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On tech, anti-tech, and James Cameron

However, there may be no director whose themes are more schizophrenic than James Cameron, who constantly flips between worshiping grand technology and stigmatizing the kind of personality who employs it. In Avatar, as in Lucas’s Ewok battle, the high-tech invading troops are laid low by organic fighters who have no need for electricity at all. In Titanic, just the idea of the incredibly expensive boat is held up as the height of hubris, despite the fact that Cameron himself was making the most expensive film ever at the time, and he’s not exactly the first person you’d expect to scoff at hubris. The Terminator films vividly portray the apocalyptic future that results when technology is left unchecked, but Cameron is a constant innovator in those fields, consistently surfing a high-tech cutting edge and even inventing new technology himself in pre-production for his movies. (Tellingly, his undersea documentary Aliens of the Deep purported to show how natural ocean dwellers could be more amazing than any alien Hollywood could dream up, then climaxed with a superfluous ending that used computer graphics to depict those potential aliens on the moons of Jupiter.) (Kyle Buchanan, “Why Do Our Most Technology-Obsessed Filmmakers Make Movies That are Anti-Technology?,” 21 July 2010)

What organic is exactly becomes a little more confusing when you take "Aliens" into consideration. At the end, organic probably more fits Ripley returning to her familiar mech suit than it does the mother alien revenging her children. In a sense, I guess you could argue that the mech suit to some extent becomes the equivalent of "Avatar's" Na'vi avatar -- made originally for corporation purposes, but through the force of the user's own good intent and comfort with it becomes a righteous, maybe "natural" weapon: perhaps also like the attack-"helicopter" that turns about to shoot at the main invading ship, which thereby becomes akin to the clearly organic Toruk. The corporation understands the aliens (in regards to "Aliens") as a technology, as an (albeit organic) weapon, and the film for a good part shows them as such, but in the end makes clear that the aliens are a species -- show things like maternal "care," and hive responsibility -- yet still doesn't argue that they should be anything other than nuked out of existence: the android is wrong to find them mostly interesting, just as the scientist (in "T2") is wrong to see the terminator's technology as mostly fascinating. There is a sense in this film, that is, that nature could still be nature, still be in some sense organic, and still warrant worse than the bulldozer: a nuke, no less, that could destroy a world for all mankind's sake.

"Avatar" turns this around, and I think it was produced by a more repentant-feeling, an even more mother-bonding Cameron, but there is still a sense in the end that as great as Nature is when she's been woken up to school down the presumptive arrogant, that the man who yet believes he can teach her a thing of two may in fact come to have the edge -- and may even still be worth our rooting for. Eywa / Nature mostly takes down the military/ corporate technologists in an awesome but quite blunt -- dumb -- fashion. Her space is poisonous and navigation / targeting-system neutralizing, and she mows down ground troops with a dumb but invincible charge of "triceratops." (The "triceratops," we note, mow through the forest kinda like the corporation tractors did, but their purposes are always organic.) Perhaps the most striking bit of quick thinking you see in the whole battle is from the colonel, when he quickly steers the ship to avoid being incinerated by a grenade, straps into the battle suit, and avoids dumbly going down with the ship. He then effectively takes down the great giant panther, and plots on until his defeat: no Na'vi' all-hope-is-lost despair from him. He was adaptable, sure of himself in desperate situations, and still learning -- not Nature's champion, but perhaps still ideally man's, who could prove by his wee-lonesome a still problem to all that is bulking, huge, inevitable, and in the way. This needs more of an argument I know, and I know that Cameron was mostly with the Na'vi and Eywa with this, but I do think that even here there is still a sense that hubris invites disaster, but maybe also helpful and conclusive innovation -- what then to do, next time: his tales aren't just "the-Titanic-went-down," but "the-Titanic-went-down-so-next-time-they-were-sure-to-build-one-with-a-better-rudder-and-things-actually-worked-out-pretty-smoothly-after-that:-thanks-dumb-looming-Iceberg!" And so you get "Titanic" and a great tale of the human heart, but also oceanic equipment at work whose efficiency and easy brazenness, along with its smack-talking operatives, isn't / aren't quite quitted at the end by the clamp-down of an old lady with her lesson to tell. The Titanic couldn't make its way through icebergs, but the great ship itself, at its great depth -- and now itself more a great natural phenomenon OF the sea than a technological marvel WITHIN it-- was no problem for Cameron's tech: maybe not the Titanic, but the more savy and informed Cameron was concerned to show you that HE could make the ocean his bitch.

Link: Why Do Our Most Technology-Obsessed Filmmakers Make Movies That are Anti-Technology? (Movieline)


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