When I was a teenager, my favorite television series was Star Trek: The Next Generation. I still love it, and I’m thrilled whenever it plays on television. One of my single most favorite moments in Las Vegas came during my first visit, when in my first free moment, I beelined for the Star Trek Experience. (I only hesitate to call myself a Trekkie since I have never once donned Vulcan ears, cannot arrange my fingers into the “live long and prosper” salute, have never attempted to speak Klingon, and own no Star Fleet memorabilia.)
“Space opera”, this genre of sci fi is called, and it’s always struck me as a subset of fictional travel writing. My favorite parts of these stories aren’t the technological gee gaws, or the intergalactic politics, but the part where you get to “explore strange new worlds”. I love the idea of looking up into the sky and seeing four or five moons instead of just one.
James Cameron’s movie Avatar falls into this category, which at its best is a travelogue to the planet of Pandora. In fact, I’d argue that it would have been better without the silly plot and God help us, the infantile dialogue, better if it was simply that: a travelogue.
If you haven’t seen this new 3D technology, it’s pretty amazing. Things don’t really jump out at you, it’s more like the screen has a depth of field that’s similar to what you see when you’re looking out of the window. And so in the beginning, as the characters first explore Pandora, I thought, wow, this is a lot like my life — traveling around and seeing new, beautiful, amazing and sometimes disturbing things. I wondered whether it would inspire travel here in the real world.
I’m not sure that it will though — first of all, some people are apparently crashingly depressed that they can’t actually go visit Pandora. So okay, they’re carried away by the fantasy, but it’s not only this fantastic place that they want to visit, it’s the way that the characters in the movie travle that I think is also very compelling, and taps into a fantasy that people have about real-world travels on earth: that you can travel with any real personal involvement or risk.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the movie’s conceit, humans are somehow mentally joined with Avatars, essentially alien mannequins, so while the human lies asleep in a special chamber, they’re out cavorting in Pandora in their alien puppet costume. In other words, the part of you that’s real slumbers safely, while your traveling persona is out learning about a new environment, culture, way of life. (Bonus: in Avatar, your travel persona is taller, better looking, and more physically skilled.)
Of course, that safe remove is a fiction — even in the movie, the characters really begin to care about Pandora and its people, in the same way that travelers who really immerse begin to care about the places they visit and its people. But that creates a conflict for the characters in the movie, whose allegiances are now divided, as it does for actual travelers.
The movie solves this neatly — the characters move to Pandora and through some magic are able to abandon their human form. (The movies is filled with pat solutions like this.) And it should be said, it happens with some travelers too — they fall in love with a place and a way of life, and they never come home again. But most of us do return home, and want to, and the conflicting allegiances that travel can create are not at all easy to deal with. It’s an interesting conundrum, and not one that the movie takes up at all. (Star Trek, in all its many movies and series, often does, ahem.)
But should Avatar inspire deep real-world , on Earth travels, it will be an issue the inspired will certainly have to consider.