The last time I looked, American cinema-goers were not well-disposed to reward pictures offering them a sprightly mixture of ecological censure and high treason. And, indeed, those killed Marines are no such thing, but members of a Blackwater-style mercenary operation. Audiences are not stupid. Neither is Cameron. Yes, he included a bunch of tone-deaf references to the Iraq war in his movie—"shock and awe," "fighting terror with terror," and so on, every one of which succeeds magnificently in yanking you out of the immersive spectacle as surely as a kick to the shins. But any desire to push the Avatar-is-liberal-propaganda argument further must be met by a principled push-back against the incursion of so grindingly and narrowly ideological a focus into so mercurial and prismatic a medium as motion pictures. In other words: It's about a bunch of blue people.
Seriously. I haven't seen this kind of wild mangling of pop culture since the heyday of cultural studies, when you couldn't cross a campus without accidentally wandering into seminars attended by four people titled "Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future." But then James Cameron was always going to be a tough nut to crack. His politics are an intriguing salad: dove-ish bromides strapped into the titanium exoskeleton of a hawk. Or as Colonel Quaritch says in Avatar, "A Marine inside a Na'vi body. That's a potent mix." It is, especially for a medium as fluid as cinema, which quickly bores of people in perfect agreement with themselves. Remember that Cameron was born in Canada in 1954, which means that he spent his formative teenage years—the years he was getting into guns and trucks and girls—watching the giant that lived next door receive the beating of its life in Vietnam. It left him with an almost forensic fascination for "how the mighty fall," his enduring theme as a filmmaker, from The Terminator through to Titanic.
Think of the Marines in Aliens, whooping it up in the drop ship as they load their gun clips, only to find that their superior firepower is useless on LV426 for fear of triggering the plant's nuclear core. Their armor hissing with alien acid, they cannot ditch it fast enough. The film is a study in military hubris. Cameron may have beefed about what happened to his Rambo script—"The action was mine, the politics Stallone's," he would later complain—but he needn't have worried: He'd already shot his Vietnam picture. Or think of the enemy he devised in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Almost any other director would have come up with a Terminator that was bigger than Arnold—heftier, more hi-tech—but Cameron tacked the other way, devising a slim, sinuous shape-shifter, a Porsche to Arnie's Panzer tank. What makes T2 such eerie viewing now is seeing how accurately it foreshadows the very real threat America would face on 9/11, a cellular, hydra-headed demon who absorbs every punch, its molecules scattering before regrouping again, deploying the sheer might of its attackers against them.
Cameron has an uncanny feel for asymmetrical fights: It's what gives his films such a vicelike grip on the national unconscious and makes him a useful filmmaker to have around right now. If I were on the right, I'd be celebrating the director for his keen-eyed, conservative critique of Wilsonian foreign adventurism. Yes, it's regrettable that the pivot point of the final battle hinges on the incursion of a deity, no less, but I also learned some interesting stuff about how to subdue any huge flame-colored dragons I see flying around the skies: You attack from above, where he least expects it. "Tarouk is the biggest, baddest boy in the sky," Jake Sully informs us. "He never gets attacked." With yet another airplane bomber in American custody, it would seem we cannot get enough of that lesson.