Aliens/Terminator/Avatar: the mash-up

I’ve already written about Avatar as a story about new modes of life, now I want to look at it as part of the works of James Cameron. I could (and should) write more than I will, but I wanted to get something out before my memories of Avatar fade away too much, so I didn’t take the time to review Cameron’s other films first.

Avatar has reminded me more and more over time of Cameron’s Aliens, another film starring Sigourney Weaver as a woman who, for whatever reason, ends up becoming closer to an alien species than most of the rest of humanity. Aliens is a sequel, so it doesn’t compare precisely, but one character popped out at me in both films: the Company. In Avatar, Aliens and also Cameron’s Terminator films, the great evil is not a person but a company. Moreover, representatives of that company are divorced from the actions of the company as a whole.

But wait, you’re thinking, Selfridge, the Company’s administrator for Pandora in Avatar, is a human representative of the Company and makes all of the decisions which lead to the war between the Na’vi and the Company. Yes and no. But first, let me talk a bit about the role of the company in Aliens and the Terminator films.

Aliens opens with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) explaining what happened in the previous movie to a disbelieving corporate task force. We are shown Ripley trying very hard to impress the danger of the alien menace on nameless executives who are simply unimpressed. Almost immediately after, we find that Ripley has been dumped in a tiny apartment doing menial labor – forgotten and held unimportant by those she was trying to convince. Until, of course, the colony near where Ripley encountered her alien is suddenly and inexplicably incommunicado. At that point, a company representative called Burke takes Ripley and a group of Company marines to find out what happened. So far, we have a company deciding what to do about a potential threat to all of humanity, a company that has its own marines. Both of those are usually thought of as government prerogatives. However, in contrast to elected government officials calling the shots, we have largely nameless Company employees.

Most of Burke’s team dies in the film, and we find out that Burke himself had prompted the attack on the colony by sending uninformed, unnamed Company employees out to the site of the first movie’s attack to look for aliens – without telling them that there might be dangerous aliens about. At first glance, this might seem to blame Burke for everything, but why did he do it? To cover himself in case Ripley was right. Burke didn’t think that there were aliens, he just needed to be sure so that the Company didn’t get in trouble.

Fastforward to the Terminator movies. In movie one we find that Cyberdyne Systems created an artificial intelligence called Skynet which then instituted nuclear destruction of the world. Note that Cyberdyne doesn’t do anything wrong, exactly, it was their invention that wrought evil on the Earth. In movie two we are introduced to Dyson, the scientist most responsible for Skynet. He isn’t depicted as believing that his work will be either particularly good or bad; he’s just doing his job. When convinced that his work will lead to nuclear holocaust, well, he changes his tune. Terminator II gives us Cameron’s version of “hope”: Dyson’s efforts – at the cost of his life – appear to stop the destruction of humanity.

I’ve covered a lot of ground quickly, but I wanted to present an overview of the role of companies in some of Cameron’s major films. As you can see from these three films, companies are treated almost as living organisms themselves. People can affect the Company, maybe, but not in any meaningful way. Burke’s actions were in service to the Company. If he had not prompted the initial attack on the colony, the growing colony would eventually have prompted an attack (on a much larger population) as it spread to the aliens’ area. Moreover, Burke was the only employee of the company who took Ripley seriously enough to even send someone out to check on her claims. In Terminator II, the company is unmoved by Sarah Connor’s attempts to halt its research. However, Connor, her son and the Terminator helping them are eventually able to convince Dyson, a member of the company, to try to change its path, and he appears to manage it at great cost.

Now we have Avatar. Selfridge is in charge, and does okay various actions by the employees, but he’s also shown as, well, wishy-washy. As the embodiment of the Company, Selfridge does not really decide anything. When the scientists argue forcefully, they get what they want; when the militarists argue forcefully, they get what they want. His actions are decided by who is talking to him at any point in time. Even at the end of the movie, as he is being escorted off the planet, Selfridge pauses and looks at the victors. Confused, searching for words, he eventually gives up and goes home, seemingly unsure of just what happened.

The character of Selfridge reaches a pinnacle in Cameron’s use of employees as a (body)part of the Company. If the Company of Aliens and Terminator is uncaring, hard to move, faceless, a monolith that appears to have no motives – not even profit, really – then Selfridge is caring (unless it goes against profit, which it does); easily moved in the short term, but too wishy-washy to effect permanent change; and so full of motives that he can’t choose just one and stick with it (profit? but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone; making nice with the natives? but he doesn’t really care about them).

And here is where Cameron’s companies become evil: not in the conscious pursuit of evil actions, but in the employees of all ranks who simply try to do what the Company wants, despite the fact that companies are not alive and cannot “want” anything. Instead, employees assume that the company wants something, usually profit, and then subsumes their own selves to that company. We don’t really know anything about Selfridge the man after seeing Avatar, only Selfridge as a part of the RDA corporation.

The evil lies in that no one is responsible for the corporation’s actions. If Selfridge is simply a part of the company, then the company is responsible for his actions. But a company is not a person, and therefor cannot be punished. A government ought to have the ability to at least attempt a punishment through fines (hitting the company in the profit motive it is often assumed to have), but we never hear much about governments.

This is an eerie parallel to what we’ve been seeing in the U.S. financial system. Companies are too big to fail, so they are given money instead of fines. Yet the traders that ruined the economy and caused untold damage have not broken any laws, and therefore are not punished for their actions. The government has little to no authority over the companies, which are not bound by anything to pursue good.

Cameron’s response to this is Jake Sully’s growth, which I have argued is like opening to a new way of life, but which is also comparable to growing into an adult (his body becomes bigger, hairier; he enters a marriage; he gains skills by which he can support himself). If we look at it as Sully finding a new way of life as an adult, then that suggests that Company life is childish. To subsume your identity in a company is the same as subsuming your identity in your parents: you live on their/its terms, you accept their/its values. I think Avatar is a wonderful argument for accepting responsibility, which we could use more of.