When my alarm went off just after midnight on Thursday, readying me for the drive to the 1:45am screening of Avatar: The Way of Water after three hours of fitful sleep, I experienced a brief moment of existential reckoning. The bargaining began: it’s been a long year, I’m 40, at the pointy end of my PhD, there’s Covid around … all I needed to do was turn the alarm off, and go back to sleep. To do so, however, would mean ignoring that before I went to bed, I had laid out my Kryolan greasepaint, ready to swipe across my face like Trudy Chacon when she went to war for the Omaticaya. It was time to return to Pandora.
In the long lead-up to the release of Cameron’s sequel to Avatar, it became de rigueur to claim that nobody remembered it. I’m not sure who kickstarted that particular myth about the highest-grossing movie of all time, but it certainly took hold; in 2014, Forbes ran a piece headlined “Five Years Ago, ‘Avatar’ Grossed $2.7 Billion but Left No Pop Culture Footprint”, while the New York Times recently suggested that Avatar’s “most oft-cited claim to fame is its surprising lack of cultural impact”. Social media simmered with chatter that this cinematic white elephant was sure to bomb. I was not one of these people.
There have been plenty of other works that have made their way into my day-to-day life (I devoted an entire chapter of my memoir to Ghostbusters, after all), but none have affected me on the level that Avatar did. To this day, I have never experienced a sense of collective wonderment like I did when I first saw Avatar. As the bioluminescent forest sprang to life around Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the entire cinema uttered an awestruck, “Ohhh …”.
Like many others, I experienced the post-Pandora blues. I saw the movie five times at the cinema. It wasn’t just that it was a bewitching viewing experience. There was something in the earnestness of Cameron’s vision – a hallmark, I would argue, of his work more broadly – that encouraged me to embrace qualities in myself that I had long hidden away.
I have a lot to thank Avatar for. Before seeing the film, I had coyly made first steps into “fandom” by attending a convention dressed as Silk Spectre from Watchmen. But after Avatar, I no longer cared about trying to look “acceptable”: it was time to paint myself blue. Soon I was visiting LearnNavi.org to get my head around the “conlang” devised for the film. By July 2010 I was at San Diego Comic-Con, crowd-surfing at a secret Andrew WK show while dressed as a Na’vi. I was that person on the treadmill at the gym listening to Climbing Up Iknimaya – The Path To Heaven, from James Horner’s Avatar score, with the incline set to 9.5.
Those experiences may not seem like evidence of a huge paradigm shift. But for a then-undiagnosed autistic person, my love of Avatar – and the support I found in other true believers online – allowed me to lean into the behaviours that made me an outsider in other aspects of my life. It was a way of saying “Oeru ke’u” (I don’t care).
“Going” to Pandora and considering the ways in which we can change our perspectives was also, as an abuse survivor, a healing experience. I resolved to be brave and strong like Neytiri and Mo’at, Grace and Trudy. But many Avatar fans have found something healing in the film: in one episode of How To With John Wilson, Wilson visits a meet-up organised by the Avatar fan group Kelutral. The “get a load of these nerds” tone – all the snacks are blue – shifts as the group discusses critiques of the film through a disability lens, recount their mental health struggles, and share how Avatar helped them find a community.
Thirteen years on, I am a different person in many ways. I know myself now, at least better than I did as a terrified 27-year-old. Having fully embraced completely un-monetisable hobbies, like learning the Game of Thrones language High Valyrian in the years since, I am now primed to return to my Na’vi lessons. I’ll finally make that “Pandora at night” diorama.
As someone who spends most of their time at the pool in the “aqua play” lane with goggles and flippers on, I was particularly delighted to explore the oceans of Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water. Cameron’s daring (some would say demented) decision to project the film in variable frame rates played a cognitive trick. By the second hour, it seemed to me that Pandora was real.
I exited the cinema as the sun began to peek over the city, thrilled and relieved to have been able to go home again. In the end, faced with three-plus hours under a mask and 3D glasses, I didn’t put on the face paint. But I didn’t need to: I will always be one with the Na’vi.