Aliens and Abyss

James Cameron directed both of these movies, and they both start with “a,” but beyond that, it’s interesting to think of these movies as opposites.

You see, I just watched the Abyss all the way through (I had seen parts before) and they’re both exploring basically the same things from opposite sides of things.

Take Aliens. In this, movie, humanity sends marines, the most brute force method of offering social commentary on excessive militarism. Anyway, the tough guys show up with Ridley and they look around the colony where the aliens are running around. Of course, the military is “in the right” (whatever that means in a movie like this) and it would be good if they could destroy the aliens, which are a primal force. They are nature’s urge to destroy and procreate (see my post on Aliens here) brought into physical form and THEIR allegorical role is pretty clear too.

So you have militarism against nature’s darkest incarnation, but of course there is betrayal. The corporate executive wants to risk humanity’s livelihood for PROFIT. He wants to bring the aliens back to civilization and represents humanity’s potential to sabotage itself.

Then take Abyss. In abyss, the aliens are peaceful and live in harmony with nature. They live on earth rather than among the stars. They are intelligent rather than bestial. There are other opposites no doubt.

And the humans (at least most of them) don’t want to destroy the aliens but only to talk with them and learn from them. Here humanity is represented well. But does humanity have the potential to sabotage itself? Yes of course, and in this movie, it is the military that represents humanity’s flawed nature. It’s tendency to see enemies where there are none.

In Aliens the military is performing its righteous role as protector, and they are done in by someone who refuses to see the real risk that the aliens pose to civilization. In Abyss, the military sees the aliens as a threat when they are not. The urge to protect runs amok and creates danger and destruction where there is no need for violence.

There were a bunch of other similarities too, like the harsh environments, the use of thermonuclear bombs and strong women. I forgot a lot of the other stuff I noticed, but the lesson I got was basically that humanity is does itself in or tries to. The very institutions that it creates, capitalism for exchange the military for protection can just as easily be its undoing. And what is the nuclear bomb other than the ultimate expression of how our own technology can threaten us. And what is global warming other than a dramatization of how humans can ecologically suicide, and sometimes I think of racism or war as humanity socially self imploding; gobbling itself up.

And so, one thing I’ve been toying with lately is to think of humans as the self defeating animal. Aristotle thought we were the political animals, Kant and others thought we were the rational animal, some biologists think were are the tool using animals (wrong, monkeys use tools) or the language using animal (wrong again, prairie dogs have a sophisticated compositional language),and Marxists think we are the creating, laboring animal. All sorts of things are supposed to characterize our uniqueness in the natural order. If you follow this blog, you know I think its kind of useless to try and capture humanity’s essence in this way. Better to just leave the matter unsettled and let humankind always impress us with what it wants to be today. Despite my skepticism about “human nature” I’m finding it productive to understand human beings as the type of animal that can defeat itself by pursuing its goals.

Think of someone who tries really hard to be happy by thinking what will make them happy (I use this example all the time). Such a person defeats their chance at happiness necessarily by their intention to get it in everything they do. No other animal can defeat themselves in that way. Sure a lobster might trap himself further by struggling in a trap, but this is accidental. A lobster can never defeat its own flourishing by acting, and this is because it only one layer of consciousness, its immediate impulses to respond to stimuli. It cannot ruin one layer of consciousness by the intrusion of another. But since humans the ability to react immediately and seamlessly in tune with the environment, but also contrary to it through reflection, we can come into contact with ourselves. We can be weak willed and we can be self-defeating.

And most human problems I think arise from that very fact; the ability for us to conflict with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters and with our fellow humans. There’s something kind of Buddhist about this whole thing too — we can only live in harmony with each other when we learn to live in harmony with ourselves. But there’s nothing deep about that last part, every ideology since the beginning of human time has imagined that reconciliation with our nature.

*Also Abyss is SO much like Sphere or Armageddon (hostile environments, big stakes, futuristic means of transportation). Doesn’t leave one too impressed with Hollywood really.


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