On Avatar

I was recently interviewed by the New York Times on the topic of James Cameron’s Avatar. Since then, people have reached out to me and asked about it, so I figured I should write a bit about my experience and thoughts on the movie!

I first saw Avatar during its premiere, in early January of 2010. At the time I was still living in Sweden, just about to turn 18, and entirely unaware of the turns my life would come to take as a result.

The next day after I had first seen the film, I still remember being filled with a puzzling sense of emptiness. There was a clear feeling of having lost something, or perhaps found a longing for something I never knew I wanted. It didn’t take me all too long to connect these feelings to Avatar, and it also didn’t take me long to find a community of people who were experiencing something similar.

This was avatar-forums.com. Its original founders had little attachment to the movie, but the community quickly grew to become a family reaching far beyond discussing Avatar itself. I distinctly recall coming across this community, seeing people talk about the same feelings of longing, and truly, really feeling a sense of home.

Ultimately, alongside a few others I left Avatar-Forums in March 2010 to form Tree of Souls, an independent Avatar forum which I now run by myself to this day. The reasons for this split were stupid in hindsight – small disagreements over how things should be run that ended up being blown out of proportion – nonetheless, ever since then I have had a second home in the Tree of Souls community.

The Tree of Souls internet forum.
Tree of Souls today.

During the first few months in these emerging Avatar communities, what stood out to me was just how little it resembled a stereotypical fan community. Sure, there was lots of superficial discussion on the intricacies of the movie’s plot, worldbuilding, visuals and so on – but in a way it almost felt secondary to the real draw of the community, which was the community itself. Getting to know each other and talking about everything under the sun became a much greater part of things than discussing the movie.

We were of all ages, from all over the world, and from many walks of life. In the early days of the Avatar community when we spoke of what we loved about the movie, it seemed less important what the movie actually contained, and more so how it made you feel. When asked how a movie such as Avatar could elicit such a deep and meaningful emotional connection, a part of this answer has to be that, well, it wasn’t just about Avatar.

Some parts were, though, and none of them drew more attention than the much-publicized “Avatar depression”. CNN wrote a piece on it in January 2010 in which I was quoted, and for a little while it made the rounds across news outlets around the world.

My statements at the time were, although genuine, clearly cherry-picked for effect. There was quite a sensationalist streak across all of this reporting, and at the time I certainly wished things had been portrayed a bit differently! Still, for a longer time there were very real feelings of melancholy, longing and loss. Others were feeling the same as well. Why was this? To understand this I think we need to look a bit at what made the movie so special to many people.

When talking about Avatar and the extent it has affected the past decade of my life, it can often come across as somewhat incredulous – it’s not necessarily the kind of work of fiction that one would think of in terms of being life-changing.

Indeed I am often met with comments regarding the movie being formulaic, derivative and shallow. The thing is though, while these statements are not necessarily wrong, they assume that discussing a film always has the goal of convincing the other part of its objective quality. When I talk about my love for Avatar, it is not mainly a love of its particular script, characterization, or cinematography. It’s a love of being so emotionally immersed into another world for two hours that this very experience gives me a new appreciation for life. It says more about the place in my life and state of mind I was when I first saw the film, than the film itself.

Yes, the story has been told before, and Avatar is absolutely formulaic, but all these things are in service of the overall experience – which is almost solely about immersion and a sense of wonder. Stephen Lang said this very well in a recent interview where he mentioned that he really saw his character of Miles Quaritch as a function rather than a character. And that’s exactly what it needs to be – not all film has to be seen through the same lens or valued for the same aspects.

I think the most important point to be made is that works of art can be appreciated in different ways and for different reasons – and the way I appreciate Avatar is completely different than the way I appreciate more narrative or character-driven films.

More so than its individual parts, what truly made Avatar impactful is how all these parts worked together towards making you feel part of the world it presented. To watch Avatar was to completely lose yourself on Pandora for 2 hours and 40 minutes – to be so immersed that the simple feeling of being there had a greater impact than what you saw, how the story progressed, or how the movie performed from a cinematic point of view.

Not everyone will feel the same, and that’s completely fine! The last 13 years I’ve often encountered Avatar fans who feel like they need to “defend” the film against its critics, but I think this is a bit of a misstep. Everyone is free to form their own opinions and experiences, and it’s fine to not all like the same things! Even at Tree of Souls my policy has always been that you don’t have to actually like Avatar to be part of it – in fact many of the most interesting conversations on the community has been with people who can in a respectful way talk about the movie’s flaws and understand how different people can see it differently.

So where does this leave the idea of “Avatar depression”? I think that simply put, for most people who experienced this sort of thing it wasn’t really about Avatar. It was more so that we each were at a particular place in our lives where something already felt lacking or not quite figured out yet, and the incredible immersion of the film was simply a catalyst to start reflecting over these things. And for most people, what started out as a feeling of longing or sadness was gradually replaced with a newfound sense of appreciation of the world around us.

After the first tumultuous year following Avatar, my life changed fast. The next year I met my future wife on the Tree of Souls IRC chat channel. In 2014 we got married, and a year later we moved to the United States. Today we still live together with a home and life of our own, and in a way I have Avatar to thank for all of this.

I like to think of Avatar – or at least the role it played in my life – as cathartic escapism. An unexpected experience of being somewhere completely different and just allowing yourself to be. This kind of experience transcends generations, but it’s less about the specifics of Avatar and more about people. Since then, I have spoken to others who referred to the same kind of catharsis after first watching or reading Lord of the Rings, or traveling somewhere that gave them a new perspective on life, or any number of things.

Avatar is not unique, but it is special to me. And when I reflect on it, I think perhaps less of the movie and more of the few years following it – in every way, it is a chapter of my life. And that is something I would never have any other way.