A couple of stories have been bouncing around the Internet this past week about the dangers of the movie Avatar. And a fellow psychologytoday.com blogger Elana Premack Sandler, has also weighed in on the topic in a post called "Avatar Blues."
The buzz is for good reason: The place where pop culture, the media and psychology intersect is fascinating, and ripe for investigation.
The hubbub began with this story on CNN.com, "Audiences experience 'Avatar' blues," about how some avid Avatar fans are so enthralled by the movie's lush landscapes of Pandora, the imaginary world where the movie takes place, and the nature-loving ethos of the Na'vi race, that their own lives pale in comparison. Go off the deep end --- i.e. suicidal thoughts --- and this is a disturbing phenomenon, to be sure.
The other story is how various groups --- right-wing Christian, Catholics, Republicans, Liberals, the military --- have all found something in Avatar to complain about. It's racist, it's sexist, it bad-mouths the military, it's anti-American and anti-capitalist, it promotes turning ecology into a religion (the latter being a pretty old complaint: hasn't the church been worried about nature worship since the days of Druids?). Some of these arguments are summarized in this article "Avatar under attack from Vatican, U.S. military, liberals."
The whole reality-fantasy divide is one we all must be careful not to fall into. Anything can be taken too far. Sex, drugs, gambling, pornography, eating, shopping --- all of these activities, when taken to the extreme, can be dangerous and blot out the self. No one, in their right mind, should use any one experience, like a movie, to find meaning and attribute so much meaning to it that it looms large to the exclusion of other influences. We all need balanced lives.
The fear about Avatar is, in the end, I think unfounded, but it's understandable. It stems from this perennial worry that any pop culture phenomenon could overhwlem our senses, our good judgement, and cause some careful balance in the universe to veer wildly one way or the other.
In this case, Avatar --- on its way to becoming the most popular movie of all time, in terms of box office, eclipsing Titanic --- has become the latest fear magnet. Some think it's so powerful a vision, so able to shape public opinion or show the public some potentially radical and mind-altering way of life, that it threatens to usurp the power of traditional institutions which usually have the job of making meaning and creating structure in our society --- for example, political parties, the military, religion, to name a few. Or in the case of our so-called Avatar addicts, the fear is how a single experience like a movie can warp a mind into thinking "real life" is hardly worth our effort.
In other words, no way are we going to let an immoral, money-mongering individual like James Cameron, the movie's director, wield all this power to mold the public consciousness.
But remember: we've seen these alarmist concerns before. The minute something new hits these shores --- the telephone, comic books, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Internet, video games, drugs, heavy metal music --- we get all worried about brains being rotted and souls being seduced by Satan and the end of civilization as we know it.
But of course we carry on. We always have. Only to be sucked in, become fearful of, the next faddish flavor of the month.
That said, whenever a single event like Avatar commands so much air space, it's not a bad time to reflect, take stock, and wonder if perhaps we are talking our entertainments too seriously. I like very much what movie critic Ty Burr said in an Avatar commentary in the Boston Globe. He wrote in response to a comment from a reader who felt his life was "normal" and "unsatisfying" compared to the fantasies of Avatar. In Burr's words, "Who said our lives had to be normal or unsatisfying ...? Why not transform it into something that satisfies you, not the bottom line of an entertainment corporation?... Why not take off the glasses and have a look around? It’s real 3-D out there and it’s amazing."
In other words, it's up to us how fantastic our lives can be.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.