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James Cameron
And The Military

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James Cameron at a special screening of Avatar New York, April 24, 2010, to coincide with the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Image by Broddi Sigurðarson and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
From Terminator To Avatar, James Cameron’s Films Often Depict The Military As A Malevolent, And Sometimes Bumbling, Force


By Michael Sallustio
Modern Times Magazine

July 11, 2016 — Few modern directors have been as influential to modern movie making as James Cameron. Namely, he has been at the forefront of computer-generated effects, creating entire worlds from scratch. Whether it’s a benefit or a bane, almost every blockbuster out in theaters now has a 3D option thanks to Avatar.

But, Cameron’s technical expertise is not his only hallmark. Like many other famous directors, Cameron’s filmography is also defined by the recurrence of prevalent themes. Guy Ritchie likes to focus on the criminal underworld. Chris Columbus’ films deal with family. Roland Emmerich has spent his career finding new ways to destroy the Earth. And, for some reason, James Cameron’s films predominantly portray a belief that the military is a constant danger to public safety.  

With the exception of Titanic and those documentaries of him combing the ocean floor for bioluminescent aquatic life, pretty much all of Cameron’s films deal with military action leading to the death and/or endangerment of innocent civilians.

Even when their intentions are pure, Cameron-created militaries always seems to end up opposing the films’ protagonists or causing cataclysmic ends for humanity. The message may not be clear in every film, but upon closer inspection the theme remains constant.

Piranha 2: The Spawning
Although Cameron can’t take full credit for creating the lore of the Piranha series, one has to wonder if this early film influenced his later work. Cameron wrote the screenplay for Piranha 2, which continues the story of genetically mutated piranhas murdering women in bikinis, as they are wont to do.

The plot is as follows:

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Government, under code-named “Operation: Razorteeth” plan to create a school of super-predator fish to combat the Viet Cong. In the wake of the abandoned project, the creatures are left to kill.

Cameron’s sequel continues this storyline and gives the carnivorous-fish wings, thus allowing them to kill with more efficiency. It may not be the most nuanced analogy to the horrors of the real Vietnam War, but this film is obviously and rather bluntly painting the U.S. government as a malevolent entity.

The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
During the filming of Piranha 2: The Spawning, Cameron fell ill and dreamed of a weaponized killing machine dragging itself out of an inferno. From that dream, The Terminator came to be. While the plot of the original Terminator films is common knowledge for most, I will recount the basic points for those that were raised in a post-Edward Furlong world.

In the future, an artificial intelligence defense system known as Skynet becomes self aware and decides it can do a better job of taking care of the Earth, if it weren’t for those damn pesky humans. In order to realize this goal, Skynet decides that it needs to begin the process of exterminating the human race.

Who initially decides to leave the safety of the entire human race in the digital hands of this cold-hearted genocidal computer? Why the government of course!

It’s not that the government didn’t mean well. Skynet is initially created to protect the U.S. from foreign enemies. But, there’s a catch in that the computer’s creators falter by giving the system complete control of the entire nuclear arsenal without adding a dedicated kill switch. Yet again, Cameron creates a military entity that builds a dangerous weapon without thinking about the consequences.

T2 builds on this theme by showing defense contractor Cyberdyne’s involvement with the U.S. government in bringing the system online.

In this case, Cameron once again creates a government without foresight that is so focused on building bigger, better weapons that it accidentally weaponizes the greatest existential threat that humanity has ever known.

For the most part, there’s really nothing bad to say about the Colonial Marines in this sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. They’re rowdy, to be sure, but otherwise are a mostly functional entity in the film. Sure, Weiland-Yutani representative Carter Burke essentially uses the Marines as pawns in a larger game, but hey, who hasn’t been taken advantage of by a multinational conglomerate?

Then there’s Private William L. Hudson, Cameron’s depiction of the reactionary soldier.

Although Hudson’s brash demeanor and crass sense of humor make him easily one of the more entertaining characters in the film, things go downhill for him as soon as the aliens ambush the sqaud. Throughout the rest of the movie, Hudson goes into full panic mode, ranting and raving about their impending deaths.

This is more than just a momentary lapse of judgment brought on by shock and awe. Both Ripley and Hicks have to repeatedly waste time trying to calm him down when they should be focusing on, you know, surviving an alien attack. Ultimately Hudson dies a hero’s death, but one has to wonder, with so much of his time onscreen spent questioning authority and spreading fear and discourse amongst the rest of the unit, what does the character really say about Cameron’s view of the military?

The Abyss
In The Abyss, the military acts as the prime antagonist in the form of Lt. Hiram Coffey. Early on in the film, Coffey begins to suffer from paranoia brought upon by high-pressure nervous syndrome. Like Hudson in Aliens, Coffey begins to have a mental breakdown as a result of the character’s experiences.

But where Hudson is only guilty of espousing defeatist rhetoric and clever video game quips, Coffey deals with his emotional turmoil by kicking the shit out of the crew of Deep Core and attempting to nuke a peaceful species of glowing sea angels. Once again, Cameron’s personification of the military is a hyper-violent and dangerous villain who results in the injury or death of innocents.

True Lies
On the exterior, True Lies is about a man desperately trying to reconnect with his wife after years of inattentiveness. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll find the story of a secret government agent who abuses his power for the sake of jealousy and revenge.

After learning that his wife might be having an affair, Agent Harry Tasker and his partner Albert abuse countless government resources to uncover the truth.

Basically, the movie is everything Edward Snowden warned us about. We first find the duo spying on Tasker’s wife, Helen, in hopes of identifying the mysterious character Simon. Upon finding that Simon is nothing more than a creepy used car salesman, they resort to intimidation and coercion by dangling him over a ledge and firing bullets at his feet. Still not done wasting taxpayer money, Tasker decides to create a mock spy mission that nearly leads to his wife and daughter dying at the hands of a group of radicalized terrorists.

Cameron’s latest flick is probably his most transparently anti-military vehicle to date. Avatar is basically plot of FernGully with soldiers in mechanized suits replacing all the bulldozers.

In it, the main villains is, you guessed it, a military commander. Col. Miles Quaritch is a collection of every negative military stereotype we’ve come to know and hate. He’s a battle-hardened warmonger with a love of heavy weaponry and a fear of sleeves. As a consummate practitioner of “might makes right,” he simply doesn’t have time to deal with the nuances of diplomacy, so instead he resorts to mild genocide.

There’s also Jake Sully, who basically is deprogrammed from his military brainwashing to finding the true peaceful, natural existence in the form if the Na’vi.

To make matters worse, Quaritch’s mission does not even center on preserving the safety of his country. Rather, he is in charge of a straight up colonial mission to occupy territory and harvest natural resources.

As a result, Avatar becomes a reflective look at our own depressing history of using military force to displace entire populaces of native inhabitants for the sake of material and colonial gain.
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