Avatar vs. Inception: Two very different takes on the power of escapism

Avatar/Inception trailer mashup

At first glance, Avatar and Inception might seem entirely unrelated; the former is a CGI theme-park-ride with a boilerplate going-native plot, the latter a brainy and zany big-budget puzzle that's as much a meditation on storytelling as it is a summer popcorn film. But in fact they stake out opposite positions on an issue near and dear to sci-fi fans everywhere: the power of escapism and the value of reality.

The disturbing part of Avatar (both the film and the phenomenon) was its wholesale contempt for reality and embrace of escape. Here, the journey of protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) started with all the makings of a tragic arc. We first meet him as a wheelchair-bound Marine, living in the shadow of his golden-boy twin brother. But once Jake's in the avatar program, he spends more and more time with his consciousness projected into a godlike blue Na'vi body, heroically leaping across treetops and taming feral Toruks -- while in reality, his own crippled, anonymous body lies passively in an electrode-studded coffin. Instead of making difficult choices and suffering and growing, Sully manages to enter the Warcraft-like world of his avatar full-time, freeing himself from his earthly bonds and leaving his "real" body and life behind. Escapism is his salvation. In a disturbing parallel, Avatar's 3-D projection of Pandora was hailed as better-than-real, and stories abounded of rapt moviegoers facing withdrawal and depression when having to return from the film to real life. 2010 was beginning to feel like the year when reality just wasn't good enough.

Now let's turn our attention to Inception (some minor spoilers here, but we'll tiptoe around anything major). This film shares many of the themes that have come to define Christopher Nolan's body of work -- guilt, grief, obsession -- but in the case of Inception, escape from reality is the glue that binds them together. For Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), dreams let him cling to an illusion of his wife, children, and even happiness. He wallows in this fantasy world, even knowing that it is also what took away all three. He knows that by endlessly reliving his past he is blocking any possible future. In the end he must delve deeper into dreams only because it offers the possibility of regaining some of what he's lost in the real world. The heroes can't be killed in their dreams but in the film's giant caper they face a danger far worse -- of burrowing too deep and going mad, unable to get out. The hell you go to in Inception doesn't make you a slave; it makes you God over an empty world.

The characters of Inception live under constant guard against being unable to distinguish between the dream and reality, clinging to their "totems" almost superstitiously, the tiny pieces of reality that are truly their own. Characters dread the possibility that they won't know whether they're dreaming, or that they will know and won't be able to wake up. But they expressed another fear, what I took to be their greatest fear, which was that they would know they were trapped in a dream -- and they just wouldn't care.

These two opposing philosophies -- the value of the fantastic over the real, and vice-versa -- even guided the production of the two films. In Avatar, James Cameron set out to take reality down a peg: repeating a trick he learned making the models believable in Aliens, he made the live-action look more CGI-like to make the CGI paired with it seem realistic. By contrast, Inception's effects are most notable for how analog they are, with approaches ranging from model shots to nitrogen-gas explosions to a hundred-foot-long spinning hallway set that beat Joseph Gordon-Levitt to a pulp.

Movies and games just get progressively more immersive. Now as we start to hear stories of gamers in China and Vietnam playing continuously for days before dropping dead, phrases like "internet addiction" and "WoW intervention" are starting to seem less and less silly. We can't predict how our relationship with escapism will change, but it would be foolish to assume that it won't. So if it does, how, and what does that mean for us?

Avatar and Inception provide two diametrically opposite answers. In one the escape is to freedom, to endless stimulation, righteousness, community, even enlightenment. In the other, escapism is really the path to a prison, cutting off or destroying those you love, a place where you can lose everything meaningful or even your very self. But if reality is defined as the experience we share with others, then the most profound difference is whether escaping is something we do together or alone. Because in Avatar the ultimate escape is something that the nation shared as an audience and Sully shared with the Na'vi. In Inception the ultimate escape means being trapped endlessly inside yourself, leaving everything with any meaning behind and being so alone it is indistinguishable from death.

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