In January, 2010, en route to becoming the highest-grossing motion picture of all time, director James Cameron's massive sci-fi blockbuster Avatar stirred up some truly bizarre Internet drama. In online forums dedicated to the film, fans disclosed a new pathology of hopelessness. In a post titled, "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible," they discussed their profound sadness at not being able to literally travel to Pandora – the thickly forested jungle moon where Avatar lays its scene, and to run, leap and gambol among the movie's elongated, blue-skinned extraterrestrial naturals, the Na'vi.
"When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time," one user wrote, "the world seemed grey. It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning." Some had been so affected by the lush, largely computer-generated beauty of Pandora that they had lost the will to live. One such acutely disconsolate fanatic wrote, "I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed [sic] in a world similar to Pandora [where] everything is the same as in Avatar." Another user described losing sexual interest in his wife, his affections having been captured by Neytiri, the CGI Na'vi leader played by actress Zoe Saldana. Major news outlets reported on the phenomenon. They called it "the Avatar Blues."
Chalk it up to the same cultural epidemic of regressive, infantile thinking that sees fully matured adults applauded for tweeting, "Trump = Voldemort," sure. But the widespread bouts of Avatar-related depression speak to what legacy the film exerts.
Beyond its legendary profitability and the net-negative impact it had on filmmaking and filmgoing at large (see: the scramble to postconvert every Hollywood blockbuster in dim, dizzying 3-D), Avatar's cultural footprint is surprisingly small. Other blockbusters contribute to a broader social language. Everyone knows who Luke Skywalker and Captain America are. Everyone gets chills (whether good or bad) when the telltale flutes of My Heart Will Go On waft in. It would be difficult for anyone in the developed West to go a day without encountering a Minion on a T-shirt or an iPhone case. But Avatar, despite its ostensible dollars-and-cents popularity, exerts no such sway. Like: Do kids play with toys sculpted in the image of Jake Sully or – imagine me frantically googling the phrase "Avatar character names" here – Colonel Miles Quaritch? Do they dress as Neytiri for Halloween?
Avatar provided something more elusive. Nobody cared about the stock characters or its mish-mashed, rehashed enviro-colonialism parable. It was experiential. What Avatar was about was the experience of watching it. It was the rare 3-D blockbuster that was actually good; that totally, joyously immersed the viewer in its convincingly realized computer-animated world. Seeing it in the theatre with my best friend while we glugged child-sized (that is: the size of a human child) root beers and slapped each other on the back and howled like morons ranks among one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences of my life.
Who wouldn't want to go back there? Who wouldn't take another chance to get caught in the vertiginous whoosh of a diving 3-D camera and duck and weave among floating mountains, or bask in the radiant bioluminescence of the flora and fauna? Who wouldn't pay to see the dream of Pandora made tangible?
Well, thanks to the commercial magic of Disney Parks, now you can. Sort of.
"From the moment I first saw the film," said Walt Disney Company chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as he addressed the media gathered at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando on Wednesday, "I believed Pandora was real. I wanted to visit there."
It seems Iger himself suffered a touch of the Avatar Blues. Or just can't differentiate between real life and the movies, maybe? Even stranger: This disjoint between the cerulean 3-D dream of Pandora and the numbing greys and beiges of real life has become a selling point as Walt Disney World christened its newest attraction, Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opens its doors (or mossy, alien-tree boughs) to the public on Saturday.
Cameron (also in attendance, dressed in a frumpy floral-printed shirt like some billionaire uber-dad) echoed the sentiment. "For me," he bellowed, "This is literally a dream come true!" Cameron explained how, at 19, he dreamed of a glowing forest filled with "bioluminescent" plants, which he immediately set about drafting in a sketchpad. The realization of this teenage reverie – even more so than the Avatar movie, or its forthcoming sequel – is Disney's Pandora.
Here we can walk through carefully sculpted, exhaustively detailed, thoroughly " Imagineered" (a Disney-brand portmanteau that basically means "engineered" but in a way that's, you know, more magical) gardens of Cameron's dreamscape while sipping on a Pandora Grog Ale (beer, but dyed green) and munching on a cheeseburger pod (like a cheeseburger, but jammed in a dumpling wrapper and steamed). Cameo appearances during the advance media preview by Avatar stars Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington (who I spotted at one point pushing an empty baby carriage, slumped over like any stereotypically stressed-out Disney dad), and that actor from Grandma's Boy, further fuelled the verisimilitude.
When Cameron thrust his Oscar in the air in 1998, arrogantly howling, "I'm the king of the world! Wooooo!" he may have been underselling himself. More than a king of Hollywood or a box-office conquering titan, Cameron is a kind of a god – the prime mover behind Disney's latest, greatest, immersive spectacle.
Pandora succeeds in this immersion. It may be trite to say, but ambling through the park's 12 acres, one feels transported to another planet. It's decked out in gorgeous-looking plants shooting misty spores into the air, dotted with Grinch trees and puffball plants and other such Dr. Seuss-ian perennials. Disney employees (or "cast members" as they're known, for reasons that seem only slightly insidious) are outfitted as tour guides for the fictional Alpha Centauri Expeditions, happily explaining the native plants and animals, or merely swooshing their dreadlocked manes around, waving gnarled oak walking sticks at the enormous floating mountain diorama beaming, "They're alllllll connected!" like some stoned Deadhead uncle. One cast member commented on my visible tattoos, saying that I must be a brave warrior, and thus correctly inferring that I am tough, strong and cool. It feels vaguely offensive and appropriative. But mostly, it's just patently silly.
Pandora's two main attractions are the Pirates of the Caribbean-style boat ride called Na'vi River Journey, and an aviation simulator called Avatar Flight of Passage. In the hype leading up to Wednesday's media preview, there was much whispering about just how exciting Flight of Passage is. It's certainly difficult to oversell. A 3-D motion ride that sees park guests bonded to a banshee – a feathery, sky-lizard creature native to Pandora – Flight of Passage wonderfully realizes that breathless engrossment that made Avatar itself so entertaining. It's not only an extension of the film but an improvement upon it, paring back all the saggy narrative bulk and boring characterization, and diving (that is: literally diving) into the wondrous CGI visuals of Pandora and the flabbergasted thrill of feeling totally inside the action. All one can do is hold fast to their banshee, cackle like a fool and try in earnest not to take the Lord's name in vain.
When Avatar was released in cinemas it was equally lauded and loathed for being so much like a ride. Now, to use Cameron's favourite superlative (and my own), it literally is. And with respect to mighty stalwarts such as Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Flight of Passage is easily Disney World's most genuinely thrilling, exultantly fun ride.
Indeed, it seems impossible to compare Pandora: The World of Avatar to Disney's more old-fangled attractions, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or The Hall of Presidents (currently closed, so a sign out front says, "to Welcome Our New President") or Epcot's Spaceship Earth. It is immeasurably more sleek and modern, built to entertain future generations of Disney park-goers. It speaks to the future of Disney Parks, and to concepts of entertainment and amusement more broadly. But it does so, perhaps, in foreboding tones.
The expansion of Disney's media empire, and the increases in amusement-park know-how on display at Pandora, seem to offer a sense of limitlessness. It's an old saw, perhaps, but the team-up of technology and capital promise infinite possibility. What unfolds in reality is a limiting of creative power. As Disney snatches up more big-ticket properties, its theme-park attractions risk being hemmed in by obligations to their master-franchises, consecrating a boring brand unity. This is already the case in Pandora or Toy Story Playland or even on a Magic Kingdom classic such as Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been retrofitted to reflect the supersuccessful Johnny Depp movies it improbably spawned.
Soon the entire sphere of culture – once a domain of escape from the grinding, grey-beige predictability of life – will be a cognate flatland of Darth Vaders, Jack Sparrows, Na'vi tribesmen and Finding Dorys, all ruled by the benevolent cartoon mouse with wide, vacant eyes and an immutable grin. While it may be exciting to see fan-favourite franchises transformed into amusement-park rides and cafés selling cheeseburger pods and green Grog beer, there is a corollary worry that true creativity is being trampled under the stampeding caravan of profitability.
There's also a deeper, more troubling irony embedded into every imitation rock and vine in Pandora. After all, Avatar itself offers an image of the endpoint of this quest for techno-capital dominance, in its story of a future in which advanced Earthlings exploit and subject extraterrestrial populations with a highly mechanized robotic army. I mean, the whole point of the movie – if there is one – is that humanity's effect on Pandora is ultimately bad; that we tend to prefer war-mongering and the crude extraction of precious resources to cultural exchange. It's a niggling thought that jibes uncomfortably with the attraction's guiding philosophy of feel-goodery, just as Pandora's phoney flora and fauna stand in stark contrast to the natural landscape, a mock-Edenic bas relief of Florida's humid, miasmal swampland.
Joe Rohde, the lead Disney Imagineer in charge of realizing The World of Avatar, manages to get around this. "It's not the movie Avatar that we are portraying," Rohde said in a media release. "It is the planet Pandora where you can come, you can visit, and have your own unique adventure." (The attraction itself is meant to exist decades after the events of Avatar and its as-yet-unreleased sequels, after the humans and Na'vi have – spoiler alert – reached some kind of tenable intergalactic peace.)
Still, it's a paradox that's tough to shake, especially for the caustic and critically minded who are irrevocably drawn to troubling ironies and unshakable paradoxes.
Pandora: The World of Avatar does a fine job burying such problems under its floating mountains of money and glow-in-the-dark topiaries. And it's likely to equally satisfy park newcomers, seen-it-all Disney obsessives and sullen Avatar depressives looking to keep the howling banshee of Pandora-related suicidal ideation at the door. Disney's newest superslick attraction makes James Cameron's Avatar tangible, proving that the dream of Pandora is alive and well. For better or worse.
The writer was a guest of Walt Disney World Resort. It did not review or approve this article.