Burning in the Third Degree

jake neytiri.jpg

"George Lucas popularized space opera; Steven Spielberg has perfected awe. Cameron’s movies, soaked in sweat and blood and scorched by apocalyptic flames, have romance at their molten cores." ~ The New Yorker

 

A new year means new speculation about when and if we will see those fabled four - that’s four - Avatar sequels. The latest reputed (since debunked) release date for Avatar 2 is December 2018. That’s almost ten years after the first film. But then Cameron enthusiasts have grown accustomed to waiting. It’s invariably worth it. For me, James Cameron has never disappointed. I can honestly say that no other filmmaker has consistently given me as much pleasure at the cinema. In fact, he may be the only filmmaker whose entire filmography I’ve seen in an actual cinema, in some cases several times (T2 x 7).

Yet despite its status as the highest grossing film of all time - not adjusted for inflation - the first Avatar is not held in high esteem, somewhat unfairly in my view. While it probably wouldn’t make my top five Cameron movies, I was in awe of its technical accomplishments and engrossed by its story and characters. I agree that the noble savage and white savior narrative tropes are problematic, but arguably its allegorical Wild West revisionism is mildly progressive for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

America was founded on the myth of the white man as victim, that is, intrepid European pioneers under siege from ‘savage’ natives. This was supported by the Judeo-Christian notion that the land was their rightful property by divine providence, a 'promised land' free to be claimed, exploited and traded with scant regard for ecological impact. This self-serving colonial myth became embedded in the national consciousness, informing domestic and foreign policy and cultural identity. So for a major American film - the highest grossing of all time - to present a counter myth is worthy of note - perhaps even more so given the current political climate in the U.S.

However, more intriguing at this point, for me, is just what stories Cameron plans to tell in his sequels. Avatar was - ten foot tall blue aliens aside - fundamentally a fairly conventional love story, but Cameron would be the first to admit that there’s little mileage in repeating that formula. But nor do I expect him to resort to straightforward action spectacle, because despite his reputation for macho sci-fi action, all of his films to date are ostensibly love stories. By which I don't mean action films with a love interest tacked on in a cynical attempt to 'humanise' the hero and/or appease the female members of the audience. Rather, love - whether romantic or maternal - is the principle motivation for the action. Consider:

 

The Terminator (1984) Soldier in future human resistance crosses time for love.

Aliens (1986) Bereaved mother saves surrogate daughter.

The Abyss (1989) Estranged husband and wife save their marriage.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Estranged mother and son are reunited and form a nuclear family with a surrogate father-figure.

True Lies (1994) Husband and wife spice up their marriage with a little counter-terrorism.

Titanic (1997) Forbidden love ends tragically but echoes across time.

Avatar (2009) Interstellar lovers transcend prejudice and become bonded for life.

 

The core of Cameron's aesthetic lies in the conflict between mechanical militarism and empathetic emotionalism. The fact that the latter unfailingly prevails makes it easy to dismiss it as a sentimental narrative with a commercial imperative. But his fixation with emotionally impoverished hyper-masculinity (battle-hardened soldiers; cyborg assassins; callous corporations) and man-made catastrophes (nuclear, aquatic and environmental disasters) suggests an existential anxiety beyond Hollywood formula.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

His films are clearly very personal, auteurist even, reflecting the aforementioned aesthetic dichotomy both in his plotlines ('the war against the machines’), characters ('part man, part machine'), and in his visual grammar (cold blue metal or moonlight contrasted with warm skin tones or fire), and is very likely an expression of an internal duality. Is it a coincidence that he's the child of an electrical engineer and an artist?

Ultimately, Cameron understands that for an action film to be truly effective, the action has to be driven by the characters. I wonder then what characters are driving him to return to Pandora four more times? Cameron has hinted in interviews that the stories will focus on Jake and Neytiri’s children. Are we to expect a Godfather-style saga spanning several generations of a single family? As usual with Cameron, we’ll just have to wait and... wait.