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Gaia Ex Machina: James Cameron’s Avatar

6 January 2010 973 Views 5 Comments author: Matt Schneider

"Let me get this straight. You're going to turn me into a giant Smurf with a tail so you can dupe these guys into forking over their precious minerals? At least tell me I don't have to wear those white spandex pants. I don't swing that way."

James Cameron hates humanity.  In the decade plus since Titanic confirmed him as Hollywood’s fiducial king of the world, Cameron’s right wing militarism (evidenced by his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II and the unapologetically xenophobic Aliens and True Lies) has found a way to harmoniously converge with his leftist, egalitarian ecological supremacy in Avatar. Its impact on filmmaking and the history of cinema in general is what’s inarguably dubious if not inconsequential.  That Cameron has been a leading pioneer of special effects throughout his entire career is not in question; that Avatar represents an incremental step forward is also unquestionable.  But this is not a triumphant return.  It’s a political screed of addle-brained intensity that lashes itself to the golden bough of “relevance” and instead rings a loud, clear note of bitter misanthropy.

Avatar wouldn’t be nearly so offensive if it weren’t for the fact that Cameron still possesses uncommon power as a visual storyteller.  As trite as his story is, there were moments — glorious moments — when his familiarity with and unbridled conviction in tropes lodged a lump firmly in my throat.  Ancient ideals of self-sacrifice, unity in the face of violent injustice, and the desecration of the beautiful are things that will always, always find resonance so long as there are sentient entities in the universe that consider themselves “human.”  That’s why this isn’t a film that can be written off.  Fans of genre cinema have long considered Cameron a master of the cinematic form, and most who make their home outside the so-called genre ghetto (i.e. true fans of cinema) have also willingly acknowledged his gifts.  Though he hasn’t been a prolific filmmaker, Cameron is one of the few whose raw talent and attention to detail have set him apart from his genre peers as well as a great many “serious” filmmakers.1

By the time he got around to the obligatory period film that every director must deliver to be considered one of the mainstream “greats,” Cameron had honed his sixth sense of aesthetic taste to the point that even an overblown snapshot of insipid melodrama (Leo teaching Kate how to fly on the doomed ship’s stem) felt real enough, magical enough, that it became emblematic of earnest 90s romanticism — for better or worse.  In any case, the film was technically awesome, and enough folks seemed to find it dramatically compelling enough that it managed to dodge charges of being exploitative disaster porn.2  Like Titanic before it, Avatar gives into Cameron’s obsession with historical tragedy and the temptation to turn it into a nigh-pornographic spectacle of crowd-pleasing atavism.

Other critics have already commented on the irony of Cameron singing the hosannas of peaceful earth-worshippers and celebrating their moral superiority over fascist technocracy by having them duke it out in a spectacular climactic battle that indulges Cameron’s fetish for way-cool gadgets and combat vehicles.  Nor has it escaped their notice that Cameron has spent somewhere between $300 million and $500 million of corporate money to make a film that conflates the corporate profit motive with genocidal fascism.  Armond White considers it disingenuous.  Other critics have more or less agreed, or gently mocked it as an irony.  Actually, it’s one of the very few truly subversive maneuvers in Cameron’s filmmaking arsenal.  Rather than look at it as the confused ideological capitulation of a dog biting the hand that feeds it, we should recognize the triumph of an auteur managing to convince the corporate overlords to spend a gazillion bucks on a film that actively promotes their violent overthrow.  Cameron is laughing all the way to the bank.

Then there’s the other significant component of this Faustian deal.3  The vast sums of money were used to innovate the ballyhooed 3-D cameras that made Avatar one of the genuine must-see theatrical experiences of 2009.  Most Cameron fans know that he’s experimented with 3-D before, as early as the Universal Studios theme park attraction, Terminator: Battle Across Time.  Here he brings the technology to fruition, composing some very elaborate shots that exploit the depth of 3-D without ever directly calling attention to it.  One of the first shots in the film is an awakening: Sam Worthington’s marine, Jake Sully, rouses from hibernation aboard a space vessel.  In the zero-g environment, we see attendants floating down a long, sterile corridor, pulling sleepers from their beds in a 360-degree room.  Science fiction films with zero gravity sequences and Kubrickean compositions of bleached white corridors that extend almost to the horizon aren’t necessarily a fresh innovation.  But the delightful vertigo incurred by the immersive illusion provided by the 3-D goggles makes it more immediate, tactile — more real.

This change in perception is key to the thematic framework of the film.  Cameron isn’t just inviting us on a trip to another world.  His real aim is far more political.  The aliens on Pandora, the world to which we travel in the film (and which the evil corporation is just itching to exploit for its abundance of resources) purposely evoke the specter of the Native Americans that were ruthlessly ousted, killed, or hegemonized by the European invaders/settlers on the North American continent more than 500 years ago.  As the ubiquitous comparisons to Dances with Wolves can tell you, the film essentially retells the tale of imperialist conquest (or manifest destiny, whatever you want to call it) in sci-fi terms that explicitly damn the perpetrators of this historical abomination.  Whether or not the descendants (and beneficiaries) of this legacy bear any culpability for the actions of their ancestors is open to debate.  But to criticize the film on the basis of being “anti-American” (as many conservative critics have done) because it implicitly acknowledges the role and cost of white, European conquest is an idiotic disservice to the accomplishments of the people of the United States over the course of the last few centuries.  Virtually every major social and cultural benchmark in history has been built with the blood of innocents, dissidents, and political opponents of the ruling class.  To claim that the Roman Empire was great is true; to claim that it was horrible is true.  Likewise, it is worthwhile to acknowledge the validity of the lessons that can be learned from the past if they can apply to the present — as Cameron has indicated was his intent.4

To this end, the 3-D glasses serve a genuine aesthetic end: they literally adjust our perception, while the film attempts to adjust our perception metaphorically so that we can see political issues from a different, more empathetic perspective.  It’s just about the cleverest aspect of the filmmaking in the film, because Cameron’s noble conceit unravels frame by frame throughout the visually resplendent picture, and it very nearly begins and ends with the fact that this aspect itself involves an inherent contradiction.

The problem with the Dances with Wolves comparison is that in Kevin Costner’s film, the protagonist “goes native” without ever becoming an insider.   He begins the story as a white man (notably from a country — a cultural heritage — at war with itself, in the midst of a cataclysmic identity crisis), tied to the emotional and political baggage he brings with him. He’s a soldier, an emissary of colonialist expansion.  When he joins the local Sioux tribe, he takes a white woman (an orphan) as a wife.  Though he is ultimately accepted as one of the tribe by the natives — because he understands, accepts, and adopts their ways as his own — he is forced to leave by his baggage eventually being claimed.  The white man can never stop being white, and his tribe, ultimately, is not their tribe.  Rather than return to sort out his own people’s problems, he runs away toward an ever-vanishing frontier.  He’s not the white savior of the tribe; he’s a perpetual outsider.  It’s not a very progressive message, but it is extremely sorrowful, and no less empathetic for being honest about the ways in which the past can haunt someone, causing further division, crisis, and mor(t)al tragedy.  Cameron, despite his film’s synoptic narrative, grasps none of these astute observations.5

Others have already noted the intrinsic problem with framing an empathetic, politically motivated narrative from the viewpoint of a duplicitous white man.  It’s a classic symptom of white liberal guilt: patronizing filmmakers assume that an audience is incapable of identifying with nonwhites unless a white person does it for them (and is subsequently loved — often literally, by a nonwhite hottie — for it).  This white person then becomes the savior of the feeble natives who would be helpless but for the guidance and vision of their newly-minted whitey-gone-native (albeit trading in his white skin for blue skin, thanks to the Pandoran body genetically engineered and grown for him by the anthropologically-minded Avatar Program).6 Shades of this propensity have dogged well-intentioned narratives from A Passage to India to The Constant Gardener, where the basic moral message can be boiled down to: “White men: the cause of and solution to all life’s problems.”  In order for this staggeringly stupid banality to resonate, it’s necessary for the author/filmmaker to deny the natives their humanity.  Rather than put them on the same level of humanity as the white protagonists (and, usually, antagonists), the natives are elevated to the status of “noble savage.”

Nobility is not enough.  In typical auteurist stroke, Cameron moulds his Pandorans in the fairie/elven vein, much like his angelic aliens from The Abyss.  The cobalt cat people in Avatar are graceful, lithe giants with Edwardian gems 7 in their skin and the helpful ability to communicate telepathically with their beasts of burden.  They also wear next to nothing in the way of clothing, and even those few scraps are probably more the result of the desire to attain a PG-13 rating than any particular reason hammered out in the world-building brainstorm sessions.  Yes, they are beautiful.  A part of me wonders how persuasive the film would be with the average fanboy if the aliens had looked like Daleks or H.R. Giger’s Aliens.8

They’re never wrong.  When Jake first meets Neytiri, she calls him a “stupid infant” — a general slur on humanity, rather than his specific person.9  The film does nothing to contradict this characterization, beyond the fact that once Jake, as the avatar for the viewer, accepts and adopts the Na’vi lifestyle, he is (we are) no longer a stupid infant.  The aphorisms and spirituality of the Pandorans are superior to faulty human perception in every way; they are gospel truth.  Cameron’s depiction of the Pandoran ecosystem is given a scientific gloss to quantify its miracles for the more secularist viewer, but in the end, even the most hardened skeptics of the film — Sigourney Weaver’s head scientist, Grace Augustine, and Col. Quatrich’s vicious head mercenary — are flattened with the religious truth of the Pandoran belief-system.  In her case, all her demurring to rational explanations is wiped way with an ecstatic exclamation, “She’s real!” in reference to the goddess deity of the planet.  In his case, the efforts of his mechanized invasion force are quashed by what can only be called a Gaia ex machina during the film’s climactic battle.  Cameron doesn’t allow for a pluralist spiritual viewpoint.  His spiritualism is dogmatic, theocratic, and unilateral. In short, he’s a green fundamentalist.  And when the Pandoran goddess finally enters the fray, it’s not in reply to the cries of the native people, but a response to a single earnest prayer from — you guessed it — the Great White Savior.10

Cameron doesn’t see the contradiction of idealizing an alien race he consistently portrays as in need of a white savior.  That’s because he’s too busy running himself ragged trying to satisfy two needs at polar ends of the narrative spectrum.  On the one hand, his film is deliberately layered with parallels meant to revise/shift the viewer’s perspective on history and current events.  This requires close identification of Pandora with real-life humanity’s darkest moments.  On the other hand, he is obsessed with the alienness of his creation; this is an escapist fantasy as much as it’s an allegorical polemic, and the more Cameron meticulously works in sequences purely designed to remind viewers how different Pandora is from Earth (such as the scene where the moss, when trod upon at night, lights up like an organically grown version of Dance Dance Revolution), the more he falls into the dual trap of irrelevance and/or exoticism.  Fetishizing the aesthetic differences of another place and people is just Orientalism, another demon at the heart of postcolonial criticism.11  They’re better than us because they’re more primitive.  You could look at Avatar as the most industrialized adaptation of John Zerzan ever produced.

By “primitive,” Cameron thinks he means “in tune with nature.”  Again, his understanding of nature is limited to its ability to provide the inspiration for stunning CGI vistas or yield just enough genetic variation for Pandorans to go flying about on the backs of winged, prehistoric steeds.  The basic tenet of the film is that humanoids can live in harmony with nature — an ecological supremacist delusion.  We don’t live in harmony with nature.  We survive it.  Without industry, the social strictures of civilization, and the benefits of advanced commerce, our lives would be Hobbesian indeed.  That kind of life isn’t wrong.  It would suit some outdoorsy people very well.  But probably not the kind of person who satisfied a lifelong obsession to visit the wreckage of the Titanic in state-of-the-art deep-sea submersibles, all lovingly photographed with high tech camera equipment, the cost of a single one probably being more than my yearly salary.  Cameron idealizes a world he is supremely unsuited to inhabit.  Which is why his anti-civilization fantasy culminates in the transference of the human mind into a completely alien body that is perfectly suited.

Cameron’s screenplay pays lip service to the metaphysical ramifications of dreamwalking and the Eastern philosophy that centers on the avatar as a manifestation — a projection — of enlightened consciousness, but the visual language of the film is too literal to explore it (apart from a couple derivative, Blade Runner-esque shots of an eye opening in extreme close up).  As a literal plot device, the avatars in the film let humans become aliens.  They’re bigger, stronger, faster, better suited to the alien world they’re on (which is, of course, more beautiful than their own), and they have superpowers.  Forget about transhumanism: the conceit that humanity can transcend its current physical limitations through the applied use of technology.   Avatar does represent that, but everything about it suggests that the “alienness” of the Pandorans and their way of life is far and away superior to humanity, not kindred to it.  The only humans the film empathizes with are those who embrace Pandora for its exoticism and the novelty of becoming not-human.  (Then there’s the pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, the only person not in the Avatar program who’s shown in a positive light.  Guess what happens to her.)  The revelation that humans long ago destroyed Earth is cynical and antihumanist, placing the locus of salvation in what are essentially “higher” life forms.

But far be it from the producer of The Lost Tomb of Jesus to acknowledge the Western religious underpinnings of this implication.  Instead, the idolatry of the Pandorans becomes yet another vehicle for Cameron’s thoughtless racism.  In Eastern thought, avatars are manifestations of the gods — often incarnated to show us unascended beings the true path.  In Avatar, guess who’re the only ones capable of becoming avatars?  Yup: humans.  So humans are vile, destructive, duplicitous white bogeymen, whereas the Na’vi are the principled, noble, stainless “ethnic” angels… except that these angels, by implication, are shown the way by a white savior, a white avatar.  In one deft stroke, Cameron has managed to trivialize all major world religions while diminishing the agency of all people marginalized by Western hegemony.  The white man is God, and the aliens are the unenlightened savages.

The symbol of Avatar’s facileness, ironically, rests with the touted technology that made it so expensive and such a theatrical experience: the 3-D glasses.  Cameron may have set out to alter the audience’s perception, and temporarily that effect may appear to be successful.  However, the glasses only offer the illusion of three dimensions.  They don’t actually alter our perceptual faculties, nor is the film really three-dimensional.12  A genuine three-dimensional, immersive experience would allow the audience to choose what to look at as its members moves their heads and bodies to take in a cinescape that surrounded them.  This, too, would be illusory, but the propaganda behind the 3-D technology of Avatar disguises the fact that Cameron is still absolutely in charge of what we see and how.  He directs our gaze, rather than allowing us to form our own perceptual experience.  As layered and gorgeous as Avatar is, the compositions aren’t really crammed with meaning; they just look fantastic.  The important things to the story — a very flimsy, didactic, ideologically confused story — are the only things that take prominence.  As a filmmaker, Cameron remains a right-wing autocrat, even if his political belief-system aligns closer with the modern left.  As with his philosophical and political ambitions, the hype and promise of Avatar’s supposed progress only gives the illusion of depth.  Really, it’s the perfect capstone film for the inaugural year of the Obama era.

What gives Cameron the license to dictate our film experience with so little nuance or insight?  What allows him to run roughshod over basic storytelling competence, insulting our intelligence on the arrogant assumption that his dazzling effects wizardry and raw, towering talent will keep us just mystified enough to ignore his pernicious idiocy?  We do, of course.  Much like electoral votes, the tickets we purchase are a perfectly democratic (if still skewed) representation of popular taste.  James Cameron assumes his throne because the red carpet is rolled out for him by the kowtowing masses who lay down $813 to hear and see what he has in store for us.  As much as his people venerate him, King Cameron apparently holds us in utter contempt.  Turns out the king of the world wants to leave this world far behind.  He’s a king who would abdicate his throne and renounce his humanity (if he hasn’t already) the moment the opportunity arose.

Good to have you back, your majesty.  Gaia save the king.

Edited by Ellen Lawrence.


  1. I took Titanic’s ridiculous Oscar sweep as an overdue valediction for the superior work Cameron had been doing for more than fifteen years up to that point, but that work had the misfortune to fit comfortably into the “sci-fi/action” section of the video store — as opposed to the more respectable “drama” section.  Never mind his stunning Aliens (a rare sequel frequently cited as one that bettered or at least equalled the classic original) or the benchmark-setting Terminator films.  Cameron’s penchant for great one-liners notwithstanding, it was always his visual sense (visceral, epic, controlled, a bit clinical, sort of a cross between Lean, Kubrick, and Peckinpah) and feel for texture and structure that elevated his material.
  2. I’d still classify it as disaster porn.  The unabashed hokum of the love story doesn’t at all distract me from the fact that Cameron was simply obsessed with the engineering magnificence and the old world splendor of the HMS Titanic, and how thrillingly awful it would be to smash it all to pieces on camera.  To me, the shot where a hapless passenger falls from the stern railing after the aft has started to sink nose-first into the ocean and smacks into the propeller cements the film as little more than a lavish, impressively produced bit of historical-catastrophic wankery.
  3. In which James Cameron is the devilish wishmaster, earning dollars for his beholden studio execs even as he attempts to orchestrate their downfall.
  4. The against Avatar has been overwhelming and myopic. But Patrick Goldstein’s riposte to this backlash is no less blinkered by ideologially-motivated wishful thinking.  He says that “today’s ideology-obsessed conservatives have managed to walk away from such a crowd-pleasing triumph and only see the film’s political subtext, not the groundbreaking artistry that’s staring them right in the face,” but I wonder how today’s ideology-obsessed liberals can walk away from it without noticing Cameron’s ethnocentricity, outright racism, and enviro-religious fascism.
  5. Oddly, I never understood how nuanced Dances with Wolves was until Avatar forced me to reflect upon it.  Now I think it must be one of the best films of the 1990s.
  6. One of the more bitter ironies (among many) that is ignored by the film is that the research and advancements made by the heroic, altruistic scientists of the film are all made possible by the profit motive of the corporation.  Giovanni Ribisi’s slimy suit brings that up at one time, but because he says it, it’s made out to be a desperate excuse rather than a damn good point.  Just further proof of Cameron’s artless ideological bravado.
  7. See: Twilight.
  8. Obviously, I don’t include hentai fans in this generalization. You know they’d get freaky with anything possessing tentacles and pearly white dentata.
  9. Apparently we all look alike to them?
  10. Thought experiment: What if Neytiri had been the lead character?  A strong, female savior fighting for her people and her homeworld might have come across just as right-wing as the existing film, but at least it would have subverted Western ethnocentricity in a constructive manner.
  11. It can be argued that Cameron is actually simply trying to emphasize how unique and special the green places of Earth are.  Pandora is basically just one big South American rainforest, and despite a few creative flourishes — such as the wonderful plants that shrink into the ground when touched — a trip through the jungles of Pandora isn’t much different from a safari through Jurassic Park.  The film is therefore caught in this nether-realm between pure exoticism, which if handled correctly could be just enough eye candy to thoroughly enjoy, ideological problems be damned, and a CGI National Geographic special… in which case we’d probably just be better off watching the BBC miniseries Planet Earth in Hi-Def on a good flatscreen TV.
  12. One of the comments for this great article highlights this idea.
  13. Or more. After all, renting the special goggles costs a little extra.  Seeing the True Path to being a “right-thinking person” gets more expensive every year, don’tchaknow.

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