Sully passes his tests and is accepted as one of the Na’vi.
The double agent exposed: Tsu’tey prepares to kill Sully, declaring him a “demon” in a “false body.”
Switching sides, Sully attacks a company bulldozer.
Neytiri spurns Sully after she learns the true nature of his mission.
A quick way to tie together all the concepts discussed up to this point is to ask, “What does disability do to a story about Pandora?” To answer this question effectively, it helps to step back and consider the nature of the original story of Pandora. In his classic rendering of the original myth, Thomas Bullfinch includes two versions. In one, the woman Pandora opens a gift jar sent by vengeful gods, thereby releasing all evils into the world, shutting the jar in time to prevent only one blessing—hope—from escaping. But Bullfinch questions why one blessing would be placed in a jar of evil, so he declares “more probable” the version where what escapes from the jar are all the blessings meant to ensure humanity’s happiness, and the only divine gift left for a fallible world is hope (“Chapter II,” http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/bulf/bulf01.htm.)
Focusing on disability issues in Avatar creates another bifurcated myth that invites viewers to ponder the “true” nature of hope in a hostile world. The most positive version of the myth exploits the power of the Supercrip and Obsessive Avenger stereotypes to their fullest, in order to suggest that utopias are possible if we continue to develop benevolent technology and allow our best minds to use it.
According to disability analysts Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, disability stereotypes in film generally bolster an able-bodied audience’s “fantasy of bodily control,” a “fiction deeply seated in the desire for an impossible dominion over our own capacities” (186). At the risk of oversimplifying their ideas, what disabled characters “do” for/to nondisabled viewers, then, is allow them to react strongly to the disturbing spectacle or (perceived) threat of the disabled body in order to confirm that this threat is a threat to others, and that it can be kept at a distance or made to disappear entirely. Sully the Supercrip performs this function by making the unsettling problem of war injuries irrelevant. His actions “prove” that war injuries can be completely overcome by willpower and strength of character. In addition, the film’s science-fiction setting makes the threat of war and disability less frightening by projecting them into a far-flung, alien future. The film’s Supercrip narrative also holds out the hope that magical technologies, used by the right kind of people, will eventually eliminate disability altogether. When Sully transfers his soul into his Na’vi body, it is the ultimate Supercrip dream. What was once a prosthetic device is magically transformed into flesh and blood, leaving Sully unmarked and “normal” in the larger society.
Quaritch the Obsessive Avenger follows a similar plot trajectory to a different end. The scars on his face may initially function as badges of honor that confirm his status as an unstoppable warrior, but once he descends into madness, they become the outer symbol of his inner aberration, and he becomes a brother in spirit as well as body to characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Melville’s Ahab, and Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde and Long John Silver. His actions reinforce the paradoxically comforting idea that inner evil will always have a sign that “gives it away,” which makes his violent death not only appropriate but also comforting to able-bodied viewers.
But Avatar also destabilizes its comforting fantasies by including elements that invite viewers to recognize the Supercrip and the Obsessive Avenger as unrealistic caricatures. The weakness of ableist thinking is exposed through the film’s development of its theme of “waking up” and “seeing” the truth. This metaphor posits truth as something concrete that can be comprehended visually. An unquestioned belief in the power of visual recognition lies at the heart of all ableist stereotyping that obsessively “reads” deformed or wounded bodies and assigns them to categories of good or evil. After initially declaring its allegiance to this idea, the film presents us with key moments when visual recognition of character fails:
This deus ex machina ending adds the finishing touch to the mix of garish visuals and melodrama that more than one critic described as “overwhelming,” to the point that many reviews discount the idea that the film has any coherent “message” at all (Dykes 2009.) In fact, this glaring fictionality of Avatar’s components opens an avenue of interpretation for a darker message.
To see Avatar’s darkest side, one must re-examine the “time images” that the film presents in its opening, images that disrupt the audience’s ability to fix the time and place from which Sully is speaking. The film confronts us with darkness. We hear the ululation of an alien song. Then Sully’s monologue about dreams of freedom begins. We see the aerial shots of Pandora. Then, we are plunged into darkness again with only Sully’s voice: “But, sooner or later, you always have to wake up.” Then we see Sully inside his cryogenic chamber.
However, he is not alone. After a succession of shots showing his eyes, head and shoulders, there is a lingering medium shot that shows two beads of water. They hang in the air above Sully’s face, and as we watch, they coalesce. If we follow the path suggested by the “classical” interpretation of these images, these beads of water are gratuitous special effects, thrown in to simply show off the film’s virtuosity at suggesting a zero-gravity environment.
But reading these scenes as “time images”—images designed to disrupt a conventional narrative and suggest things “outside” the screen that cannot be easily represented—such a reading allows us to see these inexplicable beads of moisture as Sully’s tears. And as tears, they disrupt the fabric of the narrative even further because they are an impossibility.
Sully’s tears are an impossibility because of the next thing he tells us: “In cryo, you don’t dream at all.” Sully’s tears could not exist in his cryogenic chamber because without the ability to dream, Sully could not have experienced the sadness necessary to weep. The most optimistic reading of these tears is that they represent a conscious violation of the film’s science-fiction logic. They are a momentary intrusion of the supernatural into the technological world of cryogenic space travel, to foreshadow that other forces will shape Sully’s life. He is granted the privilege of having a vision of Pandora in his cryogenic sleep because he is Eywa’s chosen savior.
Behind this utopian idea, there is a deeper shadow. Sully in his cryogenic chamber dreams and weeps because he is not in a cryogenic chamber. He is a wounded veteran, unseen in a world too much like our own, lying in bed, trapped in a dream. The two blackouts that open the film and initiate Sully into the high-tech world of Avatar are not simply used in the style of classical montage to suggest a condensation and moving forward of time. They are the representations of physical blackouts as Sully’s traumatized mind struggles to regain consciousness in an unknown VA hospital.
As he struggles, bits of another reality intrude into the dream through speech. Characters use the 21st century terms “jarhead” and “shock and awe,” and the fearsome Colonel Quaritch adapts lines from the Wizard of Oz to welcome his troops: “You are not in Kansas any more. You are on Pandora.” But unlike Dorothy from the older film, Sully loses his struggle to return home and falls deeper into a fantasy from which he never “wakes up” to “see” reality. It is a dream of heroic struggle and ultimate redemption, where a monolithic war machine is destroyed by a handful of rebels in a hallucinogenic world where magic heals all wounds and disabled bodies disappear painlessly and permanently.
Ultimately, an analysis of disability in Avatar redefines its genre rather than its ideology. The film becomes a parody of classic works that try to send “inspirational” messages about war and wounded veterans. Its darkest “time images” create a tale that validates Bullfinch’s “improbable” version of the Pandora myth. We learn that hope is an unexpected kind of evil, one giving us faith in utopian promises and technological miracles while leading us further down paths of suffering from which there are no apparent escapes.