Promoting James Cameron’s Avatar: Let’s Talk Jake Sully and Disability

Note: This post is about how James Cameron’s Avatar is being presented and promoted to the public, and about the attitudes cast and crew have to the characters and their presentation. It is not a review of Avatar.

A reader recently sent a tip to Anna about a video on Hulu, a short interview with Sam Worthington, who plays Jake Sully on Avatar. Because Anna’s in Canada and Hulu hates Canadians, she passed it on to me to check out. Here’s a link to the video (not viewable outside the United States, I am sorry to say).

And here’s a transcript:

Screen flashes with an “in character with” graphic reading “Sam Worthington as Jake Sully”

Screen cuts to a video of Worthington’s upper body against a backdrop of primordial trees overlaid with the text “Avatar.”

Worthington: “My name is Sam Worthington, and I play Jake Sully.”

As Worthington narrates, cuts from the movie are shown.

“Jake’s a former Marine who’s disabled, he doesn’t think he’s got a disability, the people that tell you what you can and can’t do, they’ve got the disability” Worthington says, and an image of Jake, inside what appears to be an aircraft, appears. Jake is pulling himself into a bright yellow wheelchair. In the next shot, we see Jake wheeling himself out of the aircraft and navigating through a busy airfield filled with people and various aircraft.

The scene transitions to images of Jake moving through a research facility with lots of blue light (a James Cameron trademark).

“And he gets the opportunity,” the voiceover continues, “to go into a remote controlled body, a 10 foot tall species on an intergalactic planet.” We are shown an image of what could best be described as a 10 foot tall bipedal blue cat floating in a tank.

In the next shot, an action shot, Jake, inside the Avatar body, is leaping out of a helicopter brandishing a large gun.

The clip continues with a character from the movie, a very muscular man with tightcropped blonde hair and a very military appearance, saying “a Marine in an Avatar body,” while strapping himself into a device which has an unclear function. “That’s a potent mix,” the character continues.

Worthington: [back against the backdrop seen at the start of the clip] “Yeah, it’s fun to play that, because he’s got the two journeys, he’s bringing himself up and kinda like a strong person when he’s in his remote-controlled body,” as clips from the movie showing Jake lying on a table in his human body, and then standing at night in a forest in his Avatar, are shown. “But then when he’s in his normal body,” Worthington continues, as a clip of Jake struggling to transfer from a treatment table in the research facility to his wheelchair plays, “life is, it’s heartbreaking.”

“You get me what I need, I’ll see to it you get your legs back,” says the blonde character from earlier in the clip.

“Hell yeah, sir,” Jake says, seated in his wheelchair.

Worthington [over a clip from the movie of Jake wheeling along an aisle]: “First there’s the research that you, you know, have to do. Went and played wheelchair basketball with a group of guys and, you know, they kicked my ass, to be honest.”

Worthinton’s voiceover continues and we are shown video from filing, with crew clustered around the front of the image and actors in the rear center.

“I got in the wheelchair and, uh, you know I would say I was [unintelligible] in the wheelchair pretty quickly ’cause they would bash into us and you realize pretty soon it’s not about the wheelchair, it’s about getting the job done [makes a hand gesture conveying forward motion]. You know, your life doesn’t just cut short just because, you know, that some tragic thing has happened to you. You’ve gotta get up and that’s a true hero, see, we’ve all got the possibility of being a hero inside us, and that means if you get knocked down get back up again. One guy said to me ‘I spend my life always being looked down on,’ and he goes ‘now you can see how strong-willed I am.’ Jake Sully is, he’s looking for summat worth fighting for and to me that’s a, you know, I found it in these guys, you know, they’re saying just keep going man, keep going.”

During this voiceover, the video cuts between clips of Worthington and clips from the movie showing Jake in action, wheeling down hallways, shaking hands with other characters, and riding in a helicopter which swoops through an environment filled with fog and strange floating geological formations, meant to convey a sense of being on an alien planet.

“You wanna keep your [unintelligible] alive, stop listening to her,” we hear a character [possibly Jake, it was hard for me to tell] saying as we are shown another clip from the movie set, a scene in which Jake is seated in his wheelchair talking with the blonde man shown earlier and several other people in military uniforms.

Worthington: “Even though Jake’s in the wheelchair and doesn’t feel sorry, I’m sure he longs to get out and make a difference, but that’s why he goes on the journey in the first place.” As Worthington speaks, we are shown more video from filming, with Jake on the table, surrounded by crew with cameras and microphones.

Worthington continues: “…and, the joy comes back again.” The video shifts to video of Worthington and James Cameron, the director, talking on set. “What I said to Jim, I wanted him, the first time he’s in his remote-controlled body [the video transitions to shots of Jake lying on the table and being strapped in], feeling his legs should feel good, it should feel like an almost unbelievable experience for him.”

A clip is shown from the film, with two people in protective masks and surgical gear leaning in towards the camera. “Jake,” a woman’s voice says, sounding hollow because of her mask, “can you hear me?” The camera moves to the face of Jake, in the Avatar, blinking blearily at the camera while a light is shone in his eyes.

Worthington: “And then when he gets up he realizes that, just like driving a Ferrari for the first time, or a big, you know, 10 wheeled truck [we see the Avatar getting off the table, dressed in a hospital gown, and moving around excitedly; the Avatar’s long tail lashes at various objects in the room and knocks them over], it’s hard to do.” The clip continues with a character saying “You’re not used to your Avatar body, this is dangerous!” Jake-as-Avatar grins wolfishly and says “great.”

Worthington [over a continuation of the clip showing Jake-as-Avatar running out of the medical facility and into lush jungle, skidding on a dirt pathway because he’s running so fast]: “The body’s a bit, you know, useless, he’s still warming it up, but he decides ‘I’m gonna take it for a test drive’ and, uh, you know, the slide was my idea, I thought ‘you know, he’s skidding, he’s using it like a car’ and then Jim said [over a clip of Cameron, Worthington, and crew against a green screen] ‘let’s just keep focusing on the feet, keep playing with it and that it’s a liberating experience to walk again, to run.'”

Another clip from the movie, of Jake-as-Avatar running through the jungle carrying a bow, and taking a flying leap onto the ground from a high cliff. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” he says, as he launches himself into space and floats toward the ground.

Worthington: “Also, he’s a hardened Marine, but in my brain I thought ‘if you play it just like that, like a Full Metal Jacket Marine, how will you find a way in, how does a 10 year old kid relate to that?’ They’re the toughest critics. They’re gonna say what they think [over a series of action shots of Jake riding strange and fantastical winged and hooved beasts and darting about in the jungle], you know, they’ll vote with their feet, to me they’re always the barometer [image cuts again to images of Jake back in his human body, being rolled out on a tray and then wheeling up to a large model of the planet’s surface], so I went ‘well why don’t I look at my nephew who is seven, and play Jake Sully like that, give him that essence.’ Also, there’s another thing. It’s, you know, in my, my nephew Ridley , his eyes are open to the world all the time ’cause he’s seven, he’s cheeky, petulant, ah, rebellious, you can’t tell him what to do, and uh, he’s courageous, and I thought ‘now these are great qualities,’ so, you put that in the shell of a hardened Marine and now a 10 year old kid has an action hero that he can relate to.” While he says this, they play more clips from the movie of Jake-as-Avatar in various action shots, including leaping onto a robot, previously seen in shots on the human base, wielding a club.

Clips from the movie continue, with Jake-as-Avatar saying “outstanding,” and Worthington adding “and it sort of relates to the kid in all of us [we see Jake-as-Avatar flying on the back of a giant bird], so, if I’m going to, I’m the eyes or the conduit for the audience to come and go on the journey [back against the backdrop, making a forward-moving motion with his hands], all the time through, everything you’re playing with, touching [we see Jake wheeling down a gangway in some sort of aircraft or structure, and then sticking his hand in a pool of blue gel], touch the goo and go ‘this is cool’ [Jake says “this is cool” as the camera pans back to show more of the room], he’s touching the plants, ‘don’t touch the plants, Jake’ [Jake-as-Avatar is walking through the forest and encounters a field of plants which look rather like complicated desserts, touching them and watching them retract into the ground], he keeps touching the plants, that’s all my nephew, Ridley. [Jake-as-Avatar falls off a horselike animal, and is then shown in an aircraft looking out across the environment of the planet.] You know, thanks to Ridley, it was absolutely fun to play, you know, ’cause he gave me the ticket, he gave me the way in. [More clips from the movie, Jake-as-Avatar at night in the trees, surrounded by glowing critters, which eventually come to rest on his body as he stands still.] To me, that’s how I approached it, quite simply and you know, as simple as that.”

We are shown another clip from the movie, with Jake-as-Avatar on a horselike creature in the middle of a crowd of fierce-looking Na’vi warriors, standing their ground against a large aircraft. Robots are pouring out of the aircraft and a voiceover of Jake as Avatar begins: “They’ve sent us a message, that they can take whatever they want [Na’vi are fighting with bows against flamethrowing weapons], well we will send them a message [Jake-as-Avatar against a glowing purple backdrop, surrounded by several Na’vi, including a translator who is translating his speech], and we will show the Sky People [Na’vi crowds shown cheering] that they CANNOT take whatever they want and that this, this is our land!”

Video cuts to a promotional image of a Na’vi face speckled with bright points of light and shrouded in darkness, as the word “Avatar” comes up on the screen.

I have a lot of thoughts about this clip and about how Worthington views the character of Jake Sully, but I thought I would open the floor to y’all first, and then share my thoughts.

How do you think Worthington thinks about disability, and Sully’s disability in particular?

What do you think that this clip and other promotional materials for Avatar are saying about disability?

If you’ve seen Avatar, do you think that Worthington’s attitudes about disability as seen/heard in this clip play through in the film? Has seeing/listening to this clip/reading the transcript changed the way you think about the film and Jake Sully (whether or not you’ve seen it)?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

10 thoughts on “Promoting James Cameron’s Avatar: Let’s Talk Jake Sully and Disability

  1. Hmmm. He’s clearly using some seriously ableist constructions and ideas. However, I think both he and the film are doing somewhat better than average with regard to ableism. I didn’t expect much from the movie, but I was surprised to find that 90% of the ableist characters are bad guys; you’re not, I think, supposed to agree with their conclusions (like that his legs aren’t his “real legs.”)

    That isn’t to say that the whole giving-up-your-body-for-the-superathlete-cat-body plot isn’t incredibly problematic, of course, because it super, super is. And maybe most watchers *are* agreeing with the ableism expressed by the bad guys. I should poll my friends and see.

    Overall, I thought the movie, and the dude in this interview, are ignorant but trying. They should damn well try harder (how much googling does it take to figure out that the phrase “useless body” is just never a good idea?) but overall I thought it might be a step forward rather than backward in general societal discourse about disability. (Though that discourse is so bad, I’m not sure what a backward step would even look like, so take this all with a grain of salt.)

    (Could I be more unhelpfully wishy-washy about this? Hard to say.)

  2. I saw the movie last week, and was pretty impressed….I think they tried, which is better than 99% of movies. There wasn’t any self-pity, woe is me stuff from Jake Sully in the movie, just getting on with it. I was prepared to be annoyed with how Jake’s disability was treated, but I really wasn’t. He was a very complex character.

  3. These interviews are interesting, and frankly reveal a lot more depth than I inferred from watching the film. Though the movie wasn’t as ableist as I ancipated, Sully’s disability felt more like a cheap way to make the character sympathetic than anything else. The writers wanted to give him a motive for participating in the mission which would seem sympathetic, and a disabled man supposedly “getting his legs back” was what they came up with. That’s tapping into all sorts of ableist conceptions which are widely shared. I also didn’t really see Sully wanting to undertake the mission because he wanted to “make a difference.” I saw it more in terms of him wanting to undertake the mission for ableist reasons, and also for lack of anything better to do.

    Having said that, it’s true that Jake wasn’t a particularly self-pitying character, which was refreshing, and that aspect of the story was more understated than I feared it would be.

    Interesting to note, however, that Sully was not the only character with a disability portrayed. The villain used a prosthetic arm. Which really fits into a long line of stereotypes in terms of how villains’ bodies are portrayed.

  4. I agree with Molly. I absolutely hated hated hated the movie on almost all fronts (racist, sexist, cliched, poor worldbuilding, mediocre acting, exaggerated black-and-white politics…), but I think they were trying (if not entirely succeeding) with Jake’ portrayal and it’s probably a little better than the average portrayal of people who use wheelchairs in media. It is true that most of the ableist attitudes come from bad guys; and Jake’s unhappiness in his normal human body seems to largely come from the society he’s in, which is portrayed as almost without redeeming qualities.

    “You get me what I need, I’ll see to it you get your legs back,” says the blonde character from earlier in the clip.

    “Hell yeah, sir,” Jake says, seated in his wheelchair.

    I think–and I may be misremembering–that in the movie this dialogue was in the opposite order–Jake said “hell yeah” to the idea of spying for the blonde character (Colonel Totally Evil) and THEN the colonel offered him surgery. It was definitely something that came after Jake agreed, so I think an example of them trying (badly). This was such a pointless addition to the plot that I suspect it was included solely so Jake’s rejection of the Colonel’s goals later in favor of helping the Na’vi would be “more dramatic” for an able-bodied audience because he’s “giving up” something, even though wanting surgery is never demonstrated to be a motivating force for him.

  5. I kinda had my jaw drop here and I haven’t been able to pick it back up:
    “First there’s the research that you, you know, have to do. Went and played wheelchair basketball with a group of guys and, you know, they kicked my ass, to be honest.”

    I am so shocked that… gosh, those crippled people were able to… well, you know, beat an able-bodied person as a game he wasn’t familiar with playing. That must have been so … well, difficult for big strong able-dude to admit to.

    It’s so condescending, I can’t even tell you.

  6. A few thoughts,

    – Early in the movie, Jake’s narration points out that science can “fix a broken spine,” i.e. allow him to walk again, but that he can’t do that “on a vet’s salary,” so perhaps he did want surgery to restore use of his legs, but was used to the idea that he couldn’t afford it.
    It seems to be part of humanity’s culture in the movie that disabilities and other perceived flaws can be ‘fixed’ if one has enough money, as at a later point the Colonel mentions that he could have the scar on his head removed, and be “made pretty again” if he wished.

    – In terms of the “real legs” comment being implying that Jakes disabled body is less than human- this comment is made by the Colonel, a character who is not meant to be likable in any way. I also read this as the Colonel distinguishing Jake’s ‘real legs’ from the legs of his Avatar, rather than implying that the legs Jake currently had weren’t real. It seemed to me that the Colonel was saying it would be better for Jake to regain the use of his (implicitly good, real) human body rather than use the (implicitly dirty, fake, animal) Avatar body.

    – I think Molly’s phrase “ignorant but trying” works well, particularly with characters like Grace (played by Sigourney Weaver). She’s one of the likable characters, however she does make mistakes in regard to Jake. When he’s first getting into the machine that links him to the Avatar (the ‘table’ in the clip, I’m guessing) she reaches for his legs to lift them up for him, and he sharply says, “Don’t.”
    She teases him about joining the mission, implying that he’s come out to a ludicrously hostile planet to join a scientific mission that he’s not educated enough for (he’s characterised as rather a jock compared to the other scientists) and he thinks he can just wing it? He smiles thinly up at her and suggests, “Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn’t do.”

    The fact Jake is played by a TAB actor is obviously horribly problematic, especially as there’s no need for it as *all* the shots of him as a human are of him disabled – motion capture for the CG elements could have been done with a different actor. There are also big problems with the racial elements of the movie, as have been discussed elsewhere. But in terms of the story, the fact that Jake is disabled seemed secondary to me – it appeared to be one of the reasons he gets so addicted to the Avatar body, but he doesn’t complain or bring it up otherwise, and the only overt comments are from unlikable characters (the Colonel, and some of the thuggish soldiers). The Colonel tries to use it as a bargaining chip, but that ends up not working, which I read as Jake caring more about becoming part of the Na’vi (the Colonel’s offer comes on the eve of Jake’s final acceptance ceremony) than about anything else.

  7. The idea of having a disabled guy use technology to have his brain projected into an nondisabled body is just really questionable in itself and I don’t really understand why it was done. (Not that writers should have to explain why a character is disabled, in general–it can just be one of their traits, it doesn’t have to be a big plot point–but you know, if a straight writer created an evil stalker character who was gay, I’d wonder why that was done, because that’s an old, screwed-up story too.) However, given the fact that the concept is innately screwed up, it was much, much less offensive than I would have expected. As other commenters have said, Jake is not portrayed as being especially angry/sad/bitter about his disability. I think his happiness about being able to walk in the Avatar body is at a believable level–it’s exciting to regain an ability he had lost, and the Avatar experience is cool for other reasons too. He’s not like “oh thank God I’m cured.” I guess you could say the movie ends with a miracle cure, but there were other reasons for him to want the Na’vi body besides the fact that it was ambulatory.

    Regarding the casting, maybe James Cameron thought it was important to have the same actor for the motion capture, so the actor would have exact same facial expressions and body language. I’m not saying this is a legit excuse, they could have gotten around it, but it’s a possible reason for casting an ambulatory actor. (Although it’s more likely the usual reason: “he was the best person for the part i.e. I forgot to actually audition any disabled actors.”)

  8. WTF child? A 10 year old child is the entry ticket to understanding a marine in an alien environment being sent out as some kind of agent to a group of sentient aliens?


    Because he can walk again? That ability automatically takes the man out of the marine?

    Also I guess I have gone beyond ‘They’re trying, the poor dears, you can’t expect them to get equality right just off the bat. It’s equality! It’s FOREIGN’.

    Why should I make excuses for them when people eff up? And given the possibilities of what Avatar could have been; which one is the better try? What came out in theaters? Or the script-treatment? |

    Do or do not. There is no try.

    If you show satisfaction with ‘try’ then all they’ll ever have to do is throw you that bone every time. Scraps.

    I don’t know if it’d have been better to have the movie described in that treatment. But I think it would have been a better -do- to have a movie that could have offered challenges to chew on like; What does it mean to be an Avatar? What is an Avatar? What gets destroyed in the mind transfer process? Or is something blended? What is heroism? (‘Josh’ has more to do in his human wheelchair mobile body than apparently Jake)

    Instead there’s this thing that seems to say movie going audiences aren’t expected to think anymore. Just see the pretty, ignore the problematic issues, watch some explosions and have vicarious nookie.

    I’m still agog at the whole ‘A child needs a way in so I created a childish character‘ – as if children don’t relate to their parents and other adult family members all the time. As if they don’t relate to robots in disguise and anthropomorphic animals; all of varying personalities.

    And the limited emotional empathy in thinking someone having lost use of a body-part, finding that their mind can direct a similar bodypart would react like CHRISTMAS MORNING. Juda In A Mini Skirt.

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