12 January 2010

How to cure the Avatar Blues

Posted by Ryan

I was innocently browsing through my twitter list yesterday when I came across this article on CNN. The gist of it is that many people are experiencing depression after watching Avatar because the fictional world depicted is so beautiful and amazing that life back here on earth seems drab and boring.

Many people have responded to this story with shock and derision, and this definitely hints at some pre-existing issues for the folks who are feeling suicidal after watching a sci-fi film, but it also concerns me for another reason. It suggests a troubling lack of knowledge about the real world.

One person quoted in the article said: “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”

This really bothers me, because despite all the nasty things that humans have done to the world, it is a far cry from a dying world! (And if our world really is “dying” then shouldn’t we be out there trying to save it rather than despairing?) I can tell you this: studying other planets makes you realize that Earth is a paradise. And believe it or not, many of the “creative” flora and fauna in Avatar are based directly on living things here on Earth, past or present.

Remember those glowing spiral “plants” that Jake taps, causing them to curl up into their stem in the blink of an eye? They’re real! They exist in miniature in coral reefs around the world as “christmas tree worms”.

Jake Sully walks in awe through a glade of giant christmas tree worms.

Actual christmas tree worms in Bonaire.

What about those glowing mushrooms that he plays like drums? Yeah we’ve got those. Again, much smaller, but similar.

Glowing mushrooms really exist too!

And of course the seeds of the Tree of Life are obviously based on real-world jellyfish. James Cameron is a guy who knows all about the weird living things on our planet. Heck, have you seen his documentary “Aliens of the Deep”? It’s pretty obvious where he got some of his inspiration for the creatures in Avatar!

A deep-sea jellyfish from Cameron's "Aliens of the Deep".

Ok, but what about the sweet dragon-like creatures that they ride? I think people would notice if we had those flying around, taking out our helicopters and planes! Well no, they don’t exist now, but go back to the mesozoic and there are plenty of flying creatures, including this one which was taller than a giraffe when on the ground:

And how about good old Quetzalcoatlus, with a 30 foot wingspan?

Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan comparable to some airplanes. The silhouette should look familiar to anyone who has seen Avatar...

So that’s the biology, but what about the moon itself? What about the floating mountains? The spectacular rock formations? Well, habitable moons probably do exist, and there are astronomers searching for them right now. Floating mountains would be rather difficult, but superconductors do, in fact, allow things to levitate. Take a look at Joe Shoer’s post about Avatar’s floating mountains if you don’t believe me. And the rock formations? Well, Earth doesn’t have arches of rock following magnetic field lines like iron filings, but we do have some pretty spectacular stuff, like caves full of giant crystals:

Spectacular crystal formations? Yeah, we've got that.

My point is this: yeah, it’s a shame that Pandora isn’t real. I was sad too when the movie ended and the credits rolled. But the world we live in is just as amazing. You won’t get rid of the Pandora blues just by watching Avatar endlessly, or running out and getting the Avatar video game. But much of what was in the movie was based on real things here on Earth. Many of the photos I’ve shown here are relatively recent discoveries. There is plenty of wonder to go around and plenty more to discover. And if you get tired of Earth, there are other planets in our solar system. Tired of those? Check out exoplanets. Still not enough? Head into the realm of astrophysics and you’ll never get bored. And for those longing to live like the Na’vi there are options too. Anthropologists regularly study native cultures and learn their ways. Or you could become an archaeologist and learn about past cultures by studying their artifacts.

Still not enough? Well, then instead of living in someone else’s fictional world, why not make your own? Become a science fiction or fantasy writer and see if you can do better than James Cameron. Who knows, maybe someday people will see your world and long to go there too.

Avatar’s vivid world should not be a source of depression, it should be a motivation to seek out (or create) the beautiful and the interesting and the fragile in our own world, to study and learn from it, and to preserve it so future generations can experience the wonder as well.