I was somewhat surprised to read recently about a new psychological malady, which goes under the rough title of “post-Avatar depression.” Some viewers of James Cameron’s brilliant science fiction/fantasy epic reportedly are experiencing confusion and depression – a few folks are having suicidal thoughts.
A recent CNN.com story on this phenomenon quoted Philippe Baghdassarian, the administrator of an online Avatar fan forum, who said, “I wasn’t depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy. 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.”
Avatar – made with a budget of several hundred million dollars – successfully creates a compelling 22nd century fantasy world, and some viewers apparently are having problems readjusting to their drab mundane existence after leaving the movie theater. On Pandora, the fantasy world depicted in the film, the 10-foot bluish Na’avi, the indigenous people, live in sync with a beautiful natural world; they literally tap into an all-encompassing neural network comprised of the planet’s flora and fauna. They become one with fabulous steeds and pterodactyl-like winged creatures. After taking in Avatar, things don’t look so great back at the apartment.
On another Web site devoted to the film, Naviblue, a user named Mike allowed that he contemplated suicide after seeing the movie, according to the CNN.com story: “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. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and then everything is the same as in Avatar.”
Of course, we hope that Mike gets referred to a mental health professional and regains his equilibrium. The thought also arises that Jews who are in touch with their religious tradition might come away from Avatar with a different mindset. Jewish education might be an antidote to post-Avatar depression.
- In the film Avatar, a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, left) has his brain beamed into the cloned body of an inhabitant of the planet Pandora. Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a princess of the Omaticaya clan, guides him through the lifeways of her people. (Photo: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
Our tradition refers to an afterlife – not necessarily on Pandora – but it is rooted in improving life, for ourselves and others, in this world. In the liberal streams of Judaism, there is a great deal of teaching on the value of tikkun olam, becoming God’s partner in repairing the environment and mending the frayed web of social relations.
Our prophetic tradition emphasizes peacemaking and pursuing justice, in our time and where we are. The prophet Amos decried empty piety: “Rather let justice well up like water, let righteousness flow like mighty stream.”
In the same vein, the prophet Isaiah, in a passage read in the synagogue on the fast day of Yom Kippur, said that the fast that God wants us to undertake is “to free the oppressed and put an end to evil. To share your bread with the hungry; to house the homeless in your homes; to clothe the naked; and not ignore the needy among you.” (These passages are quoted from The Hebrew Prophets, annotated and explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.)
Film critics and pundits have found a plethora of political and cultural messages in Cameron’s film, an unusual feature of a mainstream entertainment that has become the top-grosser of all time. In the end when the house lights come back on, we are going to have to figure out how to live together on Earth, not Pandora, and solve the intractable problems that threaten the continuation of life on this beautiful planet.