"When I was lying in the V.A. hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But sooner or later, you always have to wake up." – Jake Sully, Avatar
This opening dialogue from James Cameron’s “game changing” blockbuster sets up the troubling dichotomy that pervades the film: Sully’s paraplegia is in direct opposition to his desire to be free. Hence, YouTube user AJewelledGirl’s admonition in this video excerpt: “F--k Broken Bodies.” (1)
In a movie celebrated for its visual imagination and technological innovation, the future of those with disabilities remains couched in conventional ableist terms. Despite its widespread use of CGI, the film casts Jake in what many wheelchair users have noted is a circa 1990s chair, operated by an able-bodied actor. It’s not enough that Jake’s the psychological inferior of his twin brother; to be a true hero, he must be physically “inferior” as well.
The film furthers its ableist representations by pitting portrayals of the mechanically-assisted body against “natural,” organic bodies. Mechanical technology aligns with the villainous corporate-military complex, and flesh-and-blood bodies with the altruism of scientific exploration and the victimized Na’vi. The wheelchair, as a mechanical substitution for legs, serves as a symbolic reminder of Jake’s status as victim and pawn in the corporation's oppressive regime. In this narrative world, a body aided by equipment cannot succeed; only the “naturally” able will win.
Ultimately, in Avatar, disability is a condition that must be escaped. Jake's disability is exploited for suspense in the climactic battle scene, as his useless human legs prevent him from reaching his life-saving breathing apparatus. He succeeds not with his disability, but in spite of it. His ultimate act is to abandon his own species (or “race,” as the film has it), transcending his “defective” body to become a Na’vi himself, and fully rising to the status of (able-bodied) hero.
As developments in CGI technology enable greater fidelity to "real life" (and the life of the imagination), the absence of heroic, differently abled bodies in cinema becomes more difficult to defend. AJewelledGirl sardonically calls out these shortcomings, asking, “Mr. James Cameron, if you can build all these things… robots and whatever else is in the movie…” why can’t you build a world that simply embraces the body with a disability?