The filmography of James Cameron has maintained relevance in the pantheon of geek cinema that cannot be overstated. His films have not only pushed the boundaries of technical limitations, they have also been key precursors to contemporary feminist depictions across mass media, like the work of writer/director Joss Whedon.

That being said, there is one major theme that has gone relatively unnoticed in both TERMINATOR films, ALIENS, and AVATAR: his view of technology. While his films have always been visual and sound effect powerhouses, it’s his discourse on the uses of technology in his narratives that I believe merit closer inspection.

Since the overarching thesis of this piece is to highlight the notion of neutrality, there is no real specific order to review the films. Having said that, I’ll focus first on the TERMINATOR films, then ALIENS and will end the piece talking about AVATAR.

A T-800 model Terminator unit.
A T-800 model Terminator unit.

The TERMINATOR films are the obvious entry points since the titular cyborgs are a literal blend of technology and human flesh, but the two films use the Terminator, among other pieces of technology in their world, in much more interesting manners. The most obvious case of technology in these films is artificial intelligence. This manifest itself in the unseen antagonist, the sentient A.I. known as Skynet. As the first film was produced toward the end of the Cold War (specifically the year 1984), Skynet is the product of the paranoia induced by the near-constant possibility of nuclear warfare. Skynet in and of itself is interesting since it is both a marvel and a terrible possibility.

For us in the year 2016, the concept of artificial intelligence is nowhere near that novel. It can be seen manifested in things like the A.I. of antagonists in many video games to the ongoing controversy/issue regarding drone warfare in the real world. The latter has become relatively commonplace and while drones obviously lack the sophisticated artificial intelligence to make considerably advanced decisions, it is nevertheless a scary parallel in how Skynet was designed to be in the films: a strategic defense network used to protect Americans from enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

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Cameron never delves too much into politics in these films, instead focusing on the lengths humanity will go towards protecting itself. To create a system that would eliminate the need for humans to make decisions regarding strategic defense is presented as a negative, with the resulting war only producing more technology that would facilitate the elimination of the human race–which brings us to the very concept of the Terminator cyborg.

Both films feature a cyborg antagonist of considerable technological advancement, and both antagonists are little more than extensions of the will of Skynet. Besides their human-looking exterior, they are physically stronger than average humans and the T-1000 is a hyper-adaptable liquid metal enemy capable of mimicking the physical appearance of any person it comes into contact with. But a key detail is revealed about Terminators in the extended special edition of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY: the processors of these cyborgs are essentially learning computers, capable of assimilating data and facilitating their infiltration of human society, but Skynet disables their learning/thinking function when sent out on assignment.

John Conner opts to reset the processor so the Terminator can regain this ability and thus the Terminator is capable of more in-depth questioning of its surroundings and of course, of human nature itself. This is a massive point Cameron is making about technology, specifically about artificial intelligence. The big character arc of the film is summed up by Sarah Connor’s final narration regarding the Terminator, saying that if a machine like it could learn the value of human life, so could humanity. Cameron imbues this film with a much more optimistic outlook on technology and its capability to not only benefit mankind but also to provide a hopeful reflection of what mankind is capable of.

The TERMINATOR films more than adequately display Cameron’s discourse on the neutrality of technology through plot and character. His sequel to ALIEN bears the same discourse but it is done in a much more subtle manner since it only does so in its overarching metaphor.

The Marines ready themselves for a possible enemy encounter.
The Marines ready themselves for a possible enemy encounter.

ALIENS is a curious film because the theme of technology is subjugated to the film’s prevalent allegory, that of the Vietnam War. The Colonial Marines in the film are depicted as overconfident, pumped up and looking forward to the action. Their overconfidence, their hubris is rooted entirely on their technological superiority as compared to the simple “bugs” they are there to confront. As Private Hudson flaunts to Ripley (and the audience) during the drop sequence, the Marines possess considerable means to provoke destruction. Hudson proceeds to list several of the items in their arsenal, from the standard issue M41A Pulse Rifle that many of the Marines carry, the smart guns that Privates Vasquez and Drake hold, motion trackers, remote gun turrets to even the tactical nuclear warheads aboard the dropship.

Based on our previous knowledge of the xenomorph creature from the first film, we know that this creature is not tech savvy but more than makes up for this alleged deficiency with sheer brutal survival instinct. This difference is amplified further as the film adds to the mythos of the series by establishing the creatures as being subservient to a hive mentality and a hierarchy similar to bees.

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Once the marines actually confront the aliens, their supposed superiority is revealed to be a sham. Their over-reliance on their technology gives way to a massacre as the aliens not only outnumber the marines by an unknown but considerably large ratio, they also completely bypass infrared scanners and motion trackers. The aliens also have the advantage of having the battle occur in their nest, giving them a terrain advantage in the battle. Most of the marines are killed or captured in the ensuing firefight with only a handful of them escaping this initial skirmish with their lives. Almost immediately after this battle, they lose not only their APC transport but their dropship, both a method of escape and their contingency plan which consisted of promptly nuking the entire colony in order to offset further human casualties, backfires terribly as an alien manages to board the dropship unseen and takes out the flight crew mid-flight, effectively stranding the survivors in an oppressive, hostile environment.

As the film progresses, we see how the survivors struggle to make an effective stronghold and their once abundant and powerful technology can barely maintain the promise of survival. Suffice to say, the over-reliance on technology is directly criticized in this situation by Ripley herself when she states to an unstable Private Hudson that Newt, a 12-year-old girl and sole survivor of the entire colony, survived for a longer period of time with no weapons and no training. Ripley brings the issue of technology to the forefront and clearly rejects having to rely on it to improve the situation of the survivors.

As stated earlier, Cameron’s film is an allegory for the Vietnam War and the theme of technology is indicted precisely because it was this very over-dependence of it that created many horrors, all facts that are not lost in Cameron’s film. And while horror is one of the products of technology’s capabilities, it’s Cameron’s latest film that truly embodies the thesis of neutrality in his body of work.

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In the 2009 film AVATAR, technology walks a tightrope of ambiguity that most viewers and critics hardly noticed and certainly did nothing to highlight. For one, the very title of the film highlights a major point regarding technology. While the word “avatar” has its roots in Hinduism, the movie avoids the overtly religious aspect and uses the term to refer to the artificial alien bodies that the protagonist, Jake Sully, uses. By creating a highly sophisticated neural link, a human is able to embody the artificial alien construct and thus provides the entire backbone for the story. Sully, a wheelchair-bound veteran, achieves the ability to walk again once he links with the avatar. Although originally on a mission on behalf of military and capitalist interests, Sully’s stay on the planet Pandora and his eventual matriculation into the Na’vi culture is made only possible precisely because of the avatar technology.

It has created a bridge for human and alien culture to interact but again. Cameron demonstrates the other side of the coin in the middle of the film when the humans bombard the Na’vi home. Metal craft hover with indifference while they unleash their payload of bombs, air-to-surface missiles and machine gun fire over innocent natives while large machines plow through the flora, a clear visual metaphor for the violent conflict constantly at play between technology and nature.

Jake Sully's Avatar oversees the beauty of Pandora.
Jake Sully’s Avatar oversees the beauty of Pandora.

But this film differentiates itself from previous films because technology, in this particular case, Cameron postulates, is not only responsible for creating a bridge between new cultures and species, but also augments our connection to nature and possibly even to spirituality. The Na’vi are depicted as being overly spiritual in regard to all life on their planet and Sully himself eventually begins to take to this newfound spirituality, specifically due to the function of his Na’vi avatar being capable of creating a neural link with flora and fauna across the world. While the human scientists would accurately describe this link as a question of mind linking with another, a neural connection, the Na’vi themselves view it as something profoundly spiritual. Neither answer is wrong, it is simply a question of perspective.  All the same, this newfound understanding of the world, especially in terms of culture and spirituality, is facilitated precisely due to the existence of the avatars.

Thus we can see that the science-fiction films of James Cameron are littered with a discourse hardly discussed but quite prominent. It is the opinion of this writer that Cameron’s films have maintained such power and relevance in geek culture precisely because not only are they compelling cinematically, with interesting characters and spectacular action sequences and special effects but also because Cameron is actually trying to say something of relevance in his films. Each movie has its own topics and themes but it is interesting to probe further into a storyteller’s works to see their interests and how these interests are displayed in an overarching manner in their main body of work.

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