“Avatar” Depression: A response I wrote to something someone said somewhere else

January 15, 2010

Image from James Cameron's "Avatar"“Avatar Depression”, such as it is, should not be ridiculed. No, I’m not going to argue that these people actually have lives and such; rather, I would point to the tragic implications. Life in these modern times is basically unsatisfactory for almost everyone. Neuroses are a bit like sins; if you claim to be without any, you’re enacting it.

But what if life is so unsatisfactory that people seek escapist cures? Now, wait; this isn’t so odd in and of itself—what do you think religion is? One could easily, and somewhat soundly, theorize that modern life is so challenging to the primal instinct that people really don’t have much for an outlet. Yes, Avatar is dazzling and full of hope and promise; yes, it reflects much we wish could be true about this world, and if it was we probably wouldn’t be the defiantly moronic species we are.

There was a short film I saw maybe ten years ago. I couldn’t tell you the title or director; it was part of a series on our local PBS outlet. The film was a black-and-white animated picture in which a society had become so focused on productivity that the people existed solely for the benefit of productive capacity. Citizens were expected to work, and through their work find freedom insofar as if you’re working, you’re not worrying about anything else. One laborer, though, would amuse himself at night by making shadow-plays on the wall with his hands. He was discovered. The authorities cut off his hands. So he made shadow plays with his feet. The authorities discovered this, and cut off his feet. The film ends, as I recall, with this armless, legless man alone in his quarters, contriving a new way to make shadow plays.

The human psyche cannot be healthy if its access to fantasy and creativity is too restricted. Some of this conflict is bound up in our politics. The foil-wearing hippie dystopia my father’s generation of anti-communists feared is a creative utopia, in which people are free to pursue creative ventures. My father and his kind dreamed of an idyll in which everyone was free to make as much money as possible. As society has leaned more and more toward that definition of freedom, many people have become more and more frustrated by what they see as a lack of humanity in human institutions. Various laments over the years have hinted after the problem; the idea of people being reduced to mere numbers, for instance, is a fairly prominent embodiment of the conflict people are perceiving. They feel less and less like human beings, and more and more like mere assets.

An image from James Cameron's "Avatar"As movies go, Avatar is at least as big as Star Wars: A New Hope. In 1977, people had never seen anything quite like it. Certainly, its scale can be found in earlier examples; This Island Earth, for instance, undoubtedly influenced George Lucas to some degree. But the intimacy, the immersion, the ability to forget that this was, in fact, not real, had tremendous impact on its fans. I saw Avatar in 3-D; I cannot imagine seeing this film without the effect. That I will someday gives ample opportunity for comparison, but thinking back at how Star Wars affected action and fantasy, I can only wonder at the long term impact Avatar will have on creativity and the marketplace.

The ashes seemed a mere two inches in front of my face. The seeds it seemed I could reach out and pluck from the air. As immersion goes, I haven’t seen anything like this in over thirty years. And how much of an artwork the audience feels, compared to how much people see, has much bearing on the work’s efficacy and durability. Avatar doesn’t just rate highly on both counts; it may well be off the scale.

In this sense, Avatar has greater range for a viewer to fall into than, say, a romantic murder thriller.

    “I wasn’t depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy,” Baghdassarian said. “But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.”

    A post by a user called Elequin expresses an almost obsessive relationship with the film.

    “That’s all I have been doing as of late, searching the Internet for more info about ‘Avatar.’ I guess that helps. It’s so hard I can’t force myself to think that it’s just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na’vi will never happen. I think I need a rebound movie,” Elequin posted.

    A user named Mike wrote on the fan Web site “Naviblue” that he contemplated suicide after seeing the movie.

    “Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” Mike posted. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.'”

    Other fans have expressed feelings of disgust with the human race and disengagement with reality.


Depression and unhappiness are curious experiences. Generally speaking, a depressive often needs to have their condition pointed out to them. For many of those suffering “Avatar blues”, one thing we must wonder is how often they come face to face with their inner emotions. Disgust with the human race is nothing new. Escapism and disengagement with reality is nothing new. Frustration with humanity’s fall from mythical grace is nothing new. Read the Bible sometime, or witness the theme playing out in literature.

    What do you think is become of the art of forcing the thunder and celestial fire down, which the wise Prometheus had formerly invented? ‘Tis most certain you have lost it; ’tis no more on your hemisphere; but here below we have it. And without a cause you sometimes wonder to see whole towns burned and destroyed by lightning and ethereal fire, and are at a loss about knowing from whom, by whom, and to what end those dreadful mischiefs were sent. Now, they are familiar and useful to us; and your philosophers who complain that the ancients have left them nothing to write of or to invent, are very much mistaken. Those phenomena which you see in the sky, whatever the surface of the earth affords you, and the sea, and every river contain, is not to be compared with what is hid within the bowels of the earth.


We long for an idyll that, most likely, never was in any real dimension. It is part of the human experience, and from these various idylls we have invented justice, named compassion, forged sympathy. Our experience on this world is far different from that of the Na’vi of Pandora. The symbiosis of nature on that world is far different from our own. Such overt cooperation between species is foreign to our experience; the tragedy of human competition, as opposed to the perceived blessing of cooperation, is a result of natural demand.

Think of it this way: In the fantasy world of Dragaera, authored by Steven Brust, citizens of the Empire have access to sorcery. As a result, certain technology is not necessary. Telephones, airplanes, and cameras, for instance, don’t exist in Dragaera. And why should they, when you have psychic communication, teleportation, and psiprints—all devices of sorcery—instead?

Were we able to plug into a natural network, such as we see in Avatar, how differently would we relate to nature? Would we seek dominion over it, as our traditions suggest? Or would those traditions have found a partner instead of either a master or subordinate?

The problem suggested by “Avatar blues” is simply one of the acuity of people’s disenchantment with their own modern lives. They see no hope of transforming their own world, so they seek refuge in another. And if that ache for something better becomes so sharp, it certainly can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.

It is easy enough to look down on those so affected by a mere movie, but much more daunting a notion to acknowledge why. Finding solutions, of course, is a Sisyphan exercise that might actually warrant suicide, were Sisyphus not so damnably happy.

What we are witnessing with “Avatar depression” is the expression of particularly acute pangs of the psyche. These people are sad. No, not the colloquial condemnation that something is just sad. They are actually in some stage of grief, and seeking refuge from the hurt.

Yes, the idea might seem annoying, but so does nearly any challenge that people disdain.


One comment

  1. Nice job, Brian!
    You’ve hit the nail on my head.
    When I walked out of Avatar, I was struck in my Psychologist head by the juxtaposition of two events. One, the Surpreme Court turning over the political system to multinational corporations, and two, the apparent sociopathic behavior of some of these corporations (a major theme in Avatar.)
    Could “Avatar depression” be an unconscious symptom showing us where America is?

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