In the Avatar screenplay, like in every screenplay, a moment occurs when the main character moves from Act One into Act Two. ‘Moves’, because in successful films, this is the point where we travel from A to B. In screenwriting jargon, we call this the First Threshold. Sometimes, it happens in the blink of an eye, in other movies it can be an entire scene. Only inexperienced writers will leave it out. In James Cameron’s preferred version of Avatar, the Threshold lasts for nearly ten minutes.
Because of its incredible success, it is worth studying the Avatar screenplay and its story structure. With the top two highest grossing movies ever behind his name, writer/director Jim Cameron knows what he is doing. These are not studio-driven movies: they are personal obsessions. Titanic was Cameron’s excuse (and funding source) to continue his infatuation with the deep ocean, while Avatar is now apparently all he wants to do – ever again. The sequels Avatar II, III and IV, which the director is working on in his new home in New Zealand, are currently scheduled for 2017 and 2019.
The Avatar Screenplay
Avatar is in essence a simple ‘boy meets girl’ story within the action genre, and it covers a whole range of themes – if you want to see them – from environmentalist, anti-colonialist, to buddhist. The movie is long, but clearly not too long, telling from its success. The post-production script was only 110p.
How come Cameron’s movies put half the planet at the edge of their seat? No-one – probably not even Jim himself – know. But I believe his understanding of mythical storytelling has something to do with it. The only way to connect with a planet-wide audience, is to tap into the mythology of the times.
The film abounds with mythical imagery and archetypes. Jakes doesn’t just have one mentor. He has three. In the Ordinary World, Colonel Quaritch gives him the life lessons; once on Pandora, Neytiri will take that function. During the transition from the one world to the next, Jake’s third mentor, the ‘threshold mentor’, is played by played by Sigourney Weaver as Grace. The last thing she says to Jake, just before the start of the Threshold sequence is “Just keep your mouth shut.” He is going into unknown territory and will have to let his mentor(s) lead him. Throughout the scene, Grace keeps giving Jake advise. “Don’t run,” but a moment later “Run! Definitely run!”
Join Cameron’s Screenwriting Class
Avatar has been lauded for its eye candy, but too easily despised for its screenplay. In my view, any critics just don’t like this type of cinema, as Cameron’s screenplays are excellent. In fact, many of his peers could learn from him. Cameron doesn’t have to deliver a script to the industry standard, or any standard for that matter. Yet his screenplays are prime examples for any beginning screenwriter: clear, tight, visual, well-formatted, and with clear, dramatic subtext written into the scenes where necessary. Don’t forget that these are action movies, after all.
Cameron has a brilliant action writing style, with ample use of double dashes (—) to build and keep suspense for the reader.
Alien for dessert
The threshold sequence opens as the crew flies into the jungles of Pandora. Have you noticed that we never see the choppers take off? We never even see them climb. In this sequence, we can only see them descend. Do you believe this is coincidence, when every Hero’s Journey begins with a descent into the Special World? I don’t.
Jake goes exploring and the tension rises gradually, as he passes his first few tests in this new territory, assisted by Grace and her team. The third test – the Thanator – chases him away from his mates, until he is completely separated, and there is no way back before nightfall. Again, all mythical imagery…
Have a look at how the Thanatos is introduced in the script:
You have got to admit: this is a fun read. James Cameron doesn’t have to sell his script as badly as you and I do. He has to raise financing, yes, but by the mid 2000’s, people were pretty confident that Cameron would deliver the goods.
“This thing could eat a T-rex and have the Alien for desert.”
Note also that in this Threshold passage, Jake loses his rifle and his backpack. These are typically tools from the Ordinary World, and they are of no use in the new world. In a mythical sense, Jake is stripped naked from all that protected him, ready to be reborn.
And guess where he ends up in the final moments of this sequence… amneotic fluid, also known as Pandora water.
– Karel Segers
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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.