Back in 2009, director James Cameron released the first Avatar movie to great success. Avatar shook the film industry with its ambitious world-building and revolutionary 3D technology. More than a decade later, the release of the long-awaited sequel in December 2022 brought fans back to Pandora for an even more immersive experience. Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time ($2.92 billion worldwide), followed by The Way of Water in seventh position (over $1.5 billion worldwide to this day). Although both films were generally well received by audiences, some viewers reported mixed feelings about their experience. As early as 2010, a topic thread called “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible” on the forum site Avatar Forums received more than 1,000 replies from people experiencing so-called post-Avatar blues. This “post-Avatar depression syndrome” (PADS) was then observed again after the release of The Way of Water. So what is really so special about Avatar?
Although “post-Avatar depression syndrome” is not recognized as an official medical condition, the feelings of depression experienced by some viewers are genuine. Cameron’s groundbreaking movie transported his audiences to a place that had never been seen before: Pandora’s colourful and majestic world. The euphoria of being virtually immersed in the life of the Na’vi was followed by a gloomy reality check for some viewers. The earth seemed gray and dull, and humankind felt restrictive compared to the life experienced by Avatar’s blue humanoids. Although some of Pandora’s scenes were inspired by real locations, other aspects make it seem like an unreachable, fantastical paradise. The coexistence of three moons, bioluminescent wildlife, reduced gravity, and a treasure of natural resources all contribute to this world’s magic. Variety reports a fan’s experience after seeing Avatar for the first time: “I felt like that was an amazing dream, but now I had to wake up. I had to return to the doldrum of reality, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my adult life.”
The post-Avatar blues deeply affected this viewer, but he explains that finding a support network through an Avatar fans’ Discord server helped him recognize his mental health troubles. This shared feeling of disconnect from nature, dissatisfaction with modern life, and worries about our planet’s future could partially be explained by the Avatar experience being a form of escapism, or mental diversion, from the unpleasant socioeconomic and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Following the 2008 recession, Avatar allowed people to find comfort in an imaginary and immersive experience. Similarly, The Way of Water was released after two years of consecutive lockdowns and restricted travel. Additionally, both films find themselves in the context of the climate crisis and amid widespread feelings of climate anxiety. The fast transition from our reality to such an idealized version of it could intensify the ensuing disillusionment, and thus partly explain the symptoms of depression experienced by some fans.
Dr. Quentzel, a New York psychiatrist, attempted to explain this phenomenon in 2010: “It has taken the best of our technology to create this virtual world, and real life will never be as utopian as it seems onscreen. It makes real life seem more imperfect.”
The first Avatar was the most ambitious filmmaking project of all time, and it revolutionized cinema through a unique 3D technology to create an immersive experience. Cameron wrote his first script for Avatar in 1995, hoping to push the boundaries of cinematic digital effects. Although 3D shooting was still premature in 2009, his team developed a new system called Fusion Camera to shoot features in stereoscopic 3D, trying to replicate what we see with our own eyes. It was also the first movie shot directly with 3D cameras. This was essential for Cameron, who reports: “We experience the world through a stereoscopic system […] visual system (we all have two eyes) and when you see stereo, it triggers regions in the brain that make you feel that you are really there. […] We want to take you to Pandora and feel it and smell it so that you can go on a real journey, and 3D imaging helps with that. […] People want to go to the cinema and have a full experience, not 90%, but 100%.”
For the first Avatar, Cameron also developed an original technique where dots were painted on the actors’ faces to allow motion capture to record their facial expressions. But Cameron’s ambitions were bigger, and technology was pushed even further in making The Way of Water. The sequel was shot in 3D using a high-frame rate (HFR), with major scenes playing at 48 frames per second and slower dialogue scenes at the industry standard of 24 frames per second. HFR creates 3D action scenes that feel incredibly immersive and can even make you forget that the vibrant wildlife of Pandora isn’t real.
Although Avatar’s technology allows its audience to fully enter Pandora and escape from reality for a few hours, the contrasting aftermath can intensify preexisting feelings of climate anxiety among viewers and accelerate this Avatar blues. Ken Wu, the co-founder of Ancient Forest Alliance (a Canadian-based non-profit organization dedicated to protecting British Columbia’s old-growth forests), came up with a three-step cure for PADS: “Get out and experience nature, take action to defend nature and get others to do the same.” Fans have also started sharing tips on reducing consumption and engaging with the natural world. The Way of Water could also raise a wave of ocean-saving activism: Disney and Avatar launched a global “Keep Our Oceans Amazing” campaign to raise awareness of the challenges facing oceans and marine life and to support the work of The Nature Conservancy (Nature United in Canada). Avatar is thus a multi-faceted movie, providing escapism to its audience and yet also relaying an important message about environmental urgency. Pop culture filmmaking has grown increasingly engaged, as political and economic upheavals surely precipitated American filmmaking. For instance, The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 as an allegory of American politics in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Its fantasy allowed the audience to escape economic troubles and yet regain hope in the nation’s future.
Everyone gets to engage in a uniquely immersive and personalized experience with Cameron’s latest blockbuster. If you haven’t done so already, this is your sign to put on your 3D glasses and experience Avatar: The Way of Water yourself in theatres. Otherwise, the countdown has begun for Avatar 3, to be released on December 20, 2024!