Cinema of Disillusionment

Werner Herzog (director). Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 2010.

James Cameron (director). Avatar. 2009.

In early January 2010, just weeks after its release, James Cameron’s Avatar was already on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, and news outlets were clamoring to proclaim 3D the new standard of Hollywood “realism,” as color once replaced black and white and sound, silence. CNN distinguished itself with a bleaker story: “Audiences Experience Avatar Blues.” “James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle Avatar may have been a little too real for some fans who say that they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora,” their website reported. The administrator of the fan site Avatar Forums had created a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” and after receiving more than 1,000 posts in a few weeks, had to create another.

CNN reproduced a few of the thread’s greatest hits. “That’s all I have been doing as of late, searching the internet for more info about Avatar,” wrote one user, Elequin. “It’s so hard I can’t force myself to think that it’s just a movie, and to get over it.” Another wrote, “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.” “You take off the glasses and you go back home,” the host responded. “Why are people getting depressed over this?” The expert therapist he invited to the conversation replied, “I don’t think that it’s about the movie. I think that people are forced to look at what’s going on in their own lives and if it wasn’t the euphoric dream that they were hoping for, then they end up depressed.” The reporter stuck by her story, however, and her phenomenon even got an acronym: PADS (Post Avatar Depression Syndrome).

The CNN story echoes millennia of cautionary tales about confusing art and life. From Pygmalion, who falls for his statue, to Don Quixote, to all the nice girls who French government lawyers once said would come down with a case of the Bovaries if they, like Emma, read too many paperbacks, the heroes of such stories demonstrate the dangers of attempting to let a sculpture or novel change you too dramatically. The invention of cinema added to the venerable genre, with audiences supposedly scattering in terror before the oncoming train depicted in the popular Lumière Brothers short, L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (1895). But the point of a PADS genre story is not whether a few people actually did flee before the Lumière train, or whether Cameron’s prehensile flora drove any poor soul to suicide. The PADS story creates an object of mockery, or clueless pathos, in order to teach the public to bridle their most ardent desires, even as the movie awakens them. Go ahead! The story says: Take your date or your kid to Avatar! You can even cheer on the hero — an ex-jarhead converted by his experiences on Pandora into an ecoterrorist — as he plunges an arrow into the chest of his former captain. But pity the sad sack who fails to see that the movies are really about creating longing for more movies.

The staggering global success of Avatar over the winter of 2009–10 seemed to herald the arrival of 3D, spurring the major studios to create dozens of films in that format and hastily convert others into it. A Wall Street Journal piece titled “Can 3D Save Hollywood?” reported that, despite investment bank funding having dried up since 2008, studios were still investing heavily in 3D productions. By the summer of 2011, 3D was ubiquitous: Transformers, Kung Fu Pandas, Marvel superheroes, and Smurfs thundered through every movie theater in America; electronics stores hawked 3D television sets and gaming systems; macrumors.com whispered that we could soon expect an iPad 3: 3D. Yet more and more moviegoers chose to resist the consumer imperative implicit in all the buzz. Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks CEO who for the past few years has been one of 3D’s most avid evangelists, publicly admitted that movies carelessly slapped together to cash in on hype had thwarted the fulfillment of his gospel. “Let me have a show of hands of people that would say the last seven or eight months of movies is the worst lineup of movies you’ve experienced in the last five years of your life,” Katzenberg asked the audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference in Aspen, Colorado on July 19. “They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been.”

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