Cameron may have the biggest hard drive, but guess who makes the sharper film about men, war, and technology?
The annual award season orgy is upon us again, and this time, it’s personal. Okay, it’s always personal, culminating with that giant high school prom popularity contest known as the Oscars. This year, however, industry mavens are already speculating about a potential showdown between the King of the World and his third ex-wife (the Queen of Action?) for the coveted Best Director prize. Will Kathryn Bigelow be the first female Best Director Oscar winner for her magnificently visceral Iraq War film The Hurt Locker? And (even better), will she defeat James Cameron and his spectacular, and spectacularly confused, 3-D CGI Iraq War tree-hugging parable Avatar? It has all the makings of the classic David and Goliath conflict: indie vs. studio, small vs. huge, tightly budgeted actor-driven drama vs. hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special effects. And, of course, woman vs. man.
Sure I’m going to go there—how can I not? Cameron’s much-ballyhooed gallery of cinematic tough chicks (Ripley, Sarah Connor, Rose “Dawson,” big blue Neytiri) and Bigelow’s nuanced focus on men of war practically insist that I go there. Indeed, the occasionally striking similarities, or at least congruences, between the two films come back in one way or another to that theme. Both films wish to stir the viewer to the core, and grappling with the essential meanings of male and female is often an effective way to be shaken and stirred. It’s no accident that Linda Hamilton’s buff, flesh and bone body in Terminator 2 is just as memorable as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s machine body. Her Sarah takes on the kind of physical strength associated with men to carry out the mission associated with women: protect her child at all costs. And of course, Ripley’s showdown against the Alien Queen in Aliens is one badass mother fighting an even more badass mother. A woman’s job is never done.
In this vein, Avatar is classic Cameron, and not just because Sigourney Weaver’s scientist Grace in her human form is a far tougher cookie than Giovanni Ribisi’s weaselly corporate cipher Selfridge (so subtle with the names, that Cameron). There’s even the requisite joke about her emasculating qualities—the natural result of not being “feminine” enough. When she becomes her Na’vi avatar on Pandora, however, she miraculously morphs into touchy-feely hippie womanhood. That’s what happens when you open Pandora’s box, I suppose. All sorts of unruly things can happen. Even Sam Worthington’s paraplegic ex-Marine Jake gets in on the fun, running and jumping and refusing to obey the rules once he’s downloaded into his own avatar. Indeed, life on Pandora is all about being the opposite of the Earth-bound, human “rules” of life in a high-tech near future. Everything in the military-industrial complex sent by the evil corporation to rape Pandora of its “unobtainium” (no comment) runs with, well, military precision. The Marines have lots of big guns, helicopters, and big-ass robot fighting suits that close them off from their dangerous surrounding environment—all the better to kill it. A couple of gaspingly awful George W. Bush near-quotes from Stephen Lang’s uber-tough commander Quaritch are enough to hammer home the macho “God and Country” ethos that goes with that terminator equipment. On Pandora, however, the natives worship a female deity. Nature is allowed to flourish relatively undisturbed. Everything is connected by glowstick tentacles in one form or another. The Na’vi hunt in order to live, but they apologize to all creatures they kill. The girls can hunt as well as the boys. The female healer is (almost) as important as the male chief. I think you see where this is going. The humans and their machine bodies are Male. The avatars created to interact with the Na’vi on Pandora are Female. Hell, they even look like giant blue Cat People. Yep, they’re big…oh, you know.
Now, once this opposition between human and Na’vi is established, and Jake’s azure tom cat starts making eyes at Zoe Saldana’s sinuous kitten-with-an-arrow Neytiri (and Jake starts growing a nice hippie beard when Grace takes their avatar operation into Pandora’s floating mountains), it’s pretty clear what Cameron is going to say. Just as we know that when you introduce a purple bloodthirsty triceratops in the first act, it’s going to go off in the third, we know that Jake is going to vote a big Yes on proposition Pandora. He’s going to fight hard to save the lush feline land, and, thankfully, Neytiri will be there with her mad hunting skills to save his tail (and keep him alive so he can take over as ruler of the tribe—no one ever asks why Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe’s chief, doesn’t get to have that job). To reclaim his humanity, Jake must reject it and embrace his inner Na’vi. And hug a big phosphorescent willow tree. The military-industrial complex that invades distant lands in order to take a precious natural resource? That’s the real alien(ator).
The Hurt Locker makes a similar case about the dehumanizing impact of war and invasion, and the deleterious effect in particular on the men who fight those wars. With the emphasis on snipers, ambushes, robotic devices, and randomly placed IEDs, The Hurt Locker reminds us that modern combat is something that occurs at a distance. The American soldiers more often come face to face with civilians of varying degrees of innocence than the actual combatants they are trying to defeat. The mission is clear, yet not. In the interest of self-preservation, the soldiers can only focus on the minutiae of their work rather than make some sort of larger connection to the situation in which they find themselves. Jeremy Renner’s ace bomb defuser James is even encased in a giant, protective exo-skeleton of sorts to do his job. He has to be closed off from his fatal environment for his own protection. In one of the film’s most tense set pieces, though, James removes his gear as he feverishly works to disarm a complicated IED wired into a small car. When his comrade in arms Sanborn objects, James replies that if he’s going to die, he’d like to be comfortable. In that one moment, James sums up the irreparable, eternally painful split between the business of war and the human bodies that have to do the fighting. Not only can those bodies be wiped out in an instant (as we learn so horrifically in the film’s opening scene), but also James as a human is most alive and connected to his work when he’s most at risk.
Unlike Cameron and his insistence on making grand, archetypal assertions about the feminine as well as the masculine, lady Bigelow keeps her focus almost exclusively on the world of men. What’s most striking about this, especially in contrast to Cameron and his deeply problematic “strong” women who always wind up (to quote reluctant Cameron scholar Alexandra Keller) kicking ass for patriarchy, is her palpable compassion for the male animal at war. James can no longer exist in the domestic realm of his wife and family, especially not when his idea of an off-duty R 'n R bonding experience with his fellow soldier men involves drinking and getting into fistfights. By staying up close and rough, hand-held camera personal with her subjects and letting the random rhythms of their interactions play out in ways that don’t seem pre-ordained by a schematic narrative structure, Bigelow reveals that their will to fight is as harmful to them as it is to the “enemy.” James’s ability and obsessive desire to do his job is heroic and inexorably tragic. The final view of James heading yet again into the breach, enshrouded in his oversized, pseudo-machine body to take apart crude killing devices is one of the most heartbreaking cinematic tableaux of the decade.
It’s tempting to say that this tragedy and repudiation of the masculinized machine is where Bigelow and Cameron find common ground. Yet this is perhaps where Avatar stumbles most dramatically, and where Cameron is at his most incoherent. Don’t get me wrong. Avatar looks awesome in the literal sense of inspiring awe (as opposed to just being totally rad, dude). The conception of Pandora is dazzling to behold, as are the 3-D, CGI compositions that create layered depths of fields rather than simply throwing stuff at us for kicks. With hundreds of millions of big bad corporate Fox dollars at his disposal, Cameron proves yet again that he has the biggest hard drive in Hollywood and he isn’t going to rest until the entire world knows it as well. But therein lies the paradox. Cameron exhorts us to retrieve our humane, touchy-feely feminine side, our ability to truly “see” each other by becoming one with Nature and rejecting the high-tech military-industrial imperative…through a film that is nothing if not a technological fetish object. Avatar is a monument to what the new machinery of cinema can achieve with its computer-generated environments, motion-capture technology, and specially designed cameras. Humanity and gut emotion, though, are gone with the digital wind.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.