James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry. Unfortunately, it’s a bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills. Worst of all, the film consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. James Cameron of all people should know better.
One of the ways we understand ourselves and the world around us is through myths. In the telling and re-telling of myths, we attempt to resolve conflicts between concepts like human and machine, life and death, and good and evil by reconciling and uniting the opposing concepts within the fabric of the myth. The struggle of human against machine, which had been the subject of myth since the Industrial Revolution, came close to being resolved by the Science Fiction genre's myth of The Cyborg, a creation that is part human and part machine. The myth of The Cyborg unites human and machine, or, more precisely, it re-unites humans with characteristics we projected onto the world of machines and set ourselves in opposition to. Machines are cold, dead and hard, but living human beings are warm and, compared to machines, very soft. The fragility of human beings is revealed in war, murders, car wrecks and plane crashes, the art of Schwarzkogler, Burden and Mark Pauline, the reproductions of Andy Warhol, and the films of motion picture directors whose forte is the action sequence, and, piling action sequence upon action sequence and genre upon genre, the Action Adventure Science Fiction Fantasy film.
It happens that two of the best known and most successful renditions of the myth of The Cyborg are Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). What is particularly interesting about T2 is that it marked a significant shift in our attitudes toward machines. In 1984, The Terminator still reflects the ambivalence and caution that had characterized our attitudes toward machines for hundreds of years and informed the Science Fiction genre film since Fritz Lang created the evil robot, Maria (the original material girl), in Metropolis (1926). In 1991, just seven years after The Terminator, Cameron and Hurd's Terminator 2: Judgment Day creates a world in which an out of control machine with an Austrian accent saves the human race. If we didn’t notice anything strange about this particular rendering of the human versus machine myth, it's because we had already made the mental leap to the other side of the chasm separating men and women from machines. After struggling with the issue for a few hundred years, we had finally made up our minds about computers, robots and ourselves, and we had decided to come down on the side of the machines.
The distinction between humans and machines began to blur in the 1980’s. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), more physical damage is sustained by replicants than by people, the replicants have pitifully short life spans, and, in fact, all of the women in the film are replicants. In Robocop (1987) the cyborg (a true cyborg, compared to the Terminator, whose humanity is only skin deep) sustains massive injuries in his first encounter with a killer robot. And, in Cameron and Hurd's Aliens (1986), their sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the robot or "artificial person" is ripped in half by WATCH OUT! A XENOMORPH! Cameron and Hurd's word for a non-human life form. By this time, Cameron and Hurd’s view of machines is already softening. The humans and the machines are on the same side, and, at the film's climax, it is the badly damaged "artificial person" -- his legless torso resembling a broken, plastic doll -- who saves the human child from being sucked into space.
We define ourselves in terms of what we are not. As the distinction between humans and machines begins to blur, our image of ourselves begins to blur with it. In a futile attempt to maintain the distinction, we work hard to come up with things people can do better than machines. It is our hope that we are different from and, on some level, better than the machines we create. But the truth is that machines can do most things better than people can. Machines can't paint as well as Jackson Pollock, say, but most people can't either. Generally, where we choose to employ them, machines outstrip people easily, and they force us to redefine concepts like intelligence. We fall back on our last line of defense: the capacity to feel. Can machines feel? Can they appreciate art and music? Are they alive? In the Science Fiction film they are.
Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner, stands Philip K. Dicks 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on its head. Dicks’ novel is about a bounty hunter who is so human he is capable of empathizing with the ruthless machines he hunts down and destroys. That capacity almost destroys him. Fourteen years later, in Blade Runner, the machines are more human and compassionate than the humans. It's the machines who recite poetry and philosophy and who have "seen things you people wouldn't believe," and it's pain that keeps Roy Baty alive long enough to redeem the bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.
The struggle of human against machine, as it has played out in our best myths, has two main variations. In the first variation, machines are evil. In the second variation, machines are just dangerous, and it's the "mad scientists" who create or use them who are evil or insane. Machines have a potential for evil, but they usually include a built-in safety mechanism to protect people -- the first law of Robotics is not to harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm -- but, of course, the safety mechanism doesn't always work.
In masterful renditions of the myth like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both the evil machine and the mad scientist versions of the struggle between human and machine resonate at once. Dangerous men are caught up in dangerous machines. We can see the Strategic Air Command as a machine out of control, we can see it as a machine in the hands of a mad general, or we can see SAC as a cog in the menacing machine we used to call the Cold War, a concept that comes close to what the hindus mean by karma. One big machine. A clockwork. No choice. Exactly the opposite of what we hope to be.
Forbidden Planet (1956) is an especially bleak rendering of the mad scientist myth. After thousands of years of rationality, with the assistance of a machine to end all machines, the Krell are destroyed by monsters from the id. Morbius, in his pursuit of the knowledge and power of the Krell, is transformed into a monster who, subconsiously, seeks to destroy anyone who opposes him.
Most Science Fiction films, however, and in particular the ones in which the machine is a robot, cyborg, or some combination of human and machine, favor, like Lang's Metropolis, the evil machine story. These films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), Westworld (1973), The Demon Seed (1977), Alien (1979), and, finally, The Terminator (1984), the genre's last rendition of a truly evil machine. The machine in T1 is bad to its alloy bone.
Cameron and Hurd's two Terminator films demonstrate our changing attitudes toward machines with great clarity. Both films are set within the context of an apocalyptic war between humans and machines that follows a 1997 nuclear war between the United States and Russia. As you recall, the nuclear war begins when Skynet, the U.S.A.'s computer-based defense system, achieves self-awareness and attacks the Russians, hoping the human race will be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. In this, both films are consistent with each other, and with Dr. Strangelove, Colossus: The Forbin Project and other films of the Cold War era.
The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, have the same basic plot. Skynet sends a Terminator from the future to kill Sarah Connor or her son John before John can be born, grow up, and lead the humans in their war against the machines. In both films, the humans send a warrior back through time to protect John and his mother. It is at this point that T1 and T2 diverge. In The Terminator, the protector is a human being, and the Terminator is a machine. In T2, the protector is a machine, and the Terminator is neither human nor machine. He is something else.
In film, what you see and hear is what you get. And what you get in The Terminator are brilliant special effects, muscles, big trucks and bikes, shiny pistols, machine guns, shotguns and other hardware, and a solid rendition of the evil machine myth. What you get in Terminator 2: Judgement Day are even more extravagant special effects, including the "fluid" effects Cameron and Hurd used in The Abyss (1989), and a solid rendition of the mad scientist myth as the three heroes, John Connor, his mom, and John's cyborg protector hustle to stop the mad scientist before he can invent the basic technology that leads to Skynet. To stay alive, they have to stay out of the clutches of a new kind of Terminator who, though Cameron and Hurd call him a machine, is depicted, especially in his grotesque death throes, as essentially organic or worse. Unlike the Terminator in T1, who is a machine disguised as a man, the Terminator in T2 is an organic whole, not an assemblage of parts, and, although it's possible to read "machine" into his strength, agility and relentless focus, when he's consigned to a caldron of molten steel at the climax of the film, he shape shifts, writhes and bellows in agony like a monstrous animal or demon.
T2 is remarkably misanthropic and predictably iconoclastic in its assault on the usual people and institutions, including Ma Bell, bank machines, cops, bikers, foster parents and the city of Los Angeles, which is flattened by a hydrogen bomb. But, in contrast, T2’s rendition of the cyborg who is sent back through time to protect John Connor is heroic. And, just in case we can't follow the sub-text, T2 spells it out for us in a voice-over by Sarah Connor. Watching the cyborg and her kid, Sarah says: "Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."
In the film's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the caldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron and Hurd use a series of close-ups to create a beautiful portrait of The Cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron and Gayle Anne Hurd gave us our first glimpse of a new, still unformed technology that might have replaced the machine as the not-us adversary upon which we projected our worst fears. Having united human and machine through the myth of The Cyborg, having accepted the machine model of human intelligence and anatomy to the extent that we understood ourselves better as machines than as animals, having realized that we are evolving, not into angels but into machines, we might have joined with The Cyborg to face the uncertain, and, because our paranoia stays one step ahead of us, always dangerous natural and supernatural worlds. The myth of the evil machine is dead. We are ready to confront, in myth and in art, the potential of bioengineering and of our own over-heated subconscious minds.
Instead, James Cameron invites us to a boring reprise of The Mission (1986) and the vicarious thrill of watching alien natives defeat well-armed corporate mercenaries. Cameron seems to have lost his faith in machines, people and cyborgs as well.
Somebody get Gale Anne Hurd on the phone. T3 without Cameron was a waste of her time. Avatar without Hurd was a waste of Cameron’s time. Cameron and Hurd should get back together and do something worthy of 3D CGI. Almost a hundred years of science fiction film is out there waiting to be mashed up into something new and actually mythic.