Although there are many things I could critique about James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar, I’ll limit myself to a discussion of his principal character, Jake Sully.
Although there is an archetype known as the Wounded Healer, I think it would be a mistake to assign this title to Jake. As we will see, “healing” is not what Jake brings to the situation. But he is wounded, and this is something that needs changing, which indicates that Jake is archetypically a Transformer. I have said that all doctor stories are likely to be about Transformers, but not all stories with a Transformer figure are doctor (or healing) stories.
Jake enters the story as a replacement. His scientist twin brother has died, and rather than waste the large amount of funds used to create the Pandoran avatar, the runners of the program have decided to plug in the genetically compatible Jake. The fact that Jake is bound to a wheelchair doesn’t matter to them, because the Riders lie in a unit while linked to their avatar.
But everyone (except the malicious Colonel) overlooks the fact that what Jake wants more than anything is to walk again. The moment he wakes in the Na’vi avataar form, he is fascinated by the transformation, expressed in wiggling his new toes.
But Jake is a Transformer and things change because he is present. He pays no attention to the warnings to go slow. Instead he gets to his feet, excited to be able to move freely again, discounting the problems that go with being a ten-foot tall, tailed biped.
The balance in the Avatar program gets changed by the fact that Jake is a trained soldier. Whereas before all the Avatar Riders were scientists, Jake’s position as a soldier gives him a different point of view and a different way of reacting to the experience. He changes the course of events simply by being that person. Because he is chased by animals and separated from the rest of the team, everyone expects Jake to die in the Pandoran wilderness. Instead, his soldier’s survival training kicks in and he manages to fend fairly well for himself.
It is because he can fend for himself (in spite of not understanding the impact of death in the Pandoran biosphere) that Neytiri’s opinion of him is transformed. She knows he is an outworlder (his Na’vi body has five fingers per hand as hers does not), and as such she was ready to kill him herself or leave him to die. But his determination not to go down catches her attention.
Neytiri’s attitude is transformed even further when the flowers of the Spirit Tree settle on Jake in large numbers. He goes quickly from swatting them away as a nuisance to being the one they are drawn to and accepting them.
Jake transforms his own mindset as he learns more about the ways of the Na’vi. When daring is needed to inspire the Na’vi after Hometree is destroyed, Jake takes it upon himself to bond with a Toruk, the largest Pandoran flying beast.
His arrival before the refugees turns their hatred of his betrayal (he had told the Colonel about Hometree) into awe and a willingness to follow him.
And that is his final transformation in the story, from the human grunt soldier to the Na’vi warleader.
Jake transforms the situation, to be sure, leading the Na’vi in an assault that defeats the human mechanical forces. But again, the transformations he brings are not those of healing, rather of combat and conflict. He brings destruction down on the Na’vi, and then, changing his allegience, he brings destruction and banishment down on the humans.
He does change things by being present — which is the definition of the Transformer archetype.
All pictures property of Twentieth Century-Fox.