cake and eat it too suggests something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.
And how not? He is, after all, a Hollywood giant who insists on seeing himself as a regular Joe—a man with what he called, in the New Yorker interview, a “blue-collar sensibility”; more to the point, he is a director whose hugely successful mass entertainments cost hundreds of millions of dollars obligingly provided by deep-pocketed corporations—a “company” man, whether he knows it or not. And these shows depend for their effects—none more than Avatar—on the most sophisticated technologies available, even as that director tells himself that the technology that is the sine qua non of his technique isn’t as important as people think; that, in fact, what makes Avatar special is the “human interest” story, particularly the love story between Jake and Neytiri:
Too much is being said about the technology of this film. Quite frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass how a film is made. It’s an emotional story. It’s a love story. They’re not expecting that. The sci-fi/fantasy fans see the trailer and they think, Cool—battles, robots. What you really need to get to is, Oh, it’s that [a love story], too.
But of course, when you see Avatar, what overwhelms you is what the technology accomplishes—not only the battles and robots, to be fair, but all the other marvelous stuff, the often overwhelmingly beautiful images of a place that exists somewhere over the rainbow.
Even beyond the incoherence that mars Avatar and hopelessly confuses whatever it thinks its message may be, there is a larger flaw here—one that’s connected to Cameron’s ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity; one that also brings you back, in the end, to The Wizard of Oz; one that is less political than ethical.
If it’s right to see the movie as the culmination of Cameron’s lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling, superior Otherness—in a word, toward Oz—what strikes you, in the end, is how radically it differs, in one significant detail, from its model. Like the 1939 classic, the 2009 film ends with a scene of awakening. By the end, the Na’vi have triumphed but the human Jake, operating his avatar from within his computerized pod, has been fatally hurt. His dying body is brought back to the Tree of Souls where, in a ceremony of the greatest holiness, the consciousness of the human Jake will be transferred, finally and permanently, into his Na’vi avatar. (Technology at its best, surely.) In the closing moments of the film the camera lingers suspensefully on the motionless face of avatar-Jake; suddenly, the large, feline eyes pop open, and then the screen goes black. We leave the theater secure in the knowledge that the rite has been successful, that the avatar Jake will live. (And that there will be sequels.)
This moment of waking is, structurally, a crucial one; at the very beginning of the film, during Jake’s introductory voice-over, the crippled man has poignantly described the liberating but ultimately deceptive dreams of flying that he often has: “I start having these dreams of flying…sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up.” The final image of the redeemed and healed Jake waking up to his new Na’vi life is clearly meant, then, to be a triumphant rewriting of that sour acknowledgment.
But the implications of this awakening—in a character that Cameron himself described as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz ‘s Dorothy (“it was, in some ways, like Dorothy’s journey”)—are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy’s climactic wakening. When Dorothy wakes up, it’s to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that “there’s no place like home.” Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she’d temporarily escaped from.
The triumphant conclusion of Avatar, by contrast, takes the form of a permanent abandonment of the gray world of Homo sapiens—which, as Dorothy learns, may contain its own hidden marvels—for the Technicolor, over-the-rainbow fantasy world into which Jake accidentally strayed. This represents something new in Cameron’s work, something you can’t help thinking is significant. In the director’s films of the 1980s and 1990s, in the Terminator films or in Aliens, in the misbegotten Abyss and even, in its way, in Titanic—just before the advent of cell phones and iPhones, of reality TV and virtual socializing, and, indeed, of mashups, of this new moment in which each of us can inhabit what you might call a private reality—the encounters with radical otherness or with extremes of violence and disaster always concluded, however awkwardly in some cases, with a moment of quiet, a return to the reassuring familiarity of life as most of us know it.
The message of what is now James Cameron’s most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is, by contrast, that “reality” is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. There’s no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time.