It took AVATAR 17 days to break through the $1bn worldwide and to this day, it is the highest grossing film in the history of cinema. It is a movie worth analysing.
by Karel Segers
To my taste – I was not raised on popcorn fare – James Cameron is the only true-bred Hollywood writer-director. His cinema is high concept, superbly entertaining and truly spectacular.
He understands the craft of mainstream cinematic storytelling like no other and like George Lucas back in the 1970’s, he seems to have been listening to Campbell:
And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about
in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet,
not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it.
-Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
This part of the ‘POWER OF MYTH’ interview with Bill Moyers is effectively anticipating not just stories with a broad environmentalist message but a very specific type of stories like AVATAR and WALL-E.
It seems that the film’s Box Office confirms the audience’s need to see this type of mythology. The overwhelming and continuing response to the film cannot be just reduced to its technological innovations.
The film is ultimately telling the myth we need to see(*).
Apart from the Gaia principle, AVATAR also expresses an other mythology that has been prominent in science fiction movies of the past decades: Man vs. Machine. Note the parallel between Jake’s Avatar and the Colonel’s exo-skeleton, the helis vs. the banshees etc.
It seems to me that the Hero’s Inner and Outer journey in AVATAR are split almost perfectly in parallel with Jake’s two alter egos: his human identity and his Avatar essence.
Although I’ve seen the film three times now (one viewing ruined by jet lag) I haven’t studied the structure thoroughly yet, as I’ve been pretty much holidaying since its release last month.
Please see the breakdown and notes below as a working structure; I’m keen to see your comments at the bottom of this post.
:: what follows is one big spoiler ::
For a full synopsis in narrative form, check the IMDb. I used this to fill in blanks in my own notes here and there. As usual with these overviews, there really is not much point trying to make sense of the breakdown without having seen the film.
Sequence A: Pandora Ordinary World & Avatar Call to Adventure (19mins)
00.00 Fox Leader
00.30 Jake VO: Dreams of flying + waking up. “We’re there.”
02.00 Taking over brother’s contract; fresh start in a new world.
03.00 Landing on Pandora // intercut with brother’s cremation.
05.00 Jake in wheelchair: money can fix him. Vehicle with arrows in tyres.
06.30 Colonel: “Not in Kansas anymore.” Safety brief puts Jake’s mind at ease.
07.30 Norm shows Jake the Avatar.
09.00 Norm: “It looks like YOU. This is YOUR Avatar.” Videolog: for science.
10.00 Grace ‘wrote the book’, she and Norm speak Na’vi.
11.00 Grace: “I need your brother.” She goes to complain to Parker.
12.00 Parker to Grace: Get me some results.
14.00 Jake lacks training. Goes in, to link with his Avatar. Grace going in, too.
16.00 Jake wakes up in Avatar. “Welcome to your new body, Jake!”
(=ENTERS SPECIAL WORLD OF AVATAR)
16.30 Jake walks, doesn’t listen, runs out, has fun. (=INNER JOURNEY CALL)
18.30 Meets Grace’s avatar (“Don’t play with that!”), then goes to sleep.
(=MEETING THE MENTOR)
Sequence B: Refusing Inner Call & Committing to Outer Journey (12mins)
19.00 Wakes up as Jake – “Welcome back”. (=REFUSAL OF THE CALL)
20.00 Introduced to Trudy, she flies the science sorties.
21.00 Col.: Provide intel, get real legs. “Report to me.” Jake: “Hell yes!”
(=CROSSING OUTER JOURNEY THRESHOLD)
23.30 Grace going in, with heli. Jack loves it. Ship lands.
(=SPECIAL WORLD OF PANDORA)
25.30 Jake explores. Lemurs. Helicoradian flowers. (=TESTS)
27.30 Titanotheres. Jake stands his ground. (=TEST)
29.30 Thanator. Grace: “Run, definitely run!” Jumps off waterfall.
(=SEPARATION, CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD?)
ACT TWO (a)
Sequence C: Meeting Pandora Mentor & Omaticaya (17mins)
31.00 Avatar prepares spear, torch. // Neytiri watches, almost shoots.
32.30 Grace & Trudy looking for Avatar. “He won’t make it till morning.”
33.30 Keeps Viperwolfs at bay, but loses torch. Arrows save him.
35.30 Neytiri is saviour: “Strong heart and no fear; but stupid.”
38.00 She is mad at him, because killing animals is sad. “You’re like a baby.”
41.00 Seeds of Sacred tree land on Avatar; Neytiri stays with him.
41.30 They run. Tsu’Tey etc. appears on horses. They take him to the tribe.
44.00 Parents; mother Moat: “Teach him our ways. See if his insanity can be cured.”
47.00 Sleeping in the leaves of the Hometree.
Sequence D: Two conflicting journeys and a deadline (12mins)
48.30 Jake wakes up. -Is the Avatar safe?
49.00 Parker: Find me a carrot that will get them to move. Three months.
51.00 Jake identifies the Omaticaya from photos; Eywa is their God.
52.00 Avatar with Neytiri, on Direhorse. He connects and rides it.
54.00 Jake reports back.
54.30 To the Hallelujah Mountains to set up the science camp.
57.30 Neytiri and her flying Mountain Banshee. Choose your own when ready.
Sequence E: Avatar gets more deeply infiltrated, initiated (17mins)
60.00 Videolog-montage. Neytiri: ‘moron’. Grace: see forest through her eyes.
64.00 Videolog: Deep connection, network of energy, borrowed.
64.30 Jake shoots deer, says prayer. Neytiri: You’re ready. To banshees.
67.30 Under waterfall. Choose, you have one chance. It will try to kill you.
70.00 Fight. Make the bond! Jake falls, then ‘bonds’ & flies.
72.00 Neytiri follows. They fly together.
74.30 Debrief with Grace: The tree of souls. Most sacred place. Lucky swine!
75.30 Attacked by the giant Banshee, the Toruk.
76.30 Neytiri explains: great great grandfather rode the Toruk to unite tribes.
Sequence F: Jake/Avator reborn – one of the Omaticaya (7mins)
77.30 Everything is backwards now. Out there is true world. In here is the dream.
78.30 Col.doubts resolve. “Terminate mission! Legs back. Done deal. Get it done.”
80.30 “Every person is born twice.” Avatar to earn place among the people – forever.
81.30 Initiation ceremony.
83.00 Neytiri & Jake kiss. With you, Jake. Mated for life.
84.00 Videolog. Jake: “What the hell are you doing, Jake?”
ACT TWO (b)
Sequence G: First betrayal, one hour to negotiate retreat (12mins)
84.30 Dozers roll in, Neytiri tries to wake him up//Jake eating //Avatar in danger.
86.00 Jack goes in. // Avatar wakes up; jumps on vehicle & kills video cameras.
87.30 Robo-suits go in. Fight. // Colonel ID’s Jake on photo. “Get me a pilot.”
88.00 Na’vi assemble & prepare for attack.
89.00 Neytiri: mated with him. Tsu’tey angry. “He’s not your brother!”
89.30 Avatar: “I am Omaticaya. One of you.”
90.00 Col. goes in to break the link. // Avatar falls. Tsu’tey doesn’t trust him anymore.
90.30 Col. angry. “You let me down.” Grace explains forest biology & pleads.
93.00 Jake’s videolog: “a waste of time. They’ll never leave hometree.”
94.00 Col. & Parker: Minimal casualties. Let’s pull the trigger.
94.30 Trudy: Parker is running the gunships. Jake: Let me try. Parker: One hour.
Sequence H: Diplomacy has failed. All-out war. Ordeal & Death (12mins)
96.00 Avatar pleads with Omaticaya. Neytiri: You’ll never be one. (=APPROACH)
97.30 They’re coming. Military attack on a tree. Na’vi killed.
99.00 Col.: One big tree. Diplomacy has failed. Let’s get this done. Fire!
101.3 Moat frees Jake & Grace: Help us! // Trudy defects. (=REWARD)
103.0 The tree comes down. (=ORDEAL)
105.0 Col.: Good work people!
105.3 Neytiri bemoans dying father. (=ORDEAL) To Avatar: “Never come back!”
106.3 Parker: pull the plug. Jake and Grace’s avatars fall. Na’vi flee.
FADE TO BLACK
Sequence I: Na’vi armies prepare for battle (12mins)
108.0 Trudy frees Jake, Grace & Norm (=REWARD); they run to the ships.
109.3 Col. notified, runs after them, shoots. They fly off. (=THE ROAD BACK)
111.0 Grace is hurt. Hauling up the lab, fly to the Tree of Souls.
112.0 Jake: The people can help you. Grace: Why would they help us?
113.0 Omaticaya assemble at the Tree of Souls.
114.0 Jake VO: “Take it to a whole new level,” He tames Toruk and flies it.
115.0 Omaticaya praying at the Tree of Souls. Avatar arrives on Toruk.
117.3 Avatar calls on Tsu’Tey: I will fly with you. Praying for Grace.
121.0 Grace dies; with Eywa now. Avatar back to Omaticaya. (=ORDEAL)
122.0 Avatar rallying Omaticaya: Send a message! OUR land! (=RESURRECTION)
124.0 Recruiting more tribes.
Sequence J: Military prepare and attack (17mins)
125.0 The Colonel rallying his troops: “Fight terror with terror!”
126.3 Jake is briefed by friends on the plans: 0600 tomorrow.
128.0 Avatar prays to Eywa, who protects the balance of life. (=ORDEAL)
129.3 Next day: Helis attack, carrying explosives.
131.0 Na’vi attack: sky and ground. Casualties on both sides.
134.3 Engage all hostiles! Scorpions: pursue and destroy!
136.0 Trudy intervenes: “You’re not the only one with a gun.”
137.0 On the ground: major casualties. Trudy sacrifices herself and ship.
138.3 Avatar can’t reach Tsu-tey, Norm, Trudy.
138.0 Preparing bomb for dropping.
139.3 Avatar to Neytiri: do NOT attack. An order.
140.0 Hold position… Animals come in to the rescue. Eywa’s heard you. (=REWARD)
Sequence K: Final Confrontation (15mins)
142.0 30 seconds to payload drop… Avatar intervenes.
143.0 Bombship falls & explodes; battle moves from the sky to the ground.
145.0 Col. moves towards camp, Neytiri attacks, trapped under killed animal.
146.3 Avatar appears, duels with Colonel. (=RESURRECTION)
148.0 “Hi Sully… How does it feel to betray your own race? Time to wake up.”
149.0 Jake has trouble breathing. Neytiri kills the Col. with bow & arrows.
151.0 Neytiri finds Jake, gives him oxygen. “I see you.”
Sequence L: Aftermath & New Life as a Na’vi
152.0 “The aliens returned to their dying world.”
152.3 Last video log. I don’t want to be late for my own party. Signing off.
154.0 Avatar: Na’vi Ceremony. Reborn as Avatar.
154.3 THE END
The end of Act One is not entirely obvious to me because unlike the Mid Point and Act Two, I don’t believe Cameron used a FADE TO BLACK – or else I’ve missed it.
Here’s my reasoning for putting the first act break where I did in the breakdown.
Jake’s longing is to get new legs. When the Col. says “I look after my own” and he promises Jake new legs in return for intel, this is a CALL TO ADVENTURE for Jake. There is no REFUSAL and he immediately accepts/CROSSES THE THRESHOLD by promising the Colonel he will report back to him (“Hell yes!”).
More important in this story from a structural perspective will be Jake’s INNER JOURNEY of realisation that he belongs in the world of the Na’vi, where he has REAL legs already. The INNER CALL TO ADVENTURE is the sensation of how much he loves his new body and the fact that he can walk and run. However, he REFUSES THE CALL by going back to the base and returning to the military program.
The SEPARATION from Jake’s ORDINARY WORLD happens in a number of stages. You can say that the arrival on Pandora is a first separation, from planet Earth. The first science sortie as an Avatar is the second and the physical separation from his team when he escapes the wild animal is the final one. Symbolic action for this Separation is the jump off the waterfull, a typical ‘Point of No Return’.
Early in the first sequence, we see Jake’s longing and his flaw: he wants his legs back. But he can’t do anything about it as he doesn’t make enough money. His wheelchair is also perceived as his flaw, as becomes clear when one of the military makes the comment “That is just … wrong.” He doesn’t belong in this military world.
Unlike the usual Hero’s Journey, in which we leave the ORDINARY WORLD at the end of Act One, the CALL TO ADVENTURE introduces Jake to a SPECIAL WORLD – that of his Avatar. This structure is similar to movies such as BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Jake meets with Grace, his ORDINARY WORLD MENTOR. However it is not until he meets her in the SPECIAL WORLD that she assumes her role of giving him ‘advice’ (“Don’t play with that!”) and guide him. Later, he will meet his SPECIAL WORLD MENTOR in the shape of Neytiri.
In the SPECIAL WORLD of Pandora’s jungle, Jake is immediately confronted with a number of tests. The first is the Titanotheres, the second a Thanator. In both cases, he follows the advice from Grace. Once separated, he will need to develop new skills to withstand the Viperwolfs and here he needs the help from his new SPECIAL WORLD MENTOR, Neytiri.
Act IIa is essentially a succession of tests in a positive, optimistic atmosphere, leading to the Mid Sequence that reverses it all. By completing the ceremony and becoming one of the Omaticaya and mating with Neytiri, Jake’s Avatar has now committed to the Na’vi and betrayed the humans.
Immediately after the Mid Sequence, the Avatar proves his allegiance to the Na’vi by attempting to stop the bulldozers on their way to Hometree. Back at the base, Jake is given a last chance and a deadline (one hour) to negotiate and make the Omaticaya retreat.
But the negotiations fail and the military attack and bring down Hometree, at the cost of many casualties.
This lowest point in the story is the ORDEAL (Crisis) for both Jake and his Avatar. They are arrested; the Avatar by the Omaticaya and Jake by the military. Next they are freed, each by their respective ally: Moat and Judy. This release (REWARD) completes the ORDEAL stage and allows the Hero to set out on the ROAD BACK.
The last act is not a straightforward battle-confrontation-resolution-aftermath, because the story is explicitly told on two levels.
While the armies prepare for the final confrontation, we see Jake’s Avatar praying to Eywa in what seems a redemptive, spiritual ORDEAL that seals his transformation in the INNER JOURNEY. The REWARD for this follows when later Neytiri says “Eywa has heard you”.
In the OUTER JOURNEY, the story climaxes in the duel with the Colonel and is resolved with the death of the Colonel and the survival of Jake.
The INNER JOURNEY climax lies in the movie’s last sequence, when we see Jake’s last video log about his choice to leave the base forever.
The very last shot before the credits seals this choice, when the Avatar opens his eyes and we know that Jake will continue his life as a Na’vi.
Your comments, please!
Could AVATAR have been a more satisfying story in any way? Probably (thanks MM).
Would it have been equally successful? Who knows…
ACT I, 3 Sequences (31mins)
ACT IIa, 3 Sequences (46mins)
MID SEQUENCE (7mins)
ACT IIb, 2 Sequences (24mins)
ACT III 3 Sequences (46mins)
Compare this structure with James Cameron’s scriptment of AVATAR.
Total: 12 Sequences (154mins)
(*)If you can think of any other successful films about the same theme, tell us in the comments.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.