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Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie (Avatar photos: 20th Century Fox)

Reel beauty

Avatar's visual wonders are all borrowed from creation

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

Those who haven't yet seen Avatar, the cutting-edge, 3D fantasy that's on the fast track to becoming the top-grossing film of all time, may want to think twice. Besides setting them back $12 to $20, the movie might leave them depressed and suicidal.

At least that's the experience of some who find it hard to adjust after emerging from the computer-generated paradise of "Pandora" into the parking lots and Burger Kings, chaos and clutter of the real world. On at least one fan site, a topic thread with the title "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible" has received over 1,000 posts, as fans air their feelings of severe letdown. "When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed . . . gray," wrote Ivar from Sweden. "It was like my whole life, everything I've done and worked for, lost its meaning." (Ivar is 17.)

Others sounded even more depressed: "I can't stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and 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, "I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it. . . . I think I need a rebound movie."

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All right everybody, take a deep breath . . . back away from the computer . . . and go take a walk.

Here's what the experience really was: people in a darkened room wearing goofy glasses, watching a digital fantasy heavy on special effects and light on narrative depth and characterization. The world of gargantuan trees, floating mountains, and flying dinosaurs created by James Cameron is visually stunning, and it's no wonder that in comparison the real world would seem . . . gray. It tends to be gray in the winter, especially in Sweden. But perhaps Ivar should get up early enough to catch the sunrise occasionally.

The truth is, everything in the movie was taken from real life and rearranged, enlarged, or color-enhanced. Every creator works from the original creation.

For example, in one early scene the hero Jake Sully blunders upon a cluster of pink spiral-shaped plants, or perhaps animals, that collapse when he touches them. They appear to be composed of feathers, strange and beautiful in this context, but no more strange and beautiful than an actual feather. How long has it been since we really looked at one? Those reptilian flying creatures large enough to ride are breathtaking-but who hasn't hitched a mental ride on the back of a hawk or eagle? The things that affect us in the movie are in essence the very things that cause our hearts to lift in reality, if we're paying attention.

Staring at a large screen in a dark room compels attention; it's much harder to take heed when the dishes need washing and bills are piling up and tires have to be rotated. And when humans are destroying the rain forest and trashing the oceans (some would-be Pandorans know their own planet mostly through National Geographic specials). Yet almost everyone has the necessary equipment to experience everyday beauties: the piercing scent of winter air, the ripple of sunlight on water, dollops of bird song, whispers of wind.

But what about those tentacle-like extensions Pandorans have that allow them to forge spiritual bonds with every other living thing on their planet? Wouldn't that be cool? It would-and we have something even better. It's called image-bearing: God breathing His own life into humanity and setting men and women apart from the rest of His creatures. Instead of identifying with creation, we identify with the Creator (consciously or not), which allows us to create in turn-even extravagant fantasies like Avatar.

Anti-suicidal, to say the least. Now go make something beautiful.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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