In the wake of our wars in the Middle East, the U.S. military has accelerated the human-machine merger through the creation of some of the most advanced human limb replacements.

Wearable devices illustrate the blurring of boundaries between humans and their machines.

James Cameron has been haunted by the idea of nuclear threat since his youth.

The Terminator franchise is largely set in a post-nuclear urban environment ...

... whereas Avatar is set in a hyper-real Eden-like world.

Despite the fact that there are parts to the Terminator franchise where the viewer is able to see from the machine’s perspective, the franchise is overwhelmingly technophobic.

The animated Cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell serves as an example of what Bruce Bethke describes as an ultra-technological world where machines think like humans.

Terminator Salvation was criticized for using “big” and “clangy” machines. It was characterized as more of a “throwback to the past than a harbinger of things to come.”

Visual crucifixion of Terminator Salvation's cyborg is symbolic of modernity’s rejection of man/machine fusion.

Pandora is a hyper-real, multi-colored, vibrant world teeming with life.

In Avatar, biology enables hybridization at the cellular level.

Jake Sully, a war induced paraplegic, is able to experience a more evolved postmodern condition where he is free to experience, once again, the sensation of his limbs.



Terminator to Avatar:
a postmodern shift

by Kimberly N. Rosenfeld

Blockbuster films such as the Terminator franchise and now Avatar have just about become their own cinematic category, a genre crossed between action and science fiction. The Terminator franchise grossed $518,908,126[1] [open endnotes in new window]

domestically and Avatar’s domestic gross, as of Spring 2010, is $748, 133, 199,[2] around a 45% increase over the gross of the Terminator series combined, and still rising. Beyond their mass-market appeal, impressive visuals, predictable characters, and surface-level storytelling, these films capture aspects of the public’s current experiences and ideological states. As noted by Doug Kellner in his book Cinema Wars (2010), political discourses as well as social experiences and realities are often translated into cinematic form. This has recently been illustrated in numerous films about terrorism, torture and corporate corruptive power in response to the Bush-Cheney administration as well as myriad documentaries detailing the numerous social injustices brought about during their reign of terror (See Kellner, 2010). The public’s political impulses have made more visible complex fractures and now struggles taking place within today’s political and social power and hegemonic ideology.

Few would disagree that the United States is in the midst of great change as we adjust to a new President, a broken economy, ecological disaster, and hope for transformation both domestically and abroad. Juxtaposed against a political legacy from the past are exciting innovations in technology, renewable energy, green jobs, and a renewed commitment to social justice. We see this ideological shift manifest itself in the boxoffice with the way that we can decode two popular narratives to understand how they represent the turn from a modern Terminator mindset to a postmodern Avatar era. Through diagnostic critique, critical theory is used here to demonstrate how these films offer a window into deeper changes affecting our collective psyche.

Historically, strong technophobic movements have considered technology a dominating, repressive force of social reproduction (Robins & Webster, 1999). However, equally strong technophiliac views see technology morphing into our new other (Turkle, 1995). Not only are machines increasingly fundamental to daily life, but also in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, the human-technology merger has accelerated. Some of the first cyborgs have been created through the U.S. military’s efforts to discover new, emergent technologies to enhance human warfare capacities and to replace and replicate lost human body parts. All are signs that technology and machines rapidly continue to expand and evolve in their function and relation to society. Beyond the military context, human/machine boundaries are becoming increasingly unclear. As humans merge with technology, a new human condition arguably materializes.

Consistent with past technological advances, today’s advances take us into an era where this expansion’s impact is not entirely clear. With each machine expansion, humanity struggles to understand its sense of place within a world fragmented in its identity and its relationship with machines (see Turkle, 1995). As Best and Kellner note, “The postmodern adventure is extremely ambiguous and contradictory” (2001, p. 12). Similarly, Fredric Jameson characterizes postmodernity to be a new point in history where the definition of “cultural” is shifting into original and un-theorized territory (1984). In this vein, I argue the Terminator franchise and now Avatar are emblematic of society’s shift from late modernity to postmodernity.

Cameron’s new cinema

James Cameron, the initial creator, writer and director of the Terminator franchise and now of Avatar, has been preoccupied with the idea of nuclear threat since his youth. Several of his films address threats around nuclear disaster, as in The Abyss (1989) where a deep-ocean oil-drilling crew is called upon to prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Oddly enough, Cameron built the set for this film on an abandoned, and never activated, South Carolina nuclear-power facility.

Cameron built the set for "The Abyss" on an abandoned (and never activated) ... ... South Carolina nuclear-power facility.

With True Lies (1994), the nuclear threat comes from a group of Islamic terrorists targeting U.S. cities. Furthermore, the Terminator franchise is rooted in a post-nuclear theme: the main story revolves around characters working in the present to prevent mankind’s future judgment day via nuclear devastation.

Several of James Cameron’s films address threats ... ... associated with nuclear devastation.

This kind of pandemonium is repeated in just about all Cameron’s films. As Dana Goodyear point out in her October 26, 2009 New Yorker article,

"Cameron’s imagination was shaped by the Cold War; the threat of nuclear annihilation is a recurring theme. ... He analyzed the common traits of the ten most successful movies of all time: an average person in extraordinary jeopardy was a major trope. His story posited a future when much of Earth has been destroyed in a catastrophic nuclear war; out of the rubble, a race of machines rises up and tries to eliminate the few remaining human beings” (p. 6, 8).

Twenty years later Cameron directs Avatar. The film depicts a future where the destructive forces of modernity have exhausted Earth’s natural resources. Subsequently, humans’ ever-expanding capitalist needs lead them to another planet where they are at risk of making modernity’s same mistakes. In Avatar, Cameron shows us an Eden-like world, untouched by destructive human qualities, almost a post-nuclear refuge for people but with one caveat. Humans must abandon their capitalist values and reinvent themselves to cohabitate respectfully and harmoniously with their environment and each other. It is not innocent that Cameron chose to call this world Pandora. It’s a world representing richness and gifts in the form of precious minerals, which will unleash the worst in humans as they seek to mine its sacred site. This theme strongly resembles the U.S. gold rush a time in U.S. history when the American Indian sacred Black Hills territories were encroached upon, resulting in Indians’ forced migration to reservations. It is also no surprise one of Cameron’s alleged projects in development continues his nuclear theme—an adaption from the book, Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors by Charles Pellegrino. Additionally, a possible Avatar 2 is rumored to explore another of Cameron’s fixations, Pandora’s oceans. [3]

The Terminator franchise's modernity

Preceding Avatar’s more utopian view of technology, human/machine relations throughout the Terminator franchise present a more antagonistic relationship between the two. In the Terminator films, the human race is struggling for survival against evil cyborgs set out to destroy all of human kind in a futuristic, post-judgment-day dystopia. In some parts of the series, we are called upon to see things from the machine perspective, such as when the viewer is presented with the Terminator’s point of view as his analytical digital display presents information about each human he encounters. Such a viewpoint is further reinforced in the second Terminator film, where we are asked to accept Arnold Schwarzenegger as protector. Nevertheless, the films are overwhelmingly cynical in their view of man/machine relations. The franchise is consistent with several themes of modernity, including secularization, individuation, urbanization, democratization, differentiation, and revolution.

The Terminator franchise takes place in a secular, urban world where John Connor provides deliverance. Sarah Connor is revered throughout the franchise and is a personification of another of Cameron’s tropes, woman as warrior and mother, which is apparent in both the Terminator franchise and Avatar. Interestingly, these films introduce their female leads through a show of physical prowess, instead of via a classic female stereotype such as maternal soother or sexual object.

Another of Cameron’s tropes is “woman as warrior.” The Terminator series and Avatar introduce their female leads ...
... through a show of physical prowess ... ... as opposed to stereotypical female actions.

Unlike the less secular films that call on a higher power in the form of God to save the day, the Terminator series relies exclusively on one human, devoid of divine power, who with the help of his warrior mother, uses his uniquely human intellect and abilities to save humankind. The group of humans led by Connor operates as a democratic state, each member working together toward revolution and the other’s complete destruction. Although the cyborgs are like humans, there are clear differences between the two. These machines are superior in strength and physical fortitude; however, humanity’s intellect and skills ultimately give them ascendency. The Terminator series deals with such narrative tropes as bucking the established system, asserting individuality and human agency, and revolting from hegemonic control.

Cinematic representations of a society in shambles brought about by humankind’s losing control to its machines were popular with audiences in a period when the socio-political context fostered anxiety and technological mistrust. However, such angst is becoming an increasingly passé attitude. For example, in science fiction, 1980s Cyberpunk literature has been read as a response to technological advancements (Kellner, 2003; Jones, 2004). As noted by Steve Jones (2004) in his article “Cyber-punk and Information Technology,” cyberpunk literature situates the future in the present and consists of societies in a high information state. He argues,

“The parallels we draw between machines and living things strongly color our understanding of the world. Now, information is central to biology—life is thought of as a genetic code, and like a machine code is available for editing” (p. 89).

The technology of the cyberpunk genre is characterized by what Bruce Bethke describes as ultratechnology, where technology is used to create genetic mixes, machines that think like humans and humans that think like machines. For Bethke (2004), cyberpunk is

“the science of controlling human functions and of electronic, mechanical and biological control systems designed to replace them.”[4]

Cyberpunk themes and those of the Terminator franchise centered around losing control of the pace of technological change, but such themes have been displaced by a new narrative where humans, machines, and technology are more similar than different and their relations more complex (See Kellner, 2003; Bethke, 2004).

Cyberpunk sentiments have been echoed in numerous critiques of Terminator Salvation where, for the most part,  humans and machines still engage in modern warfare. The general consensus is that Terminator Salvation’s machines are mindless so that the film relies on impressive pyrotechnics, screeching metal, and hand to hand combat to entertain. Roger Ebert[5] notes that these machines fight with “their fists,” shooting at each other to little effect. Betsy Sharkey[6] of the Los Angeles Times observes that the Terminator machines are physical:

“they fly, swim, search, chase, harvest, transport, jail, crush, etc., but there is not a strategic thinker or a standout personality among them” (p. 2).

Peter Rainer[7] criticized the film for giving meaning to the phrase heavy metal. The Terminators

“are so big and clangy that, during the fight scenes, you may find yourself clutching your ears far more often than the armrests.”

Ranier also criticizes the film for “taking things much too seriously” (p. 1). Critics A.O. Scott[8] and Anthony Lane[9] found Terminator Salvation to be more a throwback than harbinger of things to come.

The Terminator franchise represents a relation to technology that to a large extent is characteristic of late modernity. Technology has evolved but humanity’s thinking has not kept pace. Humans who inhabit the Terminator world continue to perceive the relation as a dichotomy of good/evil and preservation/destruction; humanity sees itself as a single entity consisting of all organic parts that must fight against the cyborgs or risk losing life itself. It should be recognized there in some of the franchise the cyborg is sent to help and protect humans; however, the scripts present these acts as an exception. To a large extent, the Terminator series provides an “us” versus “them” world, which fails to acknowledge the dialectical relation between humans, technology and machines. This polarity takes a strange turn when in Terminator Salvation, machines attempt to create a hybrid man/machine who can’t find his place in either world. His visual crucifixion at the hands of humans is symbolic of people’s rejection of what this hybrid represents, man/machine fusion. In this final installment of the Terminator series, machines show viewers that their perception is often an illusion and human attributes are not the only measure of one’s “humanity.” Avatar, on the other hand, embraces human-technology-machine relations and extends them into a post-human society.

In Terminator Salvation, machines show us that perception is often illusion... ... and human attributes are not the only measure of one’s humanity.

Avatar 's postmodernity

Juxtaposed to the Terminator’s world filled with anxiety and alienation is Avatar’s futuristic setting where technology’s acceptance is posited but also an evolved condition championed. We see Pandora, a distant moon, as a multi-colored vibrant world teeming with life as opposed to the Terminator’s ashen, dark, ember colors of doomsday destruction. For postmodern theorists like Fredric Jameson, concepts such as anxiety and alienation are no longer appropriate in the world of postmodernity (1984); however, he also finds the postmodern condition characterized by loss of history and depth (1991). Avatar takes a strong step away from the Terminator’s anxiety and alienation. Avatar’s themes of hybridization, fragmentation and hyperreality are not social liabilities rather, to a large extent, they can be read as transformative assets.

The tip of the Na’vi’s hair braids serves as a spiritual and biological connection to Pandora’s fauna and flora. Just as we are wired to the web, the Na’vi are wired to their world.
Avatar calls on viewers to question modernist ... ... practices of environmental destruction.

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