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)?