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Avatar: Alien For Dessert

By Karel Segers

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There is a moment in every story, where the main character moves from Act One into Act Two. In screenwriting jargon, we call this the Threshold Moment. Sometimes it happens in the blink of an eye, in other movies it can be an entire scene. In James Cameron’s preferred version of Avatar, the Threshold lasts for nearly ten minutes.

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.

MYTH - NO MYSTERY


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.

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 film abounds with mythical imagery and archetypes. Jake 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 Sigourney Weaver as Grace.

STYLE - UNDERRATED

Avatar has been lauded for its eye candy, but too easily despised for its screenplay. I really believe that the critics just don’t like this type of cinema, as Cameron’s screenplays are excellent. He 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.

GLISTENING JAWS lunge downward, SNAP SHUT and --

The creature rips Jake out of the tree, shaking him like a junkyard dog with a rabbit, only --

It has him by the BACKPACK, so Jake unlatches it and --

He FLIES FREE as the thanator crushes the pack with its teeth. Giving Jake a moment to sprint away, but --

With a hideous BELLOW the thanator crashes after him, splintering trees.

ALIEN FOR DESSERT

The sequence opens as the crew flies into the jungles of Pandora. 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:

SOMETHING rises up behind him out of focus --

A THANATOR. The most awesome land predator the universe has ever conceived. This thing could eat a T-rex and have the Alien for desert.

You have got to admit: this is a fun read. 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.

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and Logline.it!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.

 

Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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