Seth Wright has spent the last 12 years of his life learning a language that only 30 people in the world can fluently speak. The Naʼvi tongue is itself not even 20 years old, and actually – Wright is quick to clarify – no one can be fluent, not really, “because there are no true native speakers.” No one has ever been taught Na’vi from birth. No one has a great grandmother that told them bedtime stories in Na’vi. The conlang – or constructed language – is spoken by 10-foot-tall blue humanoids in the 2009 science fiction epic Avatar.
You’ve seen Avatar, even if you can’t remember much about it. Over a decade ago, millions flocked to the cinema and donned 3D glasses to witness James Cameron’s vision of tropical alien paradise Pandora – it is still the highest-grossing filming of all time. But in recent years, people across the internet have claimed that the film has “literally no cultural footprint” and is “the most popular movie no one remembers.”
The debate will undoubtedly rage on as the world awaits the release of the film’s sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water. But it’s not true that no one remembers the first film. It’s not true that the story had no impact. For some, Avatar was life-changing. And as such, many viewers have remained steadfast fans for the last 13 years.
It was Christmastime when Wright’s family decided to take a trip to the cinema to see a movie he knew very little about. The then-14-year-old emerged engrossed – and saw the Avatar eight more times in the cinema in the coming weeks. “Avatar really was my first experience with truly escapist fiction,” says Wright, who is now 28 and lives in the eastern United States, where he works as an Amazon delivery service partner.
“For me being young and still trying to figure out who I was and what I thought about the world around me, being able to go an essentially on this other world for a short amount of time… there was nothing else quite like it,” says Wright.
After Avatar’s release, fans and journalists documented a phenomenon that some have called “Post-Avatar Depression Syndrome” or PADs. On fan forums in 2010, viewers lamented that they would never live in the utopia Pandora, which is a lush blue and purple jungle on an earth-like moon. “I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” read one particularly disturbing post on fan-site Naviblue. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.”
What makes Pandora so appealing? Wright says, “You can escape into any kind of media – books, games, TV shows – but I don’t think there are many others out there that really take you and immerse you into their world in the same way that Avatar did.”
Director Cameron claims to have made 1,500 pages worth of notes “of the world and the cultures and the different clans and different animals and different biomes and so on” that we see in Avatar. When he was 16, the filmmaker first drew an oversized alien jungle which he called “Planet Flora” and by 1994, he’d written Avatar’s first script – but he waited until CGI technology advanced to bring his vision to life.
“There’s such an abundance of detail poured into this canon that there’s always another layer of onion to peel away from it,” says Martin Lettvin, a 42-year-old project cost estimator from Chicago who first saw Avatar aged 29 and saw it four times in December 2009 alone. Lettvin says watching the peaceful Na’vi race “makes folks subconsciously reflect on their own humanity” – for him and others, the spiritual, environment-loving Na’vi are an alternate version of humanity, “and it’s not hard to see why we feel that we come up short by comparison, despite our incredible technological achievements.”
The solution, for some, is to bring a bit of Pandora into the real world. Since 2016, Wright has helped run kelutral.org, a website where people can learn Na’vi and converse with other fans (the site is named for the Na’vi word for “hometree”). “On Halloween, a friend and I played [online video game] Phasmophobia and we communicated in the language for the entirety of that session,” says Wright, whose chosen Na’vi nickname is Mako (reflexively, he now answers to it as a second name).
The Na’vi language was created by University of Southern California communications professor Paul Frommer, who has expanded the lexicon over the years. “Kaltxì” means “hello”, while ‘ä’ means “oops!”. When Wright first found Avatar fan forums and dove into the language as a teen, he was delighted.
“I was not nearly as outspoken and comfortable with myself at 14, so it was much easier for me to engage with people across the internet,” he says. Lettvin enjoys reading Na’vi dictionaries to “gain insight into how this culture sees their world and their place within it” – he gives the example of the expression “sivako” which means “rise to the challenge” in the movie. Lettvin loves that aspects of Na’vi pronunciation “seem to mimic the natural sounds of animals or instruments”.
Not everyone’s Avatar appreciation manifests in the Na’vi language. Corey Adams is a 35-year-old business banker from Ohio who has watched the film numerous times over the years, even purchasing a 3D TV which allowed him to watch the film “the intended way”. Adams appreciates the craftmanship that went into the worldbuilding of Pandora, and over the course of the last decade, has extensively researched the behind the scenes of how the film was made. He also engages with other fans on the Avatar subreddit, which has almost 20,000 members. Adams might’ve enjoyed collecting the film’s merchandise, but he notes that for many years “there wasn’t really a lot for us fans to sink our teeth into.”
Lettvin concurs that merchandise has been scarce, but as a “brick head” plans to buy the newly released Avatar LEGO sets. As a hobbyist pianist, one thing Lettvin has enjoyed doing over the years is creating scores for scenes “from an Avatar sequel that existed only in my mind for nearly a decade.” He says his interest has not waned over the years, but only become stronger.
Wright says there was a dip in the online Avatar fandom between 2013 and 2015, after forum use fell out of favour and before people migrated to more modern spaces like the messaging platform Discord. Today, a Yorkshire-based fan called Avatar Guy makes regular analysis videos on YouTube, where he has over 12,000 subscribers. Wright says the fans who use his fan-site are a diverse range of ages and genders, although interestingly the two largest demographics are from the US and Germany (although he’s not quite sure why the film has so many German fans).
When the dip occurred and some fans disappeared, did Wright worry that the community would die out, that the online family he’d found would fall apart? Though he says only 11-12 people like him have stuck around since “the time of the first posts” on fan forums, “there was never really ever any worry because we’ve known since 2012 that eventually Avatar 2 is coming. All good things come to those who wait.”
— Avatar (@officialavatar) March 18, 2022
In 2021, Wright and a group of Avatar fans appeared in the comedy docuseries How To With John Wilson. One man in an Avatar T-shirt revealed how fellow fans had saved his life after he felt suicidal. “Ultimately it comes from a desire to want something better,” he said of post-Avatar depression. “But just because we have that desire, I think it drives us to make the world that we live in a better place.”
When I speak with Wright, the trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water had just dropped hours earlier; unexpectedly, he found himself crying as the footage came to a close. “What’s resonating with me a lot about this next journey to Pandora is the familial aspect of it,” he says.
Life has changed since he was first introduced to Avatar as a teen, but the changes have only deepened his appreciation of the franchise. “In the last 13 years,” he says, “I’ve gotten married, I’ve had my own daughter, and I’ve really started to see the world coloured in the perspective that Cameron is so interested in bringing to the screen.”
Avatar: the Way of Water is released on December 16