Before my first trip to Walt Disney World, I wanted to prepare myself for visiting Pandora in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I knew a lot about the construction of that particular area in the park and was looking forward to seeing the incredible camouflaged buildings in person.
So, I rewatched Avatar on the flight over and was mesmerized by the story. I remembered having the same reaction when the movie was first released back in 2009, along with my massive crush on Jake Sully. And I realized why Avatar is one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling breaks down the six things every book, film, tv show, screenplay, or manuscript must address in order to be successful. These core competencies are composed of four elements crucial to devising a well-developed story and two competencies focused solely on execution.
Yes, there is overlap between these competencies. Character lends itself to structure, structure involves scenes, scenes incorporate theme, and round and round it goes. But that’s the point. When you look at a building, you don’t see all the structural steel columns behind the drywall. At least, you shouldn’t. Buildings become cathedrals when wall coverings are donned and light fixtures are installed. All of those finishes are all up to the designer and no two designers have the same palette, the same style, same vision.
Engineering becomes art when the substructure—the prep work—holding everything together fades away and all that’s visible is the end product. Elements give the house shape, but the execution gives it its charm. James Cameron excels in each of these core competencies to transform films into blockbuster events of the year.
Here’s a breakdown of the six core competencies used in 2009’s Avatar.
I’m not sure how Cameron’s pitch meeting went down to the studio execs, but I imagine it something like this:
An ex-marine with a spinal injury controls an alien body to learn more about the natives inhabiting an intended quarry site until the ex-marine starts to question which is more important: having his injury fixed or defending his connection to the natives and healing their world.
It sounds so simple, but I guarantee you it was not, okay? Don’t ask writers where our ideas come from. We have no idea. But, the best stories can always be summarized in a single sentence that provides an image of the protagonist, the setting and genre, and establishes the stakes all while giving a glimpse of theme. Concept is the narrative, but stories are driven by characters.
Avatar portrays a slew of varied, necessary characters. Keyword on necessary. Characters like Norm, Max, Trudy, Lyle, Eytukan, and Tsu’tey each further the story’s narrative even in seemingly small or insignificant roles.
The main protagonist in Avatar is Jake Sully, our ex-marine with spinal injury. Jake links to the avatar and is immediately given back use of his legs making him the ideal main character with a relatable backstory, the skills to overcome his hubris, and a direct involvement with the narrative’s conflict.
Another character that’s important to the story, at least Jake’s story, even if only mentioned in the movie’s first five minutes, is the ghost of Tommy, Jake’s brother. Tommy is the reason Jake goes to Pandora and his death lingers around Jake upon his arrival to the base. Jake looks at the avatar and says it looks like “him.” Norm Spellman corrects Jake in saying, “Looks like you. This is your avatar now.” Jake’s connection to his brother’s body hits home again when Jake takes up the avatar full time with the help of the People.
Characters are most effectively used when they embody the conflict of the narrative. Neytiri is the dutiful daughter, the reluctant teacher, and personification of Jake’s involvement with the People. While she is a love interest that serves the subplot, she also saves Jake in the final fight against Quaritch and is crucial to Jake accomplishing his goal of healing his body.
Of course, that wouldn’t be possible without Mo’at. Mo’at is Neytiri’s mother and the real MVP of Avatar. She allows Jake to learn the People’s way and assigns Neytiri to teach him, she releases Jake and Grace after Eytukan had them tied up, and permits Grace’s entrance to their village. Mo’at is the compassionate mother and a personification of Eywa, the People’s deity. When characters embody theme, the story’s emotional impact increases.
Another example of this is Colonel Quaritch, the head of security for the company’s base and the main antagonist. While the audience doesn’t realize Quaritch is the bad guy in the beginning, he does emit strong traits that alert the audience to pay attention to him. What really makes him the antagonist is he becomes a personification of the company’s main objective: destroying Hometree. Quaritch stands directly in the way of Jake accomplishing his goal of redeeming himself and defending Hometree.
It’s easy to misinterpret the antagonist in Avatar since the audience sees Parker Selfrdige as the head of the company who’s directing and wanting the destruction of Hometree. However, Selfride is more of an antihero whose main goal is to get rich. It’s literally his name. Self-ridge. Self rich. Self-ish. However, Selfridge contradicts his selfishness and allows Jake to try and evacuate the People from Hometree before Quaritch destroys it.
Creating complex characters make them more real, or what writers refer to as three-dimensional. Another example of this is Grace Augustine, a botanist who smokes cigarettes. You’d think a scientist who values living organisms wouldn’t poison her own body, but it gives her a relatable flaw that makes her real. People aren’t perfect, and including contradictory characters elevates storytelling.
Ah, theme. The dreaded, elusive subtext of the narrative and story at large. But in Avatar’s case, theme might whack you over the head with it. Yes, there’s the initial layer of theme in questioning the protection of nature and conservation rights in addition to colonization but there’s also three other messages at play.
Man Vs Machine
Jake controls a Na’vi body while Quaritch pilots a metal suit, and yet Quaritch consistently judges Jake for his use of the avatar. Neither of them are equipped to fight in their current forms on their world so they use other means to pursue their goals; now we’re dipping into the concept and structure elements.
Greed Vs Wealth
In Jake’s first trip to the forest, we see Grace and Norm conducting tests and taking samples of the trees’ root systems and being fascinated by the speed, even going so far as to hypothesize that it’s a form of electrical transference. Later we learn that the Tree of Souls emits a form of electrochemistry that alters the use of nearby manmade equipment.
When Grace and Selfridge argue about destroying Hometree, Grace counters that the forest is a network that the Na’vi can access and share information on a real, physical level. And the whole reason Selfridge wants to destroy Hometree is for the mineral in the ground called unobtanium. Get it? Because it’s something Selfridge will never obtain?
And, to top it off, the whole reason Jake even goes to Pandora is because his brother, Tommy, was robbed at gun point and murdered for his wallet. Not to mention, the slight quiver of rage in Sam Worthington’s voice when the line is delivered is just phenomenal.
So, Avatar begs the question: what is wealth and what are you willing to do to obtain it?
Awake Vs Asleep
This theme is woven into the dialogue so well that it snuck up on me. The film opens with Jake saying, “In cryo, you don’t dream at all.” At the midpoint in the film, he says that the real world is when he’s with the People and the link chamber with his injured body is the dream. After the destruction of Hometree, Jake says he was “a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace, but sooner or later, you always have to wake up.” In defense of the People, Grace tells Selfridge that he needs to wake up. In the final fight outside the link chamber, Quaritch tells Jake that it’s time to wake up. Of course, the movie ends with Jake opening his eyes as if he’s waking up.
This idea of being asleep, blissful, ignorant, walking blindly through life asks the question: are you gonna shut your eyes and obey orders, or are you gonna wake up and fight for your beliefs?
All of these themes, these ideas, play into concept and give characters their shape which gives them the plot points needed to tell the audience their story.
Structure is the key core competency that will make or break a story. Drawing out the setup phase will bore your audience into leaving while giving too much information too quickly will lead them into confusion. Each plot point comes with its own unique criteria and prerequisites prior to placing it within the plot. So, without recapping every scene in the movie, these are Avatar’s plot points that give the story its blockbuster format.
Inciting Incident - Jake meets with Quaritch in the hangar where he offers Jake the surgery to fix his injury if he learns the People’s weakness.
First Plot Point - Neytiri brings Jake before Eytukan and Mo’at where Jake says he’s a warrior and they allow him to learn their ways.
First Pinch Point - Jake meets with Quaritch to discuss the structure of Hometree.
Midpoint - Jake wrangles his own ikran, and Neytiri teaches him about Toruk Makto. Jake comes out of the link chamber, thinking, “Everything is backwards now.”
Second Pinch Point - Jake admits to betraying the People, and Quaritch destroys Hometree.
Second Plot Point - Jake wrangles Toruk and redeems the People’s trust at the Tree of Souls.
Each plot point builds on the one before it. If you take one out, the story folds like a deck of cards. That’s how you determine if a story is good or not, and Avatar is a good story.
As I said earlier, the next two competencies are based on the writer’s style, their individualistic choices that make the story theirs and their version of telling it. For example, all of the live action remakes Disney’s been doing include the same concepts, same characters, same theme, same structure as the original films, but there’s some variation in the scenes and overall voice of the story.
In Avatar, each scene ends with some sort of exposition, some element of further knowledge. Whether that's raising the stakes, evolving the character’s understanding, or exposing a secret, it moves the story forward. Every scene must drop a nugget of exposition otherwise it does not serve the story and the scene should be eliminated.
The only scene that doesn’t meet this criteria is when Jake holds up Grace’s book in frustration and says, “When people are sitting on [stuff] that you want, you make them your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it.” It feels a little out of place for Jake’s character, as in it’s not the appropriate reaction to what occurred in the scene before, nor does it create a domino effect. It doesn’t propel the story forward. He’s merely frustrated. He doesn’t take any action after saying it. Trudy is the one to enter the scene and move the story along by informing Jake and Grace of Quaritch’s intention to bomb Hometree, and only then does Jake spring into action. This scene does, however, shed light on theme regarding colonization and war, so I get why it was written and left in the film.
Another well executed bit of foreshadowing in Avatar is when Grace and Jake confront Selfridge about destroying Hometree and Quaritch is being, well, Quaritch. Grace says, “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna shoot me?” To which Quaritch replies, “I can do that.” And then he does indeed shoot her during their escape from the base after the second pinch point.
This bit of foreshadowing goes back even further to when Neytiri shows Jake the Tree of Souls before the midpoint. Grace is reviewing the footage of the landscape and remarks, “I would die to get samples.” And then at the second plot point, after Grace has been shot, Jake brings her to the Tree of Souls for the People to help her injuries where she unfortunately dies.
However, this moment foreshadows the People transferring Jake’s spirit into Tommy’s avatar permanently at the end of the movie. It’s why this second plot point is so crucial to the film’s ending because no new information can enter the story after this point. All of the pieces are at play, they’re on the board—twists can still happen in the resolution phase—but the audience has to at least seen or heard it once before in order to feel like they’re on the journey with the protagonist and not being strung along.
What gives Avatar a unique lens is that it’s told from Jake’s point of view. He’s an ex-marine. If his brother, Tommy, hadn’t been killed and told this story, one: there wouldn’t be a story because Tommy wouldn’t act the way Jake acts; and two: it would be told from an analytical perspective because Tommy’s a scientist. But because Jake was a soldier, he not only physically has a somewhat New Yorker accent, the words he uses add richness to his character, to his voice.
For example, when Neytiri teaches Jake the Na’vi’s language and he says, “The language is a pain, but I figure it’s like field strippin’ a weapon. Just repetition, repetition.” In contrast, when I think about learning a language, I think about learning the way I paint: with one layer at a time. Because I don’t have Jake’s background and he doesn’t have mine, the way he sounds is totally different than the way I do.
Jake’s voice is consistent throughout the film and creates a compelling melody for the audience to settle into and listen up.
Mo’s No or Go Pile
Crafting stories is no different than creating storied skyscrapers. Okay, there might be some logistical differences, but both processes involve a planning phase and a completing phase. Avatar is a highly visual film jam packed with high stakes, complex characters, and evocative themes masterfully through an airtight plot structure.
Avatar has become the background noise I listen to while painting. It’s just over two and a half hours so it’s a good chunk of time for me to settle into my easel and get painting. I’ve watched, or listened, to the movie so many times, I can quote it from memory. I was absolutely heartbroken when it was removed from Disney+ in preparation for its sequel, Avatar: Way of Water.
Thankfully, I have a DVD of Avatar. Yes, an actual, spherical DVD, and popped that into the player. And I was so glad when Disney put the movie back on their streaming service just a few weeks ago and I no longer have to endure the horrible pixelated quality of a DVD from 2009 because it is still a beautiful film almost fourteen years later.
It’s because of all of these core competencies that James Cameron’s Avatar is absolutely on my go pile. Go watch it, study it, see what storytelling elements and execution choices you notice, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!