Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) triumphs over the shark in Jaws and demonstrates the pacifying function of Spielberg’s father.
Even in the face of the worst horrors, father figures such as Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) can provide a sense of social stability.
Despite his atypical heroic actions, John McClane (Bruce Willis) functions as the typical Hollywood father in Die Hard.
In a Cameron film, one does not find a father figure like Henry Jones (Sean Connery), who rescues his son Indiana (Harrison Ford) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
With Descartes and modernity, the paternal dimension of ideology loses its authority and ceases to be fundamental.
Rather than being a figure of wholeness, the mother is a ravenous monster in Cameron’s Aliens.
Cameron presents Pandora as a world of wholeness, where the inhabitants have a bond with nature that humans cannot have.
Jake prays to Eywa for help in the struggle against the humans because he sees no other possibility for victory. Eywa is the last hope.
Neytiri makes it clear to Jake that Eywa cannot intervene. To do so would reveal a division within nature itself and thus violate the wholeness that Eywa embodies.
The invaders from Earth prepare to destroy the Na’vi world and don’t expect the resistance that the natural world itself will pose to them.
Organized by Eywa, the beasts of Pandora respond to the human attack. This defense subjectivizes nature and reveals its incompleteness.
The human attackers register the shock of the natural world mounting an organized defense against their onslaught.
Neytiri realizes that Eywa’s response to Jake’s call for help has saved her people and at the same time revealed that Eywa is not what Neytiri thought her to be.
The incompleteness that Eywa demonstrates in the final battle scene distinguishes Avatar from films that romanticize the natural world, like Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wovlves.
Even when Neytiri shoots arrows, they do not come flying at the spectator as one might expect in a 3D film. Cameron instead uses 3D technology to immerse the spectator in the world of Pandora.
by Todd McGowan
The focus of the typical Hollywood film is seldom the figure of the mother. With his concern for constituting a paternal presence, Steven Spielberg is the exemplary Hollywood director. In the Spielberg film, as in so many contemporary films, the father functions as a stabilizing force that concludes the narrative movement by mastering the disruptive emergence of desire. From Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws (1975) to Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) in Schindler’s List (1993) to Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) in War of the Worlds (2005), the father provides stability and an assurance that no threat can triumph over this stability. Beyond the example of Spielberg, this function of the father is widely visible in popular films such as Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009). In innumerable instances of Hollywood filmmaking, the father or paternal figure anchors the filmic narrative in the way that the master signifier anchors every symbolic structure. The paternal figure ensures the survival of guarantees.
In this world, James Cameron stands out. Cameron certainly does not inhabit the margins of Hollywood filmmaking, as David Lynch or even Michael Mann might be said to do. He has made the two highest grossing films of all time, which establishes him squarely within the Hollywood firmament even if he waits over ten years between films. Despite Cameron’s proclivity for making wildly popular films, his films scrupulously avoid granting the paternal figure his typical role. That is to say, James Cameron is not Steven Spielberg. In Cameron’s films, the paternal figure can’t play his typical role because the maternal figure doesn’t play hers. Cameron is famous for his preoccupation with powerful female characters, but he does much more than show women with guns or bulging biceps. He also reveals the mother as a divided subject, as sexed, or as someone who enjoys. [open endnotes in new window] In this way, the Cameron film, inclusive of Avatar (2009), challenges the gender dimension of ideology that has the most significant traction today.
Ideology has two fundamental operations correlated with paternity and maternity. The paternal dimension of ideology promises that the social order has a meaningful foundation. This form of ideology proclaims that the master signifier—the ground of all signification—is not just a contingent and meaningless starting point. Instead, it lets subjects know, for instance, that God or fate has a place for them and for their society. On this basis, social activities appear full of significance and everyday interactions gain an illusory rootedness. The maternal function of ideology provides, on the other hand, an image of wholeness. The maternal image of wholeness provides the ideological assurance that underlying the apparent openness of the social order, the signifying system is actually closed. Beneath the antagonisms that manifest themselves throughout society, this form of ideology discovers connections that trump every division. Significance not only has an anchoring point at its beginning, but it has a moment of conclusion as well.
Modernity as an epoch calls into question the ground of the social order and thus the paternal side of ideology. When Shakespeare depicts Hamlet seeking to authentic his father’s word or when Descartes imagines a malicious demon responsible for all his perceptions, paternal authority loses its foundational status, and the conception of society undergoes a dramatic shift. Even if Hamlet finally accepts his father’s account of things or Descartes ends up referring all perceptions to the authority of God, the damage is done. Once put into question, paternal authority cannot but lose its former status. The linguistic turn in philosophy completes this revolution as it locates meaning and truth in language, unmoored from any ultimate ground. Though contemporary fundamentalism tries to reinstall paternal authority as the basis for the social order, mainstream society seems to operate just fine without it. The father figure is not an ideological exigency.
The image of the mother’s wholeness, however, has become a necessary condition of any successful ideology. This image takes many forms: new age spirituality, deep ecology, or the idea of the soulmate. In each case, the subject’s alienation disappears in a connection that allows the subject to experience a sense of belonging to a transcendent network of significance. Wholeness today serves as a compensation for the absence of ground. Though there may be no paternal figure to ground the significance of the subject’s world, there is a maternal presence to make that world whole. Though other forms more explicitly emphasize the image of completeness, the predominant form of the maternal side of ideology is the consumerism that identifies the commodity with absolute plenitude. Every advertisement that we see tells us that the commodity, like new age spirituality or the soulmate, will complete us and render us wholly satisfied. This wholeness exists against the background of maternity and the image of the non-lacking mother. Eviscerating this image is the primary challenge confronting the contemporary critique of ideology.
Though James Cameron’s films disseminate ideology in all sorts of ways, they do also confront head-on the image of maternal wholeness and work to undo it. This is perhaps most pronounced in Aliens (1986), which shows the battle-hardened Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien monster itself as the only two images of maternity. But even in Titanic (1997), we see the identification of the grandmother Rose (Gloria Stuart) with the young sexualized Rose (Kate Winslet) through a graphic match that occurs in the dissolve from the close-up of the latter to that of the former. Through the style of his films, Cameron depicts the Hegelian speculative identity of opposites, enabling us to see the protective mother as the devouring monster or the kind grandmother as the sexually charged woman. In Avatar, this line of critique advances even further, up to the ultimate image of maternity—mother nature.
The first impression that Avatar gives, however, is one of an unabashed investment in the image of maternal wholeness. Unlike the soldiers from Earth who come to Pandora to exploit the moon, the native inhabitants or Na’vi evince a bond with the natural world. Their long braided hair enables them to plug into various aspects of the natural world and experience their oneness with it. The Na’vi speak, but the signifier does not appear to have alienated them from their world because they take the proper attitude toward it: they are part of nature rather than its masters.
The attitude of the Na’vi toward their world contrasts with that of the Earth invaders, who have come to Pandora for the purpose of mining the moon and exploiting its riches. Though Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and the Earth scientists assume the identity of the Na’vi through the use of avatars, the overall attitude of the Earth contingent reflects a vastly different conception of the natural world than that of the Na’vi. For them, nature exists to be used and profited from, as evinced by their mining operation, which is their only interest in Pandora. The first shot of Pandora’s surface in the film depicts large machines stripmining, indicating the essence of the human attitude. The humans see themselves as the masters of the natural world, and the film shows Jake’s gradual conversion from this position to that of the Na’vi, which reveals itself most explicitly in the god that the Na’vi worship.
The Na’vi god does not exist as a separate entity that acts on the created world like the God of monotheism. Instead, it sustains the connection and balance of all living things. This god is not a paternal or creative god but a maternal one, a god of completion and wholeness known as the great mother. Toward the end of the film, Jake goes to the sacred Tree of Souls to ask Eywa, the great mother, for assistance in the struggle against the invading army. He tells her, “If you’re there, I need to give you a heads-up,” in order to coax her into interceding. His lover Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), however, quickly chastens him concerning this request. Even though the Na’vi appear doomed, the nature of Eywa precludes the possibility of an intervention. A political intervention, Neytiri reasons, would violate the god’s maternal role of sustaining the wholeness of their world. She informs Jake, “Our great mother Eywa does not take sides.” Instead, according to Neytiri, she “protects the balance of life.” Everything in the film up to this point suggests that Neytiri is correct, and this image of a natural balance appears to affirm the film’s investment in the maternal dimension of ideology rather than in its critique.
But the film does not end with Neytiri’s claim or with evidence supporting it. The pivotal moment in the film occurs when we see that Eywa can takes sides in a political struggle. When this happens, Avatar undermines the ideology of completion that dominates up to this point, and nature itself becomes politicized. Eywa answers Jake’s call to join the battle against the Earth invaders. As a result, what seemed to be a naturalization of politics becomes a policization of nature. In order to be able to intervene as she does, even the great mother Eywa must be an alienated being. Whereas Cameron’s earlier films show division within the figure of the mother, Avatar depicts division within nature, the ultimate maternal figure.
When the Earth army mounts its final attack against the Tree of Souls, they overrun the forces of the Na’vi people and are moments from destroying the tree. Just as their victory seems assured, the beasts of Pandora, recruited by Eywa, counterattack and repel the soldiers. On the one hand, this is an event that echoes many such occurrences in classical Hollywood cinema. Just as when the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) or when the U.S. cavalry comes to save the passengers in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), here the arrival of the beasts provides a fantasmatic respite from helplessness in the face of defeat and death. On the other hand, the counterattack reveals that the great mother does not merely protect “the balance of life,” as Neytiri asserts. If nature can intervene in a political struggle, then at the same time it attests to its own incompleteness. The capacity to intervene is the product of an alienating loss to which the Na’vi deity seemed hitherto immune. The moment of the Na’vi victory is in this sense the moment where profound loss becomes evident.
One of the most common complaints about Avatar focuses on the hackneyed plot that accompanies the impressive technological wizardry. Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris and others have renamed the film “Dances with Blue People” in order to acknowledge its obvious indebtedness to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1985) and numerous other films in which an alienated hero embraces a culture that appears more in touch with the natural world than his own. This theme, as Morris rightly notes despite his overall affection for the film, is “politically deranged.” But the politicization of nature or the great mother at the end of Avatar distances it from Costner’s epic, which affirms rather than contests the wholeness of the natural world. The problem with Avatar is not so much its plot but the very technological brilliance that Morris celebrates. Despite the division that the film depicts in the Na’vi deity, the visual splendor of the film appears to belie any acknowledgment of this loss on the part of the spectator.
Much of Avatar’s popularity stems from the stunning 3D imagery of Pandora. In contrast to the drab everyday world outside the cinema, Cameron creates a world of plenitude in which, though there is death and suffering, one experiences the constant presence of stunning beauty. Though Avatar is not the first 3D film, it is the first film to take advantage of 3D technology in order to provide spectators with such overwhelming plenitude. Earlier manifestations of this technology used it rather to shock spectators with the illusion of objects rapidly coming toward them. Such gimmicks are entirely absent from Avatar. In terms of cinema history, it follows more in the tradition of Cinerama and Imax than that of 3D. Instead of momentarily shocking the audience, the film wants to immerse the audience in the fullness of an alternative world. This is why spectators have reported severe depression after leaving screenings of Avatar and why support groups for dealing with post-viewing melancholia have even cropped up. After one has had Pandora, everyday reality ceases to measure up.
In this way, the relationship that the film develops with the spectator mirrors the philosophy of the Na’vi. Avatar offers the spectator the possibility of completeness through the filmic experience itself, just as the Na’vi see this possibility manifested in the great mother Eywa. But Jake’s appeal to Eywa to intercede in the war for control of Pandora reveals the incompleteness of Pandora’s great mother: she does not guarantee the harmonious balance of all things but actively takes a side in struggle. Maternal nature, the film makes clear, is politicized. Similarly, Avatar does not simply offer the spectator a vision of plenitude without at the same time identifying that vision with absence. The plenitude that the spectator experiences when viewing the world of Pandora has a structuring absence as its condition of possibility. This becomes apparent through how we see Jake arrive at Pandora and through how the film depicts the entrance into this fantasmatic world of fullness.
The opening of Avatar shows Jake entombed in a cryogenic tube that allows him to travel from Earth to Pandora without aging. Access to Pandora, at least for Jake, depends on submitting to this entombment, which opens the film after an initial image of a dream that Jake has during the cryogenic process. Cameron does not choose to begin with the beauty of Pandora and then show Jake’s arrival, but with Jake’s arrival itself, a choice that emphasizes the cost for access to Pandora’s beauty. This entombment stands in for that of the spectator as well. Just like Jake, we must sit passively in the cinema and wear 3D glasses that further restrict us in order to see what Pandora offers. While watching the film, one does not just experience the boundless joy of plenitude but limitation and passivity as the necessary condition of possibility for this plenitude.
Jake’s experience of Pandora’s plenitude owes its possibility to loss in a more literal way as well, and Cameron presents this literal connection visually to the spectator early in the film. Jake becomes eligible for the avatar program when his twin brother, a participant in the program, dies. Whereas Jake is a lowly marine, his brother was a scientist chosen for the avatar program because of his intelligence and training. Other than his genetic match with his brother, Jake has no qualifications for becoming one of the Na’vi. His opportunity is inseparable from his brother’s death, and Cameron indicates this visually when we see a flashback of Jake’s brother’s body being incinerated in a cremation process, and the film cuts directly from the flames burning the casket to the exhaust coming from the rocket that flies Jake to the surface of Pandora. This cut identifies death with access to the enjoyment that Jake will experience on Pandora.
When Jake becomes a Na’vi as he enters his avatar for the first time, he experiences the same type of enjoyment that the spectator experiences watching the film. The seemingly intractable limitations of everyday life—for Jake, this includes the inability to use his legs after a combat injury—vanish amid the capabilities of the Na’vi form. The height and incredible athleticism of this body enable Jake not just to feel restored to his previous self but as if he has become a superior being. Once he occupies the avatar body, Jake refuses all restraint: he breaks free from his doctors and leaves the building despite efforts to hold him back. Jake’s exuberance in his first moments as a Na’vi indicate the plenitude of this existence, and he becomes the conduit through which the spectator accesses the same plenitude. Though spectators do not gain access to the sensations of life as a Na’vi in the way that Jake does, they are able to see what Jake sees, and the 3D technology enhances their vision beyond its usual limitations. This enhancement is parallel to the enhancement that Jake experiences. But it is also an enhancement that cannot be divorced from the loss that makes it possible.
Entering the Na’vi body depends on adopting a position of complete passivity, and Avatar stresses this passivity visually. On multiple occasions during the film, we witness the process of Jake entering into the coffin-like pod in order to become a Na’vi. This process always takes time, and the film depicts it repeatedly even though it is the same each time. In addition, Avatar shows Jake’s vulnerability when he is in the pod. After Jake fights against the Earth army and reveals himself to be a traitor, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) disconnects him from his avatar, and Jake is powerless to stop the colonel because he cannot use his legs. Later, as the Na’vi are being slaughtered, he cannot rejoin the struggle because he cannot reconnect with this avatar. Even though the connection brings plenitude, the connection itself is perilous because it depends on the passivity of the subject undergoing it. The plenitude of Pandora exists only through the profound limitation that offers access to it.