The hand of Eywa intervenes during a field trip to send Sully not-so-gently down the path that will lead him to the Na’vi.
More visual reading of character: At their first meeting, Neytiri declares that Sully has “a good heart.”
Neytiri decides to lead Sully to the Na’vi.
Sully is astonished by the power of his new body.
Another blank stare during a potentially emotional moment: Sully awakes in his avatar body.
Shot from Sully’s POV, this scene emphasizes Grace Augustine’s intimidating presence at their first meeting.
A shot encapsulating two key themes: Sully on the video screen evokes a sense of the body as a commodity to be read, as well as foreshadowing his sense of separation from himself that he will experience after immersion in Na’vi culture.
Although the military hardware in the film is distorted to give a sense of its futuristic nature, camera angles also tend to emphasize similarities between these weapons and the equipment from our own period.
Quaritch the avenger is vital to the film’s “flat-out Green and anti-war message” that engaged critics like Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (Dykes 2009.) His rise and fall provides the most dramatic object lesson on the value of “seeing” reality and “waking up” to truth. This character shows how easy it is for strong principles to be corrupted by corporate greed; he shows the danger of trusting charismatic leaders with racist and imperialist agendas; and he exposes the suicidal hubris behind attempts to “conquer” the natural environment.
Yet even in this case, there are aspects to this character that are not so easily defined, because the film includes visual cues that suggest unsettling mental as well as physical similarities between Quaritch and Sully. For example, their early conversations are visualized using medium shots that suggest a state of equilibrium or sympathy between them. When they first meet in the aircraft hangar of the military base, Quartich sits on a weight bench to greet Sully, putting them at the same level. Quartich welcomes Sully to the base, compliments him on his military record, and introduces the idea of using Sully as a spy within Dr. Augustine’s group of researchers.
Quaritch suggests the idea of spying casually as he climbs into one of the walking armoured attack vehicles to practice boxing moves with the arms of the machine. To continue the chat face-to-face, Sully moves to an elevated service platform. Again, they are at the same level, “seeing eye to eye” physically as well as perhaps mentally. Quaritch asks for assurance that Sully can pretend to be one of Augustine’s “science pukes”: “Can you do that for me, son?” Sully replies without hesitation: “Hell, yeah.” Confident in Sully’s cooperation, Quaritch makes a parting gesture of “fatherly” good will; he promises to get Sully’s legs repaired, adding, “Son, I take care of my own.” This last scene is particularly well calculated to emphasize bonds between the two men, since the medium shot captures Quaritch in his military robot and Sully in his wheelchair—underscoring their special status as two wounded men using mechanical devices to help them live and work in their new world.
The two men’s second private conference is even more disturbing. Their discussion’s devious nature is emphasized by the semi-darkness of the lecture hall where they meet. Quaritch pulls up a chair and again they are face to face. Quaritch suggests that Sully end his undercover work and repeats his promise to fix Sully’s legs, adding that he has official approval for the operation now. Sully declines, saying he has “one more thing” to do—he has to undergo the Na’vi initiation ceremony. Quaritch seems doubtful about the idea, but Sully convinces him: “If I do it,” he says, “I’ll be one of them. Then they’ll trust me.” Quaritch agrees, with apparent reluctance. Stone-faced, he tells Sully to “get it done,” and walks away. Sully remains in the half-light, a range of emotions playing on his face. He is conflicted but we are uncertain why, and there is no voice-over to explain what he is really thinking. The scene works well to create dramatic tension, but it is also unsettling because it hints at a Machiavellian willingness on Sully’s part to play with people’s trust, fostering doubts about his emotional attachments and loyalties.
Doubts about Sully’s true motivations are strengthened by moments when Quaritch’s readings of Sully’s character seem uncannily precise. For example, before the meeting in the lecture hall, Sully is unsettled by months of immersion in the Na’vi culture:
Cut to the meeting, where Quaritch greets Sully by asking, “Haven’t gotten lost in the woods, have you?” Another flash of intuition occurs after Sully makes love to Neytiri, and he later confirms his allegiance to the Na’vi by attacking and disabling one of the company bulldozers. At the interrogation after the attack, Quaritch blames Sully’s betrayal on sexual infatuation. He rages, “Did you find some local tail and completely forget which side you’re working for?”
Quaritch’s moments of insight add pointed irony to his interactions with Sully. But they also generate disturbing effects beyond this level. The comment about being “lost in the woods” shows Quaritch’s sensitivity to moments when Sully is in emotional turmoil and vulnerable to manipulation. The comment about betrayal stemming from seduction is troubling because it comes literally after Sully and Neytiri have had a tryst in the forest. We cannot be sure whether this remark is simply Quaritch the racist degrading Sully’s friendship with Neytiri, or whether this is a moment of prescience when Quaritch becomes a villain exposing an unpleasant truth about the hero’s character flaws, thereby revealing an unacknowledged spiritual kinship with him.
Other moments that show Sully oddly out of character occur in the lab after he first takes possession of his Na’vi body. His gaze mingles glee and astonishment as he looks down at his new legs. We can guess from his reaction that he finds it overwhelming to be suddenly “normal” again. He leaps off the operating table, amid a flurry of protests by the lab technicians. Ignoring their warnings to be careful, to calm down, he continues to test the limits of the body, knocking over equipment and endangering the humans around him. Before he can be forcibly tranquilized, he sprints joyfully outside. Granted, this reaction would be natural for an able-bodied person who had suffered a severe disability and then had full functionality restored. These acts could be read as the result of youthful exuberance in this context. However, they also hint at the same character flaws of self-centeredness, impulsivity and inability to read social cues that will drive the Na’vi and the humans to the brink of annihilation when Quaritch gives them full reign later in the film.
Turning briefly to the work of disability activist and film scholar Michael Davidson helps to unpack the significance behind the “doubling” that occurs when Sully and Quaritch are linked in this manner. In his analysis of “crippled” figures in the classic noir films from the Cold War period, Davidson finds that disabled characters were often used as symbolic representations of larger social anxieties. In a era troubled over the idea of “subversive” or “deviant” activities, where Communist ideology was literally described as “diseased” (61), disabled characters were frequently given other characteristics that “marked” them as political, racial, or sexual outsiders (44-6).
Typically these characters would be drawn into the protagonist’s social circle and then eliminated by the end of the film. Such erasure implied, by extension, the triumph of the status quo and the “American” virtues represented by the hero (Davidson 45). However, Davidson extends his view of disabled bodies in ways that echo Deleuze’s notion of the “crystalline” image. He argues that these disabled bodies so often have an unsettling presence that they re-direct viewers’ minds to new ideas that may be equally as disturbing or subversive. In Davidson’s words, they create the “residual sensation of narratives that the film cannot represent or reconstitute” (45).
In the case of Avatar, when affinities are drawn between Sully and Quaritch, the new anxiety introduced into the narrative relates to the possibility of an unforeseen and invisible transformation. Will Sully’s mind be transformed by Quaritch’s promises, just as his body is being transformed by Augustine’s lab technicians? Is Quaritch’s assessment of Sully correct—is he essentially a self-serving traitor despite the apparent nobility of his deeds?
An optimistic reading of the film acknowledges that it seems to restore order through Sully’s defense of the Na’vi and Quaritch’s spectacular death. But the true nature of Sully’s motivations is, arguably, never resolved. In fact, the points at which viewers are left to wonder about his mental state are those at which Avatar aligns itself with Davidson’s noir films. At these moments of narrative doubt, Cameron’s film shows signs of being shaped by unexpressed anxieties connected to the larger political and historical context in which the film was made. Specifically, lingering doubts about Sully’s character reflect general anxieties about the fate of veterans during and after the War on Terror.
Looking at contemporary ideas about war and disability will give a sense of what anxieties might be “in the air” for Avatar viewers. Judging from the flood of articles about war injuries that began appearing in the mainstream press in 2006, concerns about the fate of returning veterans focued more and more on changes to their minds and personalities, thanks to new awareness about the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) — frequently dubbed the Iraq war’s “signature injury” (Bazell, 2006; Cooper 2006; Robertson 2006). Susan Okie’s “Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone” (from the New England Journal of Medicine, May 2005), for example, has a style typical of such reports. Okie blends graphic personal anecdotes with medical information in order to capture the average (health care) reader’s attention. She alerts readers that in current times, improvements in battlefield medicine have allowed veterans to survive horrific injuries that would have been fatal in earlier wars, and more of these injuries involve TBI than in earlier US conflicts (Okie, “Traumatic”).
“Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone” strikes a relatively optimistic note by focusing on the cases of Sergeant David Emme and Staff Sergeant Jason Pepper. Both men suffered severe injuries from improvised explosive devices in Iraq. A bomb exploded directly beside Emme’s truck. In an intensive care unit for two weeks following his injury, Emme had memory and speech problems, and he “[mistook] nurses for CIA agents or [believed] he was back in Baghdad” (Okie, “Traumatic”). Pepper’s injuries were even more horrific when an IED detonated in a tree next to his armoured personnel carrier: “It kind of detonated in my face,” he explains.
Despite the severity of their wounds, Emme and Pepper are success stories because they have become highly functional after a relatively short period of time. After five months, Emme’s vision has returned “almost to normal,” and his speech and cognitive functions have improved “dramatically.” Pepper’s recovery after a year is also described as “better-than-average” after multiple surgeries and rounds of therapy (Okie, “Traumatic”). Even so, the article is careful not to offer false hope. Colonel Jean Dailey, a nursing supervisor, cautions, “Not all of them recover. . . . [Some] may never be the same” (Okie, “Traumatic”). This assessment is all the more sobering because the veteran population with TBI is growing. The article estimates that roughly 22 percent of hospitalized veterans have symptoms of brain injury; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that “5.3 million Americans are living with disabilities that resulted from TBIs.” (Okie, “Traumatic”)
To be clear: If I argue for historical correspondences between Avatar’s portrayals of disability and heightened public anxieties about war injuries, this does not mean I see a stigmatizing ideology at the heart of Cameron’s film that demonizes veterans with TBI. I argue instead that public awareness of TBI has intensified a new and more generalized fear of diseases that have the potential to radically alter personality and that are neither easily diagnosed nor cured. (TBI often goes untreated because its symptoms may not manifest themselves immediately, and it can mimic the symptoms of diseases like depression and PTSD.) (Zaroya 1-2). This fear of an unidentifiable disease/disability has created new concerns about “national” health which mimics the “social panics about unruly bodies” that Davidson sees taking place during the Cold War era and which, at the level of cinematic representation, led to the proliferation of disabled characters in the noir films he analyses (45). In Avatar, we see the miraculous resolution of these anxieties in an utopia where aberrant personalities are easily identified and physical injuries are magically eliminated.