copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
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 [open endnotes in new window]
domestically and Avatar’s domestic gross, as of Spring 2010, is $748, 133, 199, 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. 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.
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. 
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. 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.”
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 notes that these machines fight with “their fists,” shooting at each other to little effect. Betsy Sharkey 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 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 and Anthony Lane 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.
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.
Hybridization and fusion
U.S. society is becoming increasingly more hybridized, as evidenced by our newly inaugurated President, Barack Obama. Obama is a hybrid of not only race—black and white—but also of religion, Muslim and Christian. Furthermore, his U.S./Kenyan heritage represents today’s “global space,” where his personal representing of race, religion and continents have combined into making him a hyperreal political and global “superstar.” It is no surprise the country was ripe for a film like Avatar.
Avatar’s human drivers represent an interplanetary mix. In Avatar’s world, biology enables hybridization at the cellular level, where human DNA is spliced with the DNA of Pandora’s indigenous, the Na’vi. Human minds reside in Na’vi bodies with both human and other physical characteristics. For instance, Avatar’s main character, Jake Sully, has an avatar that is blue, seven feet tall, with feline ears and nose. Yet, the avatar’s appearance is still that of Jake Sully, exemplifying postmodernity’s embodiment of blurred boundaries between natural/artificial, organic/nonorganic, born/made (Best & Kellner, 2001). The avatars are neither friend nor foe to humans but rather completely meld with human identity. While inhabiting the body of their avatar, human drivers are able to manipulate the world around them, free from the constraints of their earthly life. Pandora is a place where interspecies communication and relationships are possible. It is also a place where a paraplegic war-torn veteran can experience once again the sensations of his limbs and the joy of living. This more evolved and tolerant perspective seems to prepare us humans to be open to what Steven Hawkins has argued since the mid 1990s: the possibility of contact with alien life forms. This would not seem so strange to today’s videogamers, who often collaborate in these virtual environments with bizarre animals and alien-like creatures. If we juxtapose this kind of representation to Hollywood’s green, menacing aliens depicted in films like This Island Earth (1955), it can be viewed as a metaphor for the open-mindedness of today’s youth.
“Fusing” is another interesting part of the Na’vi existence. The concept of organic matter living within a complex network of electro-chemical communication—where information, like memories, can be uploaded and downloaded—is another example of postmodern merging. Cameron has taken the connections we have with our machines to the next level. Just as we are all “wired” to the Internet, the Na’vi are wired to their world. Each Na’vi and Avatar’s hairbraid serves as a physical extension of their spirituality. At the braid’s tip, a series of tendrils, much like fiber optic cables, links them to Pandora’s universe, allowing them to fuse with animals such as horses and flying Banshee dragons as well as with vegetation such as the tree of souls. The viewer is invited to accept this post-human state as showing people in harmony with their surroundings. It calls upon viewers to question modernist environmental practices with their staunch human domination-over-nature paradigm. Our destruction of forests and overall lack of respect given to air, oceans, and land are all anathema to the Na’vi. Since the Na’vi are one with their environment, to destroy Pandora’s environment is to destroy a fundamental part of them.
Humans have become Pandora’s Terminator equivalents. They wear exo-masks and body armor; they also operate four-meter tall MK-6 ampsuits. Consistent with Marshall McLuhan’s projections , these devices allow the machines to become an extension of humans, lending people extraordinary strength. Additionally, Psionic Link Units, MRI-like machines, let human drivers animate their new identity. The link units enable the comparatively fragile human form to be sustained in comfort and safety while the superior avatar form is driven. The avatars’ superior physical condition is illustrated best when Sigourney Weaver’s character, Grace Augustine, the head of the avatar program, arrives back from operating her avatar. She describes her body as an “old sack of bones” and Jake “struggles with the dead weight of his legs as he hauls himself out of the unit.”
Fragmentation and virtualization
Identity in Avatar is both conflated and bifurcated. Similar to today’s identity change via multiplayer video games where players create an individualized avatar to represent their identity in the gameworld (e.g., World of Warcraft), Avatar advances this concept to imagine the future of “avatars” and visually helps the viewer experience fragmentation and virtualization. Cameron pulls the viewer into Pandora’s world much like people are pulled into gaming’s virtual reality. This is no accident. In a 2010 Ted Talk, Cameron recounts his experience exploring the deck of the sunken Titanic via a robotic vehicle. He notes:
“I'm operating it, but my mind is in the vehicle. I felt like I was physically present inside the shipwreck of Titanic. … So, it was this absolutely remarkable experience. And it really made me realize that the telepresense experience that you actually can have these robotic avatars, then your consciousness is injected into the vehicle, into this other form of existence. It was really really quite profound. And may be a little bit of a glimpse as to what might be happening some decades out as we start to have cyborg bodies for exploration or for other means in many sort of post-human futures that I can imagine” (Cameron, 2010).
Like Cameron’s deep-sea exploration experience, Avatar takes us to another time and place where our consciousness is injected into a post-human world and identity. This is accomplished through Cameron’s revolutionary approach to making this film.
Cameron’s use of stereoscopic 3D not only helps the audience experience full immersion but also seems to be a direct pushback by Hollywood studios to recapture an audience increasingly lost to video games. In fact, a plethora of 3D films have hit the theaters since Avatar’s success. Cameron effectively transforms the theater experience from viewing a static two-dimensional space into seeming immersion in a physical space where the viewer is given depth perception so as to become part of this new world and especially to comprehend its scale. Stereoscopic 3D is not without its limitations, as movements cannot be executed too quickly, and any lateral movement of characters does not pick up the 3D. These limits do not, however, negate stereoscopic 3D’s impact on the film and the viewer.
Cameron’s technophiliac side enabled him to use hybrid filmmaking to tackle two complex challenges. First, he used what had been a niche technique, stereoscopic 3D, in a full-length fiction feature film. Second, he developed a virtual camera to shoot live-action actors within a computer-generated environment. Cameron decided not to wait any longer for technology to catch up to his vision and instead co-developed his own virtual camera. The camera is essentially two cameras strapped together and linked to a computer system that can stream captured performances. When the camera was directed at the set, Cameron was able to see the CGI environment with the live-action shots as he was filming them. Without having to combine the live-action shots with this elaborate environment in post-production, he achieved a more organic feel to the film. One of the most revolutionary functions of Cameron’s virtual camera is that, being without physical limits, it enables him to adjust the scale of each shot. Thus, motions are more fluid; several complex shots would not have been possible without it. This all lent to the spectacular nature of Pandora’s environment and the audience’s connection to it (Duncan, 2010).
With 500 plant varieties and creatures, Pandora is a world that is both indescribable and familiar (Turan, 2009). The forest resembles the Amazonian rainforest mixed with the ocean’s myriad life forms; plants move like animals, and colors resemble those of exotic birds. Before any significant action takes place, the viewer is invited to explore this new world; it’s analogous to the visual discovery within a new videogame. Confined to his wheelchair, the paraplegic Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, feels a larger-than-life euphoria and liberation; identifying with him enables the viewer also to experience vicariously a post-human condition. Thus, when Jake Sully is pulled back to homebase, we feel his sense of loss, and the profound struggle between his obligations to his earthly body and his desire to be in his avatar body. His “real” life and Avatar life become two incommensurable realities.
Sully’s character is also increasingly burdened by the fact that he must return to sustain his “real” body, as his virtual life is easier to maintain as well as more liberating, exciting and powerful. Cameron visually communicates this metamorphosis with Sully’s increasingly emaciated body placed in opposition to his increasingly strong avatar. The viewer, along with Sully, becomes addicted to Sully’s Pandora reality. It is an existence free from the grind of capitalist-infused individuality. Pandora mirrors the freedom many find in their virtual lives. The relationships Sully forms and the freedom he has to walk again and even more to fly and be at one with nature and the indigenous world demonstrate the ease within the fiction by which one can find a more evolved existence. We find in Pandora simulacra of a post-humanist future. The utopian quality of this film’s magical world has even resulted in an uncommon public reaction, post-viewing depression, as several news sources have reported. Maybe the public is especially sensitive to the contrast between the film’s hyperreality and the current reality of our depressed economy. When these viewers walk out of the theater, they are let down at returning to live in the actual world they must inhabit (Boucher, 2010).
Avatar has certainly received a fair amount of criticism. Analee Newitz (2009) found the script ultimately to focus on white guilt with Jake Sully’s character falling into the same role as that of numerous other white male protagonists saving people of color such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even District 9 — with its apartheid undertone the “aliens” are a metaphor for black Africans victimized by apartheid. Furthermore Newitz concludes,
“Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege” (p. 3).
Her argument concludes with a call for whites to
“stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white (p. 4).”
Likewise Slavoj Zizek criticizes Avatar’s “array of racist motifs.” He notes,
“A paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and help the natives win the decisive battle” (p. 2).
Newitz and Zizek are representative of several critics concluding Avatar is just another white fantasy film placing the white male in the hero position to lead the natives to freedom. Despite these criticisms, however, Pandora overwhelmingly serves as simulacrum for a more evolved society.
Although it is important to note that at first glance the Na'vi appear to be a primitive society with a religious identity strongly resembling animism, their interpretation of spiritual signs pushes them to study Jake Sully rather than kill him. At the core of their ethics is this connection to nature that causes an otherwise closed society to respect all living things. Their attitude enables Sully to gain acceptance into the clan with cautious optimism. Jake Sully may lead the charge in helping the natives fight off the U.S. military’s colonization attempts but the natives are shown to operate under principles superior to the human aliens. The N’avi are portrayed through Cameron’s idyllic lens as more ecological, spiritual, and just.
Likewise, the Na’vi women are given voice and free to be central actors in Pandora’s world. Jake Sully’s love interest, a female Na’vi named Neytiri, serves as a knowledgeable, confident and skilled guide. The viewer follows her across vegetation that lights up with each step. We ride exotic horses, and fly through Pandora’s floating mountains with Jake and Neytiri on their own flying dragon-like Mountain Banshee. We can feel the delicate jellyfish-type spore-creatures called Atokirina as they gently land on Sully’s body and listen while Neytiri explains their significance. Neytiri is not only equal to Jake, she is at times more advanced in her ethics, athleticism, knowledge and sense of adventure. Another turn to the Postmodern can be found in the juxtaposition of war in the Terminator franchise versus Avatar.
Terminator warfare falls within traditional definitions of armed conflict, where wars are still being fought with distinct boundaries between human beings and machines. (One exception to this is the introduction of a cyborg in Terminator Salvation. However, the character, Marcus, is fused with machine parts against his will to help Sky Net defeat the human resistance. In the end, Marcus ends up rejecting machine control and fights to help the humans. His tragic cyborg condition, however, does not eliminate the need for humans to physically engage in combat.) In Terminator, humans scavenge and repurpose technology to undo past technological advancements. By the second installment of the franchise, they manage to successfully send Arnold Schwarzenegger as a T-800 back to the past to protect their leader, but he still has to fight a more advanced T-1000 Terminator. It seems that for every film of the franchise, the machines consistently have the upper hand, pitting a more sophisticated Terminator against the obsolete Terminator, with the scripts rooting for the human side as they depict humans as underdogs to technology. Additionally, the Terminator’s human soldiers are still in the direct line of fire and discharge real-time weapons. In Avatar, there are elements of modernity still in place, but we begin to see a turn to the postmodern.
The human biologists of Avatar are still modern in their methods. For instance, financing is still provided by a profit-driven corporation that hires an ex-military warmonger contractor, whose crew resembles a Blackwater operation rather than a peacekeeping enterprise like the United Nations. Elements of the war economy play out in Avatar with the more humane and ethical biologists controlled through and trying to push back from the grip of corporate funding. This is illustrated by Grace Augustine’s struggle with representatives of the corporation(s) funding her research, and her eventual move to isolate her team from their control. Grace Augustine is interested in studying Pandora for the sake of humanity’s advancement and progress. The paradox in her presence on Pandora is that she inevitably opens its environment to invasion as she attempts to re-build her team’s “broken” relationship with the Na’vi.
War turns toward the postmodern in Avatar’s synchronized fragmentation. At first glance, it appears the Na’vi are primitive fighters, even using bows and arrows in a seemingly futile attempt to protect themselves against humans’ massive military capabilities. The physical battles in Avatar, however, are not just fought in hand-to-hand combat but first fought politically with the corporations trying to buy the Na’vi’s cooperation in the form of monetary gifts and services. When the battle turns physical, combat is between species and warring machines. Pandora, as a planet, bands together to fight its human nemesis. Animals initially presented as predatory join forces with the Na’vi against a common predator, humans. Soldiers materialize in the form of not just male warriors but also women, flying banshees, and other animals, with each of Pandora’s fragments connecting up together to fight as one unified whole.
Becoming a postmodern viewer
Not only are the creators of film franchises like Terminator and Avatar reflecting a shift in society, we the viewer, are called upon to evolve as well. Jameson, in his article “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” posits that many of us have happened into this space of an object that is mutating; however, we have not all developed perceptual skills to match this shift. For Jameson, this shift hasn’t happened because our perceptual habits were formed in the older space of high modernism. Yet, the postmodern viewer is called upon to see all the screens at once in their radical and random difference. This viewer is also called upon to grasp new relations.
In many ways, the U.S. public has been thinking more dialectically as evidenced by the strong social movements sweeping through our political elections. There is a wave of rejection of traditional forms of hegemonic power and an embracing of hybridity and fragmentation. Another aspect of the postmodern shift can be found in our wired world, with the Na’vi’s ecological network serving as a parable for our interconnected identities. This is further corroborated by Avatar’s popularity and fans’ adoration. The perceptual habits of our millennial generation, those born after 1982, are being formed in an early postmodern era. We can expect to see additional shifts in attitudes toward and relations with technology, machines, and each other.
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