James Cameron started as an effects wizard for Roger Corman, and all of his films have expanded the technology of movie-making. But his films are also all about the ways technology can fail us or destroy us. What gives?

With Avatar now making enough money to justify its reportedly obscene budget, it's the perfect time to look at the central contradiction of Cameron's career. And IFC has a terrific essay looking at all the ways that Cameron has used high tech to tell stories about technology that will let you down or try to kill you. Writes Matt Singer:

Though we often associate Cameron's work with major advances in the field of special effects - think of the watery alien tendril in 1989's "The Abyss," or the liquid metal T-1000 in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" - his movies consistently paint an unflattering portrait of technology, one that depicts it as something that is, at best, inadequate or, at worst, downright malevolent. Every film he has made since the original "Terminator," even the ones that aren't science-fiction or fantasy films like "True Lies and "Titanic," has used state-of-the-art filmmaking tools to tell stories about the way technology fails human beings.


In The Terminator, not only is a machine from the future trying to kill Sarah Connor, but her roommate bites it because she's listening to a walkman, and Sarah nearly dies because she babbles her plans to a machine: her answering machine. In Terminator 2, two machines battle over Sarah's fate, and this time it's the obsolescence of the "good" Terminator that poses a problem. And Aliens is the flipside of Avatar, in which the technological humans are outmatched by a force of nature — except it's a ravenous xenomorph horde instead of blue hippies. (And both movies end with a showdown between a human and an alien, where the human wears a robotic suit.) In The Abyss, Ed Harris gets trapped on the bottom of the ocean trying to prevent a nuclear explosion, and doesn't have enough oxygen to return to safety.

Weirdly, Singer points out that at the end of Avatar, with — spoiler alert — almost all the humans banished, the moon of Pandora has been transformed at last into a purely natural world, without any artificial crap. And it's at that moment that Pandora becomes most computer-generated, with almost no live-action elements remaining. [IFC]