my pandoran vacation
On Monday, I watched Avatar: The Way of Water for the first time, just the way James Cameron intended (on a ten-inch airplane screen six hours into a twelve hour flight). I was on my way back from visiting a friend in Japan, during which our planned week of hiking on the southern island of Yakushima had been thwarted by Typhoon Khanun.
I’ve been trying to write about Avatar since 2017, when, for a family member’s birthday celebration, I visited to Disney’s Pandora - The World of Avatar. Pandora is located within Animal Kingdom and marketed as “an all-new, awe-inspiring land that celebrates the magnificent power of nature”. By 2019, I had somewhere between seven and eight thousand words about my meltdown touching plastic rocks while waiting for the 3d ride. Over six drafts, the essay shape-shifted into a manifesto railing against “corporate curated theatrical environmentalism.” The scale of the argument derailed the writing and threatened to become book-sized, so I dropped it. But I still engage with the Avatar franchise with a curious disgust, like investigating forgotten takeout in the back of the fridge.
The Way of Water is intended to induce awe. The plot isn’t the point. The world is the point, with its vast, detailed, gorgeously rendered landscapes (even on my ten-inch screen). Jim C is obsessed with the ocean, and his love shows in the space seascapes. The ocean elements are familiar, but tweaked: Pandoran jellyfish, Pandoran icthyosaurs, Pandoran whales breaching and flipping. They’re not alien at all.
In the book world, I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz around “climate fiction” (and I’ve even seen it shortened to “cli-fi” which I don’t love). The Way of Water is its own brand of escapist climate fiction. If one wants to make art about the majesty and wonder of nature, one inevitably bumps up against the unpleasant realities of human-caused destruction. Avatar neatly sidesteps that pain by moving the audience to an entirely new planet. Here, you can enjoy the pleasurable rush of the beautiful nature and the righteous battle against the colonizers in a safe, simple, sanitized setting.
It’s not allegorical. The Way of Water says exactly what it means about the destruction of nature. The alien setting allows the story to avoid the complexities of the actual history of colonialism, the devastation of climate change, and the populations affected by both. That way, Jim can center the plot on family (he loves plots about family) and create rad sequences of whales taking out warships.
At Disney, I was pushed over the edge by the scale of the fake nature - computer play Radiohead Fake Plastic Trees - and I hated Avatar for shilling this invented majesty while the world died around us. But then there I was, on a flight (infamously bad for the environment) after a climate-change-related typhoon caused a week of chaos, watching The Way of Water with mild interest. In a weird way, it’s a relief that in order to make art about nature sans climate change, you have to leave the planet. Even in just the past five years, eco-anxiety has entered the mainstream, and when I talk about the climate, I no longer feel like a terrified augur shouting into the void.
I imagined I’d one day return to the Avatar essay, as the argument probably has legs, but now I lack the outrage that lit my interest. I can feel fear without awe, but not awe without fear. And I’m afraid fairly often. I understand the appeal of experiencing astonishment without fear or pain. I’m working on my own “cli-fi” adjacent fiction instead and I’ll continue to be a hobbyist critic. As for film portrayals of impossible sea-based awe, I’m looking forward to The Meg 2: The Trench. At least it’s set on Earth.