A Difference in Perspective: Experiencing Avatar Exceeds the Marketing

We recently took a family excursion to the theatre in Seoul to see Avatar (and we can discuss our decision to take The Kid to see it another time, as in, not at all). I thought I would suck it up and see it as a service to the rest of the team here at FWD so that I could write an honest review from the perspective of someone who has been sheltered from the marketing of the movie. You can thank my language barrier and the reluctance of Hulu to stream in our country. Wev. As you may know, the marketing of the movie and views put forth by some of the actors kicked out some seriously ableist themes. After reading this transcript of the interview with the lead actor I was prepared to not like the movie at all because of the Bad Cripple message that I got from that video, the caricature of the disgruntled former Marine, and a lot of the other tropes that were chucked out there in a lot of the reviews. In fairness, I tried to not read a lot of them so that I would come into this review with a clear mind.

I was completely prepared to hate this movie.

I pretty much surprised myself and enjoyed some parts of it. Or the parts that I feel were realistically portrayed.

That is not to say that most of this movie was a big pile of fail from a feminist perspective.

To be fair off the top: This movie is pretty fucking racist. But guess what?

This is not the first time this story has been told with this theme, so I consider myself kind of inoculated to it at this point. By the time I had seen Dances With Wolves, Pocahantas, The Last Samurai, Fern Gully, and several others I am sure could come up on a more comprehensive list, I was used to having the “White Guy meets Native Group of people (and is either supposed to betray them or not), becomes accepted into their culture, and then falls in love with Native Woman or Culture (or both), and ultimately becomes the savior of Native People” movie shoved at me every Award season. Understand me when I say that I am not OK with the implications of this; I am simply becoming numb to the experience and how ingrained it has become.

Here I go. Oh, and: EXTREME SPOILER WARNING!

LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK FOR SPOILERS

SPOILERS!

Despite what I believed going in, Jake Sully was not a disgruntled Marine who believed that he had to get his legs back in order to be a normal human being. He wasn’t seeking the Avatar as a vehicle to deliver this to him; I found his desire to be in the Avatar directly linked to his desire to be with the Na’ Vi people in general, as he had fallen in love with them and the Cheif’s daughter (if this sounds cheesy, don’t blame me. I think Cameron drank some bad milk before writing some of the dialogue). There is one scene where Jake first enters his brother’s Avatar that he excitedly runs about the garden and experiences using legs again… curling his toes in the dirt. I am not a wheelchair user, nor an actor pretending to be one, so I don’t know what it would be like to live in either of these situations. I can imagine that being a veteran, and having your worth tied to your abled body must be an experience that changes the way you view disability.

Jake Sully’s desire for getting his “real legs” back is directly linked to his feelings of self worth as a Marine, and the actual caricature, the Marine Colonel Quaritch, does nothing to make him feel differently, but rather offers to cut red tape with the VA (who apparently is still a shit pile of failure years in the future) in exchange for Sully’s promise to sabotage the Na’ Vi from inside. Jake isn’t the brainy super genius that his twin brother was, who was able to help pioneer the Avatar technology. Sully was only valuable for the parts of his body that the government needed. Before it was his legs that could carry him into combat, and now that those were no longer doing that, I got the feeling that Sully was struggling with what he was supposed to do now. Then, in a brilliant plot device, his amazingly intelligent and never appearing in this film twin brother, conveniently died leaving him to be called up because he has the correct DNA to sync with the avatar. The reality of Jake Sully’s life isn’t that he is an ableist jerk… rather, he has only ever been as good as what his body has to offer to the government. This is reinforced by Doctor Augustine, when she uses a constant barrage of insults against Sully’s mental acumen. He doesn’t measure up to what his twin was capable of.

Jake Sully, is, again, told he is not good enough by the able bodied world.

I don’t view these as the same thing. This isn’t a disgruntled Marine. This is a society that hasn’t learned how to accept a person outside of the standard, and doesn’t yet know how to accept them into their perfect world. Society doesn’t know what to do with a Jake Sully because it doesn’t want to…and why should it? It will just cast him off and get more fresh, able bodies to replace him. He isn’t their problem any more, right?

So, it is easy to paint this movie as ableist. I was ready to cast it aside as such, probably because I already hold James Cameron as a misogynistic douche nozzle and a racist ass hat to boot. I want him to fail at this too. But what he has done here actually impressed me a little (even if the actor’s own words betrayed the sentiment). He managed to show the real pain of a veteran, separated from the only thing that has ever given him a connection to anything useful. He has shown a disabled person living in the actual world…and sadly it still exists in the future.

The rest of the movie, despite being fucking gorgeous, is a pile of tropes waiting to spring forth. Despite decent performances from actors and actresses that I adore (Zoe Saldana, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sigorney Weaver), it was cliche. You want bad ass military chick who loves to blow shit up? We got that! (she dies) We have a chief’s daughter who falls incredibly in love with the mysterious outsider! We have the White Guy pretty much slaying the dragon (almost in a literal sense), and the hot warrior chick rides off behind him on its back. I almost choked on my popcorn when I saw him waving a machine gun around in the jungle as he led the natives to battle. How about the tree hugging White woman who wants to preserve the culture of the Natives because they can’t protect themselves (she dies).

All the CG in the world can’t cover up a bunch of “been there, done that” bullshit.

I leave you to your own thoughts.

Discuss.

7 Comments

  1. Excellent points about the undeniably racist plot and the more complicated relationship to disability – I certainly left the theater more conflicted than when I went in (prepared to hate it).

    Yet, I couldn’t get past the feeling that Jake Sully has really minimal characterization – we don’t know him, we don’t know his thoughts or even experiences except as they are related to or expressed by the people (scientists, military, Na’Vi) around him. He seems to be an oddly blank slate.

  2. I appreciate your review because you consider what the film does both well and poorly. I also would emphasize an analysis of class in Avatar, which I haven’t seen many reviewers go into yet. Jake has a working class job as a marine and is shit upon by his government when he’s injured on the job and no longer useful to him. Technology exists that can “fix” him, but he can’t afford it. Totally speaks to how vets are treated today and how social barriers, like access to health care and being treated second class, make life a lot harder for Jake than just the physical aspect of his paralysis. I think being disabled and working class sets him apart from the default white man protagonist while also unfortunately playing out some of the same old racist and sexist tropes.

    As for the woman who blows shit up? She was actually my favorite character. I didn’t think she was cliche at all because she turned the guns around on the invading force. I’ve never seen GI resistance in a film before.

    Speaking of James Cameron, I’ve been watching a science fiction show he produced in 2000 called Dark Angel and the only main character who is a white man named Logan who is paraplegic. He’s the love interest of Max, this bad-ass fugitive genetically engineered soldier played by Jessica Alba. Logan doesn’t feel sorry for himself, still goes on dangerous adventures, and nobody treats him like he needs special treatment. (I’ve only seen a few episodes so this attitude may change.) The show is pretty progressive and has a diverse cast, so I doubt James Cameron actually had that much to do with the show. But Dark Angel had me wondering why disabled characters on TV and movies are so often paraplegics played by able-bodied, Hollywood-beautiful actors.

  3. I also enjoyed the movie more than I expected to. One part that really bugged me SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER ….

    … was the way he is transformed into a Na’vi alien through a sacred ceremony. I think it would have been a much better, thoughtful, and interesting ending if he’d chosen (or had no choice but) to stay as himself – a human Jake Sully, with his oxygen mask and wheelchair. But his rebirth as this almost impossibly elegant and physically powerful creature is such a cop-out.

  4. I like Dark Angel quite a bit, although it went weirdly off the rails in the second season, but I didn’t think they handled Logan’s characterization well at all with regards to to the paraplegia; I won’t say more here to avoid spoilers, but I think that’s the biggest flaw in the series.

    I wouldn’t say Logan’s the only major character who’s a white man, though. Lydecker is a major character (albeit an antagonist) in season one, and there’s Alec in season two. But it is overall a much less generically white show than most.

  5. Thank you for articulating what was bothering me about some of the commentary on the disability aspects of Avatar. I hung out with a few Marines when I was in the Navy, and it’s true that they mostly value themselves for being able to perform (usually excessively macho) physical feats. Like you, I saw Jake’s confusion about what to do with himself and wish to be able-bodied again not so much as a slam against disability but a lone instance of good characterization in a movie that was pretty much just a special-effects venue that recycled six different kinds of fail.

  6. I’ve never been a Marine, but I worked in construction, and I was full of anger when had to give up my very hard-earned trade, especially after all I’d had to overcome as a woman working in a non-traditional occupation. The comment above about class analysis is dead on.

  7. Lake Desire: I have sooooo very many thoughts on the class divides that come with being military and a veteran and disabled through that avenue of life (more that I have written about at my personal blog). I wasn’t very concise here, so I tried to keep it short, but you are right. I laughed bitterly to myself that it seemed almost pointed that in the future, with this incredible Avatar technology, that the VA is still going to be a steaming shitpile.

    Don’t get me wrong: Chicon was also one of my favorite characters, and while yes, you seldom see the military gun turned against itself (give me time, I will come up with an example), when it happens I know it is the spunky girl, and of course, she dies. There is always that woman who likes to blow shit up, because she is the military movie sci-fi wank fodder. I hate that trope, because there is potential for this to be written well, and it always follows this script.

    Thanks for the commentary so far everyone. I am really glad I wasn’t the only person who saw that confusion in Jake Sully. It ground against me the whole movie.