Picturing Wilderness

By James Clarke

Examines Cameron’s place in the transitional paradigm of a post-analogue, posthuman, and painterly cinema where impossible bodies are rendered through reassuringly old-fashioned narrative and spectacular conventions that have made his films the biggest on the planet. This comprehensive study outlines how his enduring fascination with bleeding-edge technology has both caught the public imagination and time and again proved a touchstone of the zeitgeist.

~Harvey O’Brein, University College Dublin

Happy Earth Day! We are celebrating our planet with this post by James Clarke, author of The Cinema of James Cameron: Bodies in Heroic Motion discusses the relationship between cinema and the environment, as well as Cameron’s interest in Nature through the revival of the Avatar franchise.

Remember to enter this week’s drawing for a chance to win a copy of this book!

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Climate breakdown and our ongoing efforts to understand how best to deal with its implications is a knotty and testing thing. While a movie can’t save the world it can resonate with us in how its images and narratives might suggest ways of thinking and feeling sympathetically towards Nature and our relationship with it. James Cameron’s movie Avatar inherits and takes on broad a tradition of picturing and imagining Nature and reminds us of how resonant popular culture can be.

Popular culture has a valuable role to play, then, in articulating and distilling aspects of how we might engage with Nature. And, television documentary series such as Blue Planet have accentuated and made freshly urgent, our sense of the delicacy of the balance between Earth and we who inhabit it. [Can we talk, I wonder, about anthropocinema for this moment in time, therefore?] In a very different model to a series such as Blue Planet is the James Cameron film Avatar. There was a reminder recently of that film’s eco-focused interest when a set of conceptual art images from the forthcoming Avatar 2 (due for release in December 2021 with James Cameron as writer – director) were made available online in January 2020.

In my book The Cinema of James Cameron: Bodies in Heroic Motion, I attempted to tease out, amongst other things, James Cameron’s interest in Nature as a subject to be treated dramatically and in a visually spectacular way. In the book’s chapter about Cameron’s science fiction movie The Abyss, I quote from a TED presentation that Cameron gave in 2010 in which he explained how he considered that ‘there was an alien world right here on earth’ and that they [the aliens] were to be found in the planet’s deep-sea environments. In his talk, Cameron went on to discuss how interesting he found the permutations available that allow for “your consciousness [to be] injected” into technology. Initially referring to deep-sea exploration but also offering a sense of what, as he called it, “a post-human” world might be like. This concept of the ‘post-human’ is key to how we might think of a number of Cameron’s films (including the future world thriller, Strange Days, which he co-wrote and produced).

Of the ‘post-human’ condition, philosopher Rosi Braidotti has written that:

“Not all of us can say with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that … While conservative, religious forces today often labour to reinscribe the human with a paradigm of natural law, the concept of the human has exploded under the double pressure of contemporary scientific advances and global economic concerns … the posthuman condition introduces a qualitative shift in our thinking about what exactly is the basic unit of common reference for our species, our polity and our relationship to the other inhabitants of this planet.”

The book includes a section about Cameron’s documentary film Aliens of the Deep in which I write that “Aliens of the Deep fuses ‘fact’ with vividly realized imaginative speculation.” As such, it is highly consistent with the ‘fiction informed by fact’ of Cameron’s narrative features. It begins by exploring the world of deep-sea life that does not require sunlight but which instead is ‘fuelled’ by the heat that vents from the ocean bed. The film then extrapolates the world observed in deep sea in order to speculate on the life that may exist beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. It revels in the science fiction of it all the possibilities suggested by the technology being deployed to explore the ocean bed and also to record it.

Science fiction and the tradition of the wonder tale (in literature and also in cinema) have long engaged with ways of imagining and representing Nature. With Avatar, Cameron fuses images informed by that rich tradition of science fiction illustration, augmenting their influence with reference points drawn from a range of cultures, and also from images that depict places and acts of deforestation, industrialization and military ‘might.’ Literary scholar Francois Specq, has written of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that he “… questions the value of civilization in which conscience and moral integrity have been replaced by technological feats as the standard by which national achievement is to be assessed.” (Transcendentalism: Seekers and Seers in the Age of Thoreau). Ralph Waldo Emerson is a very long way from mainstream, genre filmmaking, for sure, but the observation suggests an essential American quandary that James Cameron’s film Avatar, and, we might propose, its forthcoming sequels, also articulates.

Cinema is well suited to offering us the spectacle of Nature, and a film such as Avatar revels in the opportunity to do so. In this respect, there is a thread to be followed that runs from Cameron’s Avatar movie-world back to the fascinations of landscape painting that were being flexed just about two hundred years ago in the work of John Constable. Writing about the work of Constable, David Sylvester has made an observation that resonates with the interest of Cameron’s eco-movies when he writes.

 “Constable’s landscapes, then, often present a contrast between a terrestrial nature that is benign and ordered and on a human scale and a celestial nature that is ungovernable and hostile as well as vast….endowing landscape painting with the moral significance and weight which were traditionally the prerogative of history painting.”

Cameron understands and embraces the fact that for all of the entertainment and distraction that a movie can provide, it’s also the case that a big, splashy science fiction spectacular like Avatar might nudge us towards thinking and feeling about how human ‘achievement’ might be our very undoing.

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