Monday, September 17, 2012



“Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.”

- Jake Sully’s vidlog

James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster Avatar is a perfect example of everything this blog is about: disabilty, cultural analysis and sci-fi. Through Alien Eyes is an expression of how I view myself as a person with a disability and the world around me. When the paralyzed marine Jake Sully looks at the world, he looks at it through alien eyes literally. Now, I know Avatar’s overall message gets mocked for being Pocohantas in Space among other things, but I need to discuss how well it crafted its fantasy world, exhibits culture shock, and shows the human world of the future.

The visuals in Pandora are amazing. They have depth, beauty, and make you feel as though you’ve transported into that Na’vi alien avatar. But the culture shock actually happens before Jake is in that body. he has to relearn everything through Neytiri, who calls him a moron. (Since I don’t speak Na’vi, I won’t attempt a spelling.) She makes him see the beauty and literal interconnectedness of the planet.

Now, rave reviews and bad reviews have already been written about Avatar’s visuals: this is an intercultural review. So, the first thing that I noticed when I watched it was that the culture shock process happens. Twice. In reverse. So, it is backwards, as Jake says. Let me explain.

The first scene is a monologue in a bar as he explains that he has fallen on hard times, and no matter how good his dreams are, he wakes up. He is recruited for the Avatar Program after his twin brother is killed and they need him to replace his twin. That gives him a second chance to give his life meaning, but immediately he is marginalized again by the RDA soldiers and called “meals on wheels” and “cripple”. Even after he meets the team of anthropologists, and learns about the Na’vi way of life, he’s not sure he can “do the science”. So, where he once had a new chance at a fulfilling life, he again feels dejected, as evident in his statement that it feels backwards. But, when he gets into the Na’vi body, he’s exhilarated and full of life. Also, when he meets Neytiri, he instantly feels a bound with her and tries to apologize for hurting the other animals. This can be said to be out of love, but he goes further and actively peruses membership in the culture by taming the turok, learning the Na’vi language (which he becomes fluent in!) and harmonious worldview. So that when he is out of his Avatar, he again feels out of place.

Culture shock has no “stages” in actuality, but we can often tell to what degree a person has adapted by the degree of participation that he/she chooses and why. From there we may proceed to model a “stage” of culture shock. Even when Jake encounters competition from other tribe members such as Neytiri’s suitor Tsuteh, he is not deterred. He goes out of his way, even questioning his mission (to gain Unobtainium, and move out the natives.) to become a tribe member. I think it’s the Na’vi way of life that attracts Jake as well as Neytiri. The communicate with their planet electrochemically, so that everything has a voice and stability. Which is ironic since the avatar literally is a shell.

They see their environment as connected as the body, in a way as just a shell. That appeals to Jake because it allows increased physical participation. Back at the RDA, he is tired of the selfish moves of the company, and even devises a plan to evacuate the tribe before the military moves in. The anthropologists seem on board, which is perhaps his second cultural adjustment. He has to act as a negotiator. But, when Col. Quartich unexpectedly gases the tribe out of their home tree, he fights against the military. So, that’s the second switch again. Quartich tries to stab Jake’s Avatar, but he’s rescued by Neytiri. The concluding action scene is awesome, but raises a question for me: Why does Jake have a manual chair in 2154, if the army has giant robots? A minor detail, but it makes up for the superficial Pocahantas plot, which is still too long in my opinion.

After that, he and Neytiri defeat the invasion force. The colonel dies of Neytiri’s toxic arrow. Jake announces on the vidlog that he won’t be coming back to the RDA and is transferred permanently to his Avatar. The humans are expelled from Pandora. Say what you will about the plot and its similarity to Pocahantas, it is a potent look into a different world. When you take the time to make an almost entirely 3-D movie, hire a linguist to invent a language, and populate it with alien plants, animals, and natives, you’re going to end up on an alien planet. That’s what James Cameron did, and that’s why the movie works. Because everything is beautiful and new.

Neytiri is in a sense, not only Jake’s love interest, but his guide through the new world. Though she’s resistant at first, she teaches him to “see” the world around him, as interconnected. As not just a body, but “seeing” through it, and recognizing that he is one of their own. She grows to love him precisely because he actively learns and participates. More important, Jake is able to more actively participate as the avatar, in spite of his trials. On Earth, he is more limited, and socially isolated. I predict that soon, more humans will try to understand the Na’vi and come back, perhaps in Avatar 2. Jake will no doubt become torn between defending what he considers his home now, and understanding a culture that he has become alien to as time passes.

In the end, my model for avatar’s culture shock is based on increasing active participation. And he participates not only because he’s more able, but because he wants to learn, and is completely unhindered by disability stigma. Though, he may have human stigma. And the human culture became foreign and strange. Because he understood the Na’vi values and way of life more than the RDA’s greed. The adjustment period was similar, he found someone to understand him (the anthropologists) and the source of the shock was different in both cases. Nevertheless, the more Jake understood the culture, the more he became accepted, but it was his defense of Pandora that identified him perhaps finally as Na’vi.

Active participation is a crucial part of cultural identity. I think this film demonstrates that quite well. It is full of living sci-fi cultures, and because we see through Jake’s eyes, the dream becomes reality. It literally happens through alien eyes. But, those eyes become his own. He will learn to see “both” ways, I predict. The James Cameron Earth of 2154 is full of good people as well as evil. After all, he is dependent on Earth technology to maintain the avatar. I’d like to see Earth be that beautiful and new alien planet to Jake!

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