Either you are sorting it out, or you are full of it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Parker Selfridge vs Carter J Burke

James Cameron’s newest blockbuster Avatar has elicited a number of comments concerning its plodding, conventional plot. The comparisons to a number of blockbuster movies is palpable. There’s the now famous, Pocahontas reworking. There’s also Dances with Wolves (Cameron himself has interesting words to say about this). Let’s not forget Ferngully, either.

But what about Cameron’s own film Aliens?

There are a number of comparisons that can be made, but the one that intrigues me the most is the one that can be made between the corporate lackeys in each feature:

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) in Avatar

Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens

Both characters don’t do well with the audience. They are meant to represent what would seem to be the undying greed of the corporate world, even in future scenarios where our technology had advanced deep into the realm of the imaginary. There is, however, a shocking difference between these two characters, which I would argue is representative of a change in the way corporate culture existed in the 80s and the way it exists today.

In Aliens, Carter J Burke acts purely out of a detached self-interest, out of greed in its most basic sense. As the representative of the corporation, he sees an opportunity to be rewarded handsomely by sacrificing the lives of the others on the ship and bringing an alien specimen back to Earth. He is, in a sense, a free agent, the epitome of the 80’s “Me culture”, seeking to use the corporate path as a means to personal aggrandizement.  The greediness he exudes is one of personal choice. We do not feel that he is impelled by anything to make his decision to sabotage the crew, other than his own desire.

Parker Selfridge, despite what the name would suggest, is not as selfish, or at least not knowingly so. Throughout the movie, Parker works to find ways to work around destroying the indigenous population. He doesn’t want to have to deal with the possible turmoil that such destruction could do to the image of the corporation (or its profits). Yet despite his reservations, his mission is crystal clear. He must extract the unobtainium at all costs, and when all other methods to try and get the Nav’i to abandon the area above the unobtainium fail, he feels compelled to use force. His hands are tied. There’s no stopping it.

To my mind, the nature of Parker Selfridge’s selfishness reveals one of the strongest indictments of the corporate culture today. Greed like Carter J Burke’s still exists, but to a wide extent is has been effectively institutionalized. Before greed was an act carried out by an individual, who made greedy decisions knowing that they were greedy (although denying that it was so to others). Now the Parker Selfridge’s of the world make such decisions, but say they have “no choice.” The very idea of being too greedy has completely vanished for the individual, such greediness is assumed to be the norm, not the exception. The inability to acknowledge this has been blurred by fealty to a corporate code. We no longer use corporations; corporations use us.

When we are dismayed as to how wall street bankers can sleep well while giving themselves millions of dollars in bonuses while bankrupting their country, it’s not difficult to see why. They were doing their job and taking their bonus; they were looking out for the needs of their companies. They were trying to be good employees. Wouldn’t you do the same?

posted by ferret at 1:36 am  


  1. Thank you for putting into words something that I had felt when I watched the movie but not put together. I thought at first that the Selfridge character would be punished in the same way as the Burke character in Aliens (remember his gruesomely satisfying end?), but I was pleasantly surprised to find a sort of redemption for Selfridge in the end of Avatar. Although he did heinously wrong the Navi, he seemed genuinely remorseful afterwards. Do you think that Cameron wanted to be more hopeful about human nature this time around?

    Comment by Clayton — March 19, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  2. I really don’t know what Cameron thinks about it.

    As far as I’m concerned, Selfridge might appear to be better, but he’s really not. On one hand, Selfridge is open for redemption. There’s a sense that he wants to do right thing, and is cognizant of his error at the end of the film. Yet on the other hand, due to the institutions in which he finds himself, he is unable to realize the nature of his actions until far too late. The acquisition of profit takes precedence in the moral realm to such a degree that he is doubly blind.

    So here are your choices:

    Burke – unrepentant avarice willing to sacrifice all of those close to him for personal gain


    Selfridge – doubly ignorant selfishness, aware of his folly far too late

    To me, neither is really any better than the other. Both are disastrous and undesirable.

    Comment by ferret — March 19, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  3. In a scene cut from the movie, but viewable on Youtube as a B-roll, Parker does try to stop the mobilization of SecFors to destroy the Tree of Souls. In response, Colonel Quaritch body-checks him against a mech. So he had more potential to be redeemed, but this was sacrificed to bring the movie into a decent running time. Doubtless this will be on the Director’s Cut DVD.

    Comment by Zootsutra — June 20, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

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