Many films, from Star Trek to Star Wars, tend to operate on the assumption that most planets out there have air that’s fit for human consumption. But Cameron has now made three different films in which human beings encounter alien lifeforms, and in every single one, he draws attention to the fact that humans need to change either their environments or themselves if they are to move about in these new worlds.
In Aliens (1986), virtually all of the action takes place in a colony that has been established on another planet for the explicit purpose of making its air breathable. And if memory serves, the film even suggests that the newly-arrived, parasitic aliens might be making even more changes to the colony’s atmosphere — terraforming the terraformers, if you like.
In The Abyss (1989), a man played by Ed Harris actually breathes a special kind of liquid so that his lungs can withstand the pressure as he dives deep, deep down to where some aliens are living underwater here on Earth. And as his body reacts to the liquid flooding his lungs, a Navy SEAL assures him: “We all breathed liquid for nine months. . . . Your body will remember.”
And now there is Avatar, which begins with a man waking up inside some sort of liquid as he comes out of cryogenic hibernation (one of several birth and re-birth motifs throughout the film); he then spends the rest of the movie projecting his mind into a hybrid body that was genetically designed to allow humans like him to move around in the poisonous air of another planet.People have been talking about Avatar — and its depiction of the environment and our relationship to it — in political terms, both pro and con, ever since the movie came out. But I think we can see that Cameron has always had an interest in the ties that bind us to our environment (whether it be natural or artificial) on a deeper, more purely existential level.
You might say that, just as our souls are embedded within our bodies, so too our bodies are embedded within something even bigger — and that this is a theme that Cameron, whose films often involve technological extensions and enhancements to the human body, is particularly interested in.
If I were a more ambitious thinker these days, I might go even further and point to the spiritual, religious and/or mythological references in Cameron’s films and try to make something of the fact that the word for “breath” in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) is identical to the word for “spirit”. But I’m not, so I won’t — at least not yet.