James Cameron’s films have all showcased cutting-edge technology, but at the same time they tend to tell cautionary tales about technological advancement. How can someone who so thoroughly embraces technology also distrust it?
James Cameron’s breakthrough hit was 1984’s The Terminator, a movie about an advanced robot sent back in time to kill an unsuspecting woman. His inspiration for the premise of this film actually came from a fever-induced nightmare he experienced while working on Piranha II: The Spawning. If this was the only fact you knew about Cameron, you might say he fears technology. And yet, up until that point in time, he had made a name for himself in film by advancing technology to create better special effects. Certainly something had to give. He couldn’t continue his career walking the razor’s edge between technological optimism and pessimism, could he?
Thirty-five years and 6 feature films later, not much has changed. James Cameron has remained remarkably consistent as a filmmaker and producer compared to his work on The Terminator. Of course things have progressed. The technology has improved, ambitions have increased, costs have skyrocketed. But at his core, James Cameron is still a person who both embraces technology and fears it at the same time. This combination has actually worked out quite well for him. Three times in his career he directed the most expensive movie ever made at the time, and all three times those films came to be the highest grossing pictures of their respective years. James Cameron has had more success than most other filmmakers, and all of this is based on what seems like a conflict in interest.
Cameron’s follow-up to The Terminator was Aliens, a film that essentially boils down to mankind’s over reliance on technology to its own detriment. Many people have also noted the film’s parallels with the Vietnam War – a technologically advanced military is unable to secure victory against a more primitive, and frankly misunderstood enemy. Cameron’s fascination with the industrial-military complex, an entity which relies heavily on the advancement of technology, would be seen several times later on in his filmography.
To bring Aliens to life, Cameron made heavy use of miniatures and special filming tricks such as mirrors, lighting, and matte paintings. But all of those special effects had been in use for decades. Cameron, having learned his trade through Roger Corman, was simply elevating them for one of the first modern blockbusters. In terms of technological advancement, Cameron made extensive use of robots, puppets, and other mechanical mechanisms to bring the aliens to life. The alien Queen, for example, was one of the most complicated animatronics used in film up to that point in time. It required several people to operate. The power loader used by Ripley in the final battle of the film was also something that could not simply be recreated with a stop-go animation model (compare to the AT-STs in Empire Strikes Back from 3 years prior).
A big difference between The Terminator and Aliens is that in Aliens, the protagonists rely on their technology. Motion scanners, drop ships, androids, armored vehicles, voice comms – none of it matters. In The Terminator they protagonists have a shotgun and pipe bombs. In Aliens, the marines are in unfamiliar territory. They are being put in harms’ way for the benefit of Weyland Yutani corporation. Their technology gives them confidence, which slowly fades through the course of the film. In The Terminator, the characters are fighting for their lives. There is nothing else. They are being invaded, not the other way around. In both cases, it is the drive for survival which wins. The natural perseveres against the unnatural.
Cameron’s next film, 1989’s The Abyss, is an interesting transition for him. It is the first Cameron film where technology provides a net benefit, rather than a harm to humans. The basic premise of the film is a group of deep sea oil rig operators find intelligent alien life at the bottom of the ocean. In this film, the characters rely on technology to stay alive in these harsh conditions. It is this technology which also allows them to come in contact with the aliens who ultimately use their own advanced technology to save human lives.
But the technology in The Abyss causes some of the same problems as it does in Aliens. First, it provides confidence to the people who use it. One could argue the film’s setting (the bottom of the ocean) is a place where humans should not be in the first place. Against the power of nature, humans are nothing. Our technology fails, and our weakness is revealed. Second, the film is set against the background of the Cold War. The Americans and the Soviets are racing to uncover a sunken submarine. It is this draw towards technology which causes conflict. It is also a desperation for victory which puts people in danger. Cameron’s message is that technology can be used to hurt, or to heal.
On the technology front, The Abyss made pioneering use of 3D CGI to create a liquid-like alien entity. It is among the first uses of 3D computer-generated graphics in film. I find this application of technology to be very fitting. For instance, because of the rudimentary state of the technology at this time, they could not create anything that we would consider realistic. Creating a CGI person was impossible at this time, and so Cameron chose to create this moving blob of water. The audience can accept it because it isn’t trying to be anything we already know. Furthermore, in the context of the plot, we are initially unsure if it is something that is harmful or just curious. The amorphous nature is a representation of both possibilities.
In many ways, this also alludes to Cameron’s use of this technology. Would it be harmful or helpful to the film? Would audiences accept it or reject it? It was a test for what he would do next. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day utilized this technology to create a humanoid antagonist out of liquid metal. This allowed the character to morph, which added a whole new level of sinister to Cameron’s take on evil technology. In the first Terminator film, the advanced technology from the future was nearly unstoppable by people with no technology. As we all know, sequels have to up the ante, and so this time, people with no technology face no chance against an even more advanced threat. In order to defeat it, they have to use technology.
That technology comes in the form of another Terminator, just like the one from the first film. Except, this time he’s on the side of the protagonists. “Come with me if you want to live”. So here, Cameron flips the “evil” technology from the first film into “good” technology. It is also a 180 turn from The Abyss – “advanced” technology is evil, rather than benevolent. It is the “old” technology which saves the day. Perhaps it is some sort of meta statement from Cameron himself about the technology he was adding to his films. He worked his way through practical special effects, but now technology was on the verge of allowing a new era in filmmaking where computer generated graphics were possible. The “old” method of special effects was soon going to be obsolete, and arguably the “new” methods weren’t always going to be better. Film could (and arguably has) lost something in the translation.
The most profound statement about technology in T2 actually has nothing to do with killer robots. It is instead, the creation of Skynet, the artificial intelligence defense program which ultimately turns on humanity. To prevent Skynet’s formation, our protagonists track down the man (Miles Dyson) who is developing the technology which will make it possible. They find out his work is inspired by a part left over from the first Terminator movie, and eventually conclude that not only must his research be destroyed, but all technology from the future. In this case, it is very clear that advanced technology is bad. It leads to the downfall of humanity.
An important takeaway here is that Dyson isn’t creating this technology with the intent of creating harm. His motivation is actually the opposite. Dyson is trying to create something that will advance our species. Skynet itself will be designed to protect people, and instead it causes harm to them. Cameron makes the statement about how our intent with developing technology is not the same as the actual implication of that technology. Because we can’t really ever fully understand the implications of technological development, we have to view new technology with skepticism at the very least.
Cameron’s skeptical view of technology is demonstrated in his next film, True Lies. In this film, the main character, Harry Tasker, is a secret agent who hides his real profession from his wife. But he is the one who becomes suspicious of his wife not being truthful, and uses technology to spy on and trick her. Once again, we see how technology makes a character over confident to their own detriment. He becomes distracted using his gadgets, and it prevents him from doing his job. More importantly, he relies on technology to help solve his relationship, rather than actually confronting his partner.
In Titanic, Cameron’s conflicted relationship with technology is perhaps more clearly conveyed than in any other film. First, we have the technological wonder which is the Titanic itself. The world’s largest boat, claimed “unsinkable” by its creators. If that doesn’t show overconfidence in technology, I don’t know what does. Of course, the Titanic collided with an iceberg and we find out that it is very much sinkable. Nature wins this battle. The disaster was also easily preventable. Cameron once again shows us how the benefit of technology is reliant on how it is utilized. Technology cannot prevent human flaws.
Titanic also raises the issue of the cost of technology, both in terms of money and human lives. The cheapest tickets for passage on the ship are for shared bunks at the bottom of the ship. Meanwhile, the rich have opulent rooms on the higher decks. When the ship starts to take on water, it is the poor who end up suffering the most. The rich are closer to the upper decks where they are able to escape. Technology has a monetary cost, and for it to be obtainable at a lower cost point, certain sacrifices have to be made. You could also look at it as saying the best technology is unobtainable to the poor. The ship was also built with an insufficient number of life rafts. This decision makes it seem like the poor were given less value as compared to the rich, who had a better chance of survival because of their location on the ship. The film notes how technology further stratifies the differences between socioeconomic classes.
But despite all of the technology-bashing in Titanic, it also serves as a showcase of technology’s benefits. Once again, Cameron is at the cutting edge of movie-making technology and special effects. They built the largest water set in history for the film, and used advanced CGI. Cameron brought Titanic to life in a way we had not seen before for this type of film. Cameron also made use of the underwater technology he had been developing, and would make his documentary Ghosts in the Abyss, possible. Here technology allows us to visit the ruins of the Titanic. In essence, it allows us to visit the past, and learn from it.
2009’s Avatar was Cameron’s most recent film as director, and this film took the conflict between technology and nature and made it literal. In this film, we have a native species (the Na’vi) with primitive technology who inhabit a planet (Pandora) which is rich in natural resources. Humans want to exploit the planet for its resources, but the Na’vi are more or less in the way. Humans utilize technology to create Na-vi versions of themselves (called avatars) which allow them to interact with the Na’vi but also exist in the planet’s harsh environment. Without technology, the environment of the planet would kill humans.
Like in Aliens, humans have confidence in their technological superiority against what seems like a primitive foe. Humans believe that since they are technologically superior, they have the right to the planet’s natural resources, and are willing to fight for it. However, as the team who uses avatars begins to learn more about the Na’vi way of life, they begin to sympathize. Eventually, they help the Na’vi fight back against the humans. Just like in Aliens, the less technologically advanced group wins against the more technologically advanced one. The Na’vi, despite having lesser technology, are shown as being stronger than humans. Their connections (literally) with nature are what gives them their strength. Humans, on the other hand, are trying to destroy nature, and they happen to be completely incompatible with it.
As Cameron’s latest film, Avatar is also his most technologically advanced. He filmed the entire movie with a special dual camera set-up in order to create a true 3D experience, not one which would be added later in post production. At the same time, to create the Na’vi, he made extensive use of real-time motion capture. Everything in this film is CGI created, except for the bodies of the humans. It took Cameron many years to develop and perfect this technology. Cameron’s hard work in creating this new technology himself shows not only how much he values it, but how important he believes it is for the motion picture industry.
Cameron could easily have made any of his cutting edge films with traditional technology, but they would not have had the same impact. So, in many ways, just like his characters, Cameron is reliant on technology. You could even say it gives him the confidence to spend huge sums of money. I would argue Cameron’s stance on technology is not that it is inherently bad or good. I would say his opinion is that it depends on how it is being utilized. Look no further than Cameron’s own efforts to advance technology. He is the one who is developing this technology, and he is the one who uses it. Sure, other filmmakers have benefited from his advances, but they are in the same field as him, with the same goals.
The flaws of technology are not necessarily with the technology itself, but with the people who develop it and use it. The Titanic was built to be a statement. The biggest, most posh steamliner in the world. But it was ultimately flawed because the people building it were not concerned about everyone’s safety, and the people piloting the ship were overconfident. Skynet exists in the Terminator films because one man was experimenting with advanced technology he didn’t understand. Terrorists nearly win in True Lies because a secret agent is distracted by using technology to spy on his wife rather than do his job. James Cameron’s films mostly deliver the same message over and over again: we have to be better (in whatever terms that makes sense) than the technology we use, or else it will take control of us.