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Is Avatar a Revisionist Take on Aliens?

I know this isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s one I’ve been mulling over quite a bit lately – especially since my aunt picked up the Alien Anthology on blu ray for Christmas. It’s been fairly frequently remarked, on-line and in-print that James Cameron’s Avatar bears remarkable similarities to his Aliens. However, it’s not the similarities that interest me, it’s the differences which reveal quite a bit. Most fascinating – at least to me – is the idea that Avatar represents an attempt to revise Cameron’s work on Aliens.

Killer queen...

Aliens is the story of a team of marines on a different planet repelling an aggressive force which, while implicitly not native to the environment, are certainly more attuned to their surroundings. These creatures were provoked to attack by an exploration order posted by a greedy corporation. If the company hadn’t ordered a team to investigate a potentially huge source of revenue, none of this would have happened. In the end, despite possessing far more advanced technology, the marines are slaughtered by their primitive opponents and driven off the planet.

Many commentators suggest (and I agree) that Aliens represents Cameron’s attempt to make a Vietnam movie. Here soldiers find themselves in a state of guerilla warfare, under siege by more experienced (and less technologically advanced) forces which know the environment better. There’s no way to reason with an adversary that has such a foreign philosophy and standard military tactics are not suitable for this kind of theatre of warfare. It’s a powerful metaphor which underpins Cameron’s story and perhaps one of the factors that has given it such longevity – it’s not a generic sci-fi action film, it’s a story which filters real world events into a futuristic setting.

Soldiering on...

Avatar follows a very similar structure. Again, the soldiers are on an alien planet at the behest of a greedy corporation – this time not seeking to weaponise the natives, but looking for the oil metaphor that Cameron doesn’t care enough to name anything other than “Unobtainium”. The military force finds itself in direct confrontation with the native population who, despite only having bows and arrows, manage to drive the marines off the planet.

There are numerous cosmetic hints which suggest that Cameron is consciously tying Avatar to Aliens. Note, for example, the presence of Sigourney Weaver. Weaver’s only previous experience with Cameron is Aliens, so it isn’t like she’s a recurring cast choice for the director (as diCaprio and deNiro have been for Scorsese). There’s also the rather explicit visual callback with the “loader”, a device which played an important role at the climax of Aliens. There are numerous other similarities which it’s hard to believe aren’t intentional.

Loaded with meaning?

So, if we assume that Cameron made these parallels intentionally (and it’s hard to believe anybody as skilfully as he would do it “accidentally”), why would he do so? I think the key lies not in the similarities between the two films, but in their differences. In a way, it’s not about what he kept the same, but about what he changed.

One of the most brilliant movie theories I’ve seen out there suggests that Avatar and Aliens are about the same fictional event. So that, meta-fictionally, they reflect two distinct historical perspectives of the same event – that they share the same fictional universe, but two different perspectives of it, if that makes sense. So Avatar and Aliens exist as two different accounts of the exact same fictional event, in some sort of fictional universe – in the same way that Custer’s Last Stand has been the subject of films where Custer is the hero (They Died With Their Boots On) or the villain (Geronimo: An American Legend).

Is there a twist in their tale?

Thinking of the films like this is quite a fun exercise. Aliens is obviously the side of the story which is sympathetic to the humans. Much like the Persians in 300, the adversaries are portrayed as all-consuming and mindless monsters with all sorts of depraved biological functions. Sure, there’s an acknowledgement of the greedy corporation which exploited the soldiers, but they are undoubtedly the heroes of the piece – just as the aliens themselves are the villains, a horde of disgusting predatory creatures. Perhaps you could even argue that the portrayal of the alien creatures reflects the way that propaganda has historically treated enemies – like the Japanese or the Germans during the Second World War.

Avatar is a more tempered and politically correct portrayal. Here we acknowledge that, although primitive, the aliens themselves are cultured and peaceful – only provoked by the military might of their adversary. The humans here aren’t heroic, they’re guilty of war crimes and horrible actions. They almost destroy an entire civilisation, while acting as if they are under siege (despite the fact that they are the “foreigners” in this context). While the hunk of rock in Aliens isn’t even given a name, just a designation, this planet is called “Pandora”, a word which seems to respect the belief of the natives.

Compare and contrast...

While we’re playing with this sort of meta-fictional ideas, it also resolves one of my own biggest plot holes from Avatar: why didn’t the humans just bomb them from space? In Aliens, a nuclear reactor is overloaded – destroying the human base on the planet, but wiping out the xenomorphs. Perhaps something similar happened, but the story of Avatar just elects to omit it – ending on the victory of the native population, because the (rather obvious) genocide that follows doesn’t suit the tone of the film (which is a celebration of Na’vi culture).

This is easily one of my favourite obscure and possibly craze movie theories, the one that makes rewatching either or both films a much richer experience – like suggesting that Fight Club is a sequel to Calvin and Hobbes or The Shining is about Native Americans. Sure, there’s a few rough edges. For example, the whole “avatar” angle of Avatar, which does admittedly fit with the whole Alien “chestburster” thing – only this time it’s humans inside aliens rather than aliens inside humans. But I think the theory holds up.

Cameron goes green...

Outside the context of the film itself, I find myself wondering if Cameron has come to regret Aliens, and Avatar represents a conscious attempt to rewrite it. Would Cameron today feel comfortable using the xenomorphs as a metaphor for the Viet Cong? While Avatar obviously betrays a deep dissatisfaction with American foreign policy – which was present, if not yet fully developed, in Alien – would Cameron hesitate to be as sympathetic to the soldiers if he did remake Aliens?

I don’t presume to have answers – they’re far less interesting than questions, I must concede. However, it is food for thought. And it makes Avatar, at least, a bit more interesting.

10 Responses

  1. avatar is a take on dances with wolves. think about it.

    • Thanks James. I can definitely see that comparison, with the Na’vi standing in for Native Americans. However, I’d argue the more apt comparison is Pocahontas – with Sam Worthington as John Smith. Without going on a rant, though, I am slightly disturbed that Cameron’s attempt to update the story is turn John Smith from a supporting character into the hero of the tale. Which completely undermines the Native Americans.

  2. What an awesome article. Great job, Darren. As far as a rejoinder goes, well, I don’t have much to say other than the fact that I completely agree with the inherent bonds between both films and the strange similarities between the two.

    As far as the intentions, I can easily see the Cameron of today poo-pooing the Cameron who made Aliens— after all, this is the guy who thinks genre films like Piranha cheapen the 3D medium. This is a different director than the one we know from 20 years ago. I don’t know if this has to do with him being skillful or not, but it’s hard not to see the connections between the two being accidental, as you say. Which kind of boggles my mind, because Aliens is a seriously great B-horror-sci-fi-action flick that’s not at all in need of a reimagining.

    • Yep. Aliens is great. We’re planning on watching it on Blu Ray, whish is what brought this to my mind, to be honest.

  3. I think it’s more likely the similarities come from the fact than when James Cameron was younger he’d obsess over fictional worlds that he would create – and the Na’vi world was imagined first, but he got the chance to make a sequel to Alien and worked in some of the ideas from this fantasy he had going on.
    Now with the chance to revisit his early school book doodles and daydreams with a massive budget he has brought those concepts to life with his own franchise from scratch and doesn’t care that the same technology and themes reappear because they were original to this world when he first came up with them.
    However this article is interesting as it does bring up propaganda and the idea of a biased narrator and I think it’d be really interesting to see a film with creatures that appear as nightmarish as the xenomorphs but are revealed as spiritually in tune as the Na’vi, as Avatar and Aliens do say something about the superficiality of appearances in cinematic storytelling where the morally right and the morally wrong are clear visually – just as Germany got posters of healthy blue eyed Nazi youth and Brits got a demonic version of a fascist regime. It just shows how manipulatable an audience with a diet of stereotypes are.

  4. I read the title and had to finish this article despite being late for class. Excellent piece, Darren!

  5. Well written article as always Darren.

    I also saw the similarities between the two films – most explicitly was the Loader machine – but I found it interesting that he once again sends Sigourney Weaver to an alien planet only this time he leaves her there dead. Does this support your theory on Cameron’s willingness to revise his earlier work, or does he make up for her death with a similar against-all-odds hero (like Ripley) winning the day in the end.

    I do think that Cameron still believes in the general conceit of Aliens. His commentary track on the Aliens DVD you reference above is, in my opinion, very enthusiastic and complimentary of the film. I think that was recorded in the middle 2000s.

    But I love this idea of the two films representing the same fictional event. In the world of Fox news and these “public service wars” it’s a brilliant theory on interpretation and the publication of news and event.

    But I think, where Aliens was a comment on Vietnam, Avatar is a comment on Iraq and the similarities arrive because Cameron doesn’t have the youthful imagination he last displayed in 1995’s Strange Days. 14 years later he’s drawing on one of his most successful action movies to produce his 3D epic.

    • Thanks Dan. I think you might have a point. Different wars and different public mindset. Perhaps the two films offer a wonderful example of how public opinion has changed in the years. After all, Cameron’s gift has always been to take something foreign and unknowable, but make it relatable. Half the people who watched Avatar wouldn’t consider watching Moon or other sci-fi fare, but Cameron is able to match his films to his audience so well that it just works. So, perhaps Aliens was in step with public consciousness of the time, much as Avatar is in line with today’s expectations. I don’t know.

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