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
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.