Tag Archives: James Cameron’s Avatar

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.




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.


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)?

James Cameron’s Avatar: Watch Some -isms This December!

I’m editing this post to ad, since a lot of people are arriving here with the search term “Avatar racist,” some links to thoughts on race in Avatar elsewhere on the Internet: Sek writes “Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist” and Annalee Newtiz (linked in Sek’s post), wrote: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?

Amanda Hess over at The Sexist drew my attention to James Cameron’s Avatar by asking me if we were going to be covering it at FWD. I initially thought she was talking about The Last Airbender, based on the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been attracting a great deal of ire for whiteifying characters who were formerly people of colour. Once I got that straightened out and took a gander at the available information on Avatar, slated for a 18 December release date here in the good old US of A, I just about blew my stack.

James Cameron is a filmmaker who specializes in, uhm, using a lot of blue light. The blue obsession apparently is hard to kick, because this epic project features a race of blue people. Which I assume will involve the use of a lot of blue lighting.

Ok, enough making fun of James Cameron and the blue light thing (but seriously, people…think about any of the works of James Cameron that you  have seen. What you do remember? That’s right, you remember BLUE LIGHT). The story behind Avatar is that it’s apparently a project he’s been thinking about and working on since the 1990s, waiting for filmmaking technology to get to the point that could do this amazing masterwork of cinema justice.

The film is set on the moon Pandora, occupied by a people called the Na’vi. Who just happen to be nine feet tall, blue, and sparkly. Oh, and they live “in harmony” with the natural resources on their planet. The writeups I’m seeing are making references to “simplistic people,” “unspoiled world,” “deep connection with nature,” etc etc. Hellooooo, noble savages!

Naturally, peaceful blue aliens cannot be allowed to live out their lives unmolested, because this is Hollywood. Enter Jake Sully, a white human male who is sent to help humans establish a foothold so that they can exploit the planet’s natural resources (what these people need is a honky!). The Na’vi are naturally not onboard with this plan, hence, conflict! Our plucky human falls in love with a Na’vi woman, of course, and becomes trapped in conflict between, well, colonialism and noble savages. Ah, an allegory for the ages.

Excuse me while I gag a bit.

Ok, now that I’ve cleared my throat, let’s move on to the disability fail. Because this is FWD, so you know there’s got to be some disability fail to discuss. (Although it is true that I will leap at almost any opportunity to mock James Cameron.)

Jake, you see, is a veteran with paraplegia. And the reason he wants to go to Pandora is so that he will be put in an able body: An Avatar, as they are known in the movie. Or, at least, his consciousness will be projected into that body, since only the Avatar can survive in the environment on Pandora. Oh, hey, did I mention that the Avatars look like the Na’vi, so Jake is going to be in, well, blueface? Yes, the paraplegic needs to become a racial impersonator in order to overcome his disability.

Yeah, that’s right. This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure. I would not be surprised if they threw in a healthy dollop of PTSD, probably portrayed in the most offensive and infuriating way possible.

I really can’t wait for this movie to come out so that I can rip it a new one in full, but it’s worth pondering the fact that Cameron has been thinking about and developing this project for over a decade, and he apparently has not identified any content in it which might be considered problematic. Indeed, they’re shooting for a PG rating, evidently, just to make sure that people of all ages can be subjected to ableism and racism this holiday season.

Thanks to Amanda for drawing my attention to this. (And anytime y’all want to see us cover something that interests you, drop one of us a line!)