“…the effect of that huge surface environment, on you, personally, is vast. The effect of the program is incidental.”
– Marshall McLuhan 

“The medium is the message” is one of those concepts that sounds too simple considering how big and important it is– kind of like how E = mc2 doesn’t look to be the groundbreaking revolution of 20th century physics that it is. “The medium is the message” is about how the mediums and technologies change our lives in a more immediate and concrete sense than any one idea, even looking across history. Which had more impact, Martin Luther’s 95 theses or Gutenberg’s printing press? Which was more important, the Ford Model T or the assembly line? Which shaped the 20th century more, Einstein’s theory of relativity or the atom bomb? McLuhan focused on the transition of popular media from print (books, magazines, etc.) to electronic (radio and television). His point was that the invention of the television and its use as a commercial home appliance had a more direct and immediate impact on our culture than any individual program televised. It’s not that the programs don’t matter, it’s that the technologies through which those ideas travel are often overlooked in favor of those ideas.

So why am I talking about a theme park?

James Cameron’s Avatar was… not a good movie. I mean, yes, it’s gorgeous and the technology used to create the film is fascinating, but as a movie? Can you name five characters from Avatar? Or describe the plot in a sentence without using the words “Pocahontas” or “FernGully”? Avatar is actually one of the most clear examples of “the medium is the message”, in that the plot and ideas of Avatar matter far less to the world writ large than the impact of the technologies that were used and developed in its filming. Avatar changed the way we make movies far more than it did any particular aspect of storytelling.  So when Disney adapted the world to a theme park, it actually made more sense than it seemed. Avatar was always more about immersing the viewer in its environment than its story, which makes it perfect for the medium of theme parks.

But what does that even mean?

The Medium

So what do I mean when I say ‘medium’? I have always understood ‘medium’ to mean the physical form of a concept, a story, an idea, etc. In the same way the novel is different from film, an essay is different from a video essay, a comic is different from a TV show. McLuhan expands the definition further to include things like the light bulb, the automobile, and the steam engine. McLuhan seems to equate ‘medium’ with ‘technology’. The technology of the written word changed how we use our memories. The technology of the light bulb changed our relationship with our circadian rhythms. The technology of the television changed how we build and arrange our homes. And what’s more, mediums are consistent across the board. A wheel is a wheel, no reinvention required.

For my purposes, I use a more common definition of ‘medium’. It’s probably derived from the use of the word in visual art– how oil is a different medium than pastel, but they could both be art of the same scene. I often use it as a distinct meaning from ‘genre’ as well– I often found professors using the word ‘genre’ to describe poetry, prose, essay, novel, and other such mediums. And yes, I realize that the proper plural of ‘medium’ is ‘media’, but ‘media’ is also used in other connotations and contexts and doesn’t have the same direct meaning of ‘a plurality of medium’ as ‘mediums’ does.

So if the medium is the physical aspect of an idea, how does the form affect the idea? And is that something that people even think about? As a matter of fact they do– ask anyone with strong opinions about a movie that is an adaptation of anything else. The phrase “the book was better” comes from the idea that adaptive cinema can never fully embody what makes the printed word unique. Or look at the many, many failures in trying to adapt video games to film. The unique interactive aspect of video games is something that can never truly be replicated in film. After all, what’s more fun, watching The Rock shoot demons on Mars, or getting to shoot demons on Mars yourself? With the world on the event horizon that is truly immersive virtual reality, video games will get more and more advanced and interactive. To some extent, Ready Player One is a prophecy.

But if we want to talk about the message of a fully immersive and interactive medium, we have to talk about Umberto Eco.

The Message

“…a fantasy world more real than reality, breaking down the wall of the second dimension, creating not a movie, which is illusion, but total theater…”
– Umberto Eco on the Disney Parks

The book that we now know as Travels in Hyperreality was originally published in English under the title Faith in Fakes, originally in Italian as Il costume di casa (roughly translated: The Costume of the House), and it’s about Eco’s travels to various American and Americana tourist destinations. Using his background in philosophy, theology, and semiotics (the study of how we make meanings out of signs, symbols, and icons),  he turned his critical eye to the Disney Parks. If we want to understand the message of the medium, that is, Disney-style Parks, we need to understand his concept of hyperreality. He defines hyperreality as a desire for an unattainable reality that motivates the creation of the next best thing– “Where Good, Art, Fairytale, and History, unable to become real, must at least become plastic.”

So first, what do I mean by a Disney-style park? Well, it’s a theme park where the theme is an integral part of the creation and execution of attractions within the park. This is to distinguish them from parks like Six Flags, where there is theming to particular rides, but overall is more about the rides themselves than the overall experience. Parks like the two Busch Gardens parks are more along the lines of a Disney-style park as their two themes (Europe in Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Africa in Busch Gardens Tampa) are pervasive throughout. Universal Studios is another great example, especially with the care and detail they put into “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter”. It’s not that non-Disney-style parks are lesser, or not as good– I love a good roller coaster amusement park– but the focus on theme in Disney-style parks is what makes those parks distinct entities. I’ve visited multiple Six Flags parks, they’re all kinda same-y.

The basic message of a Disney-style park is this: “You can’t go there, so come here, and get the next best thing.” You can’t go to the Hundred Acre Woods, but you can ride “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. You can’t go to Hogwarts, but you can visit Universal Studios. You can’t go to the galaxy far, far away, but Galaxy’s Edge opens in 2019. This causes some… unfortunate implications with Disney-style parks that are based on real places, like the Busch Gardens parks, or the World Showcase at EPCOT, or Disney’s California Adventure. You can’t go to California, but you can visit DCA! Which is in California. And doesn’t really have any California themed attractions left. And to some extent, that might be why Disneyland Paris is failing. Why visit Uncle Walt’s pale imitation, when you can take a holiday and go visit the actual Neuschwanstein Castle?

Now, is this a wholly bad thing? Of course not. The prime function of art in any medium has always been a way to imagine other realities, be they mundane or fantastical. But if we’re trying to understand “the medium is the message” in terms of theme parks, that means looking at the invisible implications of the medium itself. Disney-style parks as an immersive artistic experience are some of the most unique ways of storytelling that we’ve come up with. But this is the baggage that comes with this medium, whether we’re comfortable with it or not.

And film is a separate beast entirely.

You Need Oxygen to Have Fire, Mr. Cameron

The failure of Avatar, in my opinion, is the failure of valuing worldbuilding over story. That doesn’t have to be a flaw, mind you– Tolkien certainly made his mark on literature obsessing over worldbuilding. But if we use Tolkien a an example, he was writing novels and essays. When The Lord of the Rings was adapted to film, changes and compromises had to be made in order to make the films good films. Because film is a visual medium, they don’t have to describe every tree, explain the historical importance of them being there, and go into an essay about what the name of the woods mean in Quenya, you can just show the characters in a forest and the audience gets that that’s where they are. And it’s not that all of the rich worldbuilding is lost on the film-goer, they still capture the magic of Rivendell, the majesty of Minas Tirith, and the comfort of Hobbiton, but they do it through visuals and through music and through all of the things that a book can’t do.

Avatar, on the other hand, has long sweeping sequences that are more or less trying to show off the world that James Cameron has created.  These scenes are great for trailers. But overall, these scenes add very little to the world of Avatar other than “look at all these cool places on Pandora”. The LotR films had this as well to some extent (the New Zealand Tourist Department isn’t going to fund itself) but it also had more concrete worldbuilding, like the gifts Galadriel gave the Fellowship, or the Ents, or the riders of Rohan– things about the world that effected the plot directly by their existence. Avatar has a few things like that. In particular, there’s the Unobtainium, the central MacGuffin of the film which might as well have been called “the MacGuffin metal” or “the Plot Device” for all the creativity and thought that went into the name Unobtainium. There’s also the fact that Pandora’s atmosphere has little to no oxygen– the human characters have to wear breathing masks just to go outside if they don’t have an avatar body. And this would be all well and good if not for this scene:

If you are writing a science-fiction story and you are going to set it on a low oxygen world, you cannot have the nice big explosions that you’re used to, because a combustion reaction requires oxygen. And yes, I realize it’s a movie, but they make a very big deal about the fact that there’s no oxygen, and yet explosions seem to work just fine. It indicates that the particulars of the worldbuilding weren’t all that important to making the film, just the big sweeping gestures of “oh look at the anti-grav mountains” and “hey, bioluminescence means alien, right?” And that is lazy storytelling.

“To All Who Come to This Happy Place…”

So if we combine the sweeping landscapes of a film that cared more about what it looked like than its story, with the idea of building a place to visit because it is impossible to go there yourself, the product is actually a pretty good theme park. And what’s more, Disney’s focus on story and detail fills out the world with the suggestion of worldbuilding, rather than dumping exposition on you at every moment. While they obviously dump the low-oxygen environment aspect of the film, you learn about the world as you go through this section of the park. And this being a section of a larger park is important– being a part of Animal Kingdom puts “Pandora: The World of Avatar” in a particular context as well. While Animal Kingdom has gone through some growing pains over the years (anyone else remember the “Nahtazu” campaign?), but it seems to have settled on themes of conservation and living in balance with the environment, which actually fits the theme of Avatar pretty well.

I mention this because while the medium certainly has a message, I’m not totally convinced that, as he says, “the effect of the program is incidental”. The effect of the program is essential, and it’s the reason that works in adaptation are what they are. If you can’t translate the message, you don’t really understand the medium. Hence all of the terrible adaptive films. The overt message of the program might not always be what sticks, but it contains the bigger ideas that shape our culture and our thoughts as much as mediums do, just slower. Star Wars was an instant classic for more reasons than just its technological innovations– if that was all you needed to make an iconic film, Avatar would have a series of disappointing prequels coming up. And I’m not saying that James Cameron doesn’t understand how film works either, when you look at the rest of his body of work, it’s clear that he does. Does he understand why Avatar didn’t work? Well… maybe he needs a few more goes at it before he does.

Have you been to Disney’s Pandora? Can you actually name 5 characters from Avatar without looking them up? Do you disagree with my analysis of the basic message of a Disney-style park? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.