In Avatar, the wheelchair-bound hero (Sam Worthington) has his mind “jacked into” the artificial body of a 10-foot tall extraterrestrial created for him in a laboratory tank. If one artificial body weren’t enough, the film’s villain (Stephen Lang) gets an artificial body of his own, a giant mechanical exoskeleton – just like the giant exoskeletons in Cameron’s first big-budget film, Aliens.
As for the personal aspect of the artificial body motif, Cameron himself has suggested on more than one occasion that his dreams “of horrific and fantastic phantasmagorical things, giant waves, levitation” are a direct response to his having been a teenage geek bullied by high school jocks. (See Rolling Stone interview here). In The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Cameron dramatizes a bullied geek’s ultimate body fantasy – to have the enhanced physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger in the form of synthetically created skin and muscle on top of a nearly indestructible metal skeleton.
Aliens (1986) is unique among Cameron’s major films in that he did not originate the project – it was the continuation of a franchise initiated by Ridley Scott, et al. Regardless, Aliens bears the unmistakable Cameron stamp. Where the original Alien was sci-fi/horror, Aliens is fundamentally a sci-fi/action film. The artificial body theme appears in the form of the giant exoskeletons operated by Sigourney Weaver and others. Strong women, such as the one played here by Weaver, are another recurring Cameron motif. Closely connected is the intensely protective relationship between Weaver’s strong maternal character and a little girl who becomes a kind of daughter substitute for her. That relationship, superbly acted by Weaver, is the film’s emotional core, and it recalls the intense mother/child relationships in Terminator and Terminator 2. The fact that Avatar is not centered around an intense mother/child relationship or something comparable to it may be one reason why it seems to have less “heart” than those earlier films.
Strange Days (1995) was produced and co-written by Cameron for his ex-spouse, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), to direct. I mention it here because it provides yet another manifestation of Cameron’s avatar/artificial body theme. The characters in Strange Days get their kicks by using an electronic device called a SQUID to plug their consciousnesses into the bodies and sensual experiences of others.
Even Titanic (1997) presents a variation on the artificial body theme. Trains, planes, and automobiles – any shell that transports us from one place to another is a kind of artificial body. Cameron’s ship, the H.M.S. Titanic, is therefore the biggest and strongest artificial body of them all. Yet in keeping with the mythic grandeur of this artificial body, the ship has an Achilles’ heel – it is vulnerable to icebergs. The sinking of the Titanic dramatizes another recurring Cameron motif – the feelings of anxiety clustered around the destruction of the artificial body. We also get this in connection with the destruction of the cyborgs played by Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick in the Terminator films. In Terminator 2, Patrick’s CGI-distorted flailing as his cyborg character is dissolved in a vat of molten ore provides one of the most memorable and emotionally charged images in all of Cameron’s work.
In Avatar, since the hero survives in his extraterrestrial body, the feelings of anxiety associated with the destruction of the artificial body are displaced onto Stephen Lang’s villain character – arrows are to Lang’s character in his exoskeleton what the iceberg was to the Titanic.
Another related theme running through all of Cameron’s work is his ambivalent attitude toward technology. In the Terminator series, technology itself is the enemy and will lead to the destruction of all mankind if not stopped. Avatar tells us that simple nature-loving tribal people are good, while a technologically advanced imperial culture is fundamentally evil. Yet the director telling us this is one of the most technology-obsessed people making films today. One has the feeling that if in real life Cameron was caught between two warring cultures, he would join with whichever side had the coolest gadgets.
Of course, just because a director has a consistent style, themes, or attitude doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is good. But it does add interest to some films that might otherwise be indistinguishable from your usual bland Hollywood corporate product.