Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Avatar: The Way of Water VS. Avatar – Spectacle and Structure
This episode, we’re going to be looking at Avatar: The Way of Water as well as the first Avatar, the 2009 film. We’re going to be breaking down both movies structurally, analyzing their strengths and weakness, and understanding the role of spectacle in both Avatar films, and how to apply those lessons to your own writing.
There’s an interesting thing that happens with sequels. When we’re building sequels, our movies actually become more like TV shows than like traditional feature films.
Traditionally, when we think of a feature film, we think of a contained unit. But when we think of a TV series, we actually want to create a replicable element, where every installment of the series feels like every other installment of the series, even as the plot and certain elements change.
In other words, we’re trying to create the same feeling in a different way. And this is true whether you’re making Avatar, the Avengers, or even The Godfather Part 1 and 2, (we’ll leave The Godfather, Part 3 for another conversation).
By looking at the engine of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water we can better understand how sequels work and how to write a successful sequel.
When we create sequels, we’re not just continuing the story, we’re building an engine. We’re asking, What are the replicable elements of the first movie? And how do I replicate them in a way that feels the same, but also feels different?
We want movie goers to feel like they got what they came for, while also feeling like they got something a little unexpected.
James Cameron has been very clear on this. He developed the scripts to ensure that if you liked the first Avatar movie, you’re going to like Avatar: The Way of Water.
In fact, Cameron had trouble with the writing of Avatar: The Way of Water because he was frustrated with the writers trying to come up with new stories rather than first looking at what made the first one so successful, and trying to replicate those elements.
We’re also going to be talking about the role of spectacle in both Avatar films, the importance of spectacle, and how to find spectacle in your own writing.
Whether you’re writing a huge feature film like Avatar: The Way of Water that’s going to cost $400 million to make, or a $20,000 feature, we’re going to talk about the value of spectacle, and the importance of spectacle and how to build spectacle in your screenwriting, your TV writing, even your playwriting.
We’re going to explore how the use of spectacle in Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water allows both films to transcend some of the problems in the screenplays.
Both screenplays have their weaknesses, and they have their strengths. But structurally, the script for the first Avatar, despite its unabashedly cheesy dialogue and all that kind of stuff that everyone complains about, is actually a much stronger film than Avatar: The Way of Water.
So we’re going to be talking about some of the structural differences. so you can understand how to apply those lessons to your own screenwriting.
We talked about the idea that a sequel is supposed to create the same feeling as the original. So, what’s the feeling that Avatar is supposed to give you?
There are a couple of different elements to that feeling.
On the simplest level, both installments of the Avatar series are supposed to give you a feeling of wonder.
Sure, there’s going to be lots of action and excitement, like in all James Cameron movies, but the Avatar series is supposed to do more than that. It’s supposed to transport you.
It’s not just a movie about a bunch of action sequences. Even though it is built like a video game, Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water are both intended to take you on aspiritual journey and give you some a spiritual feeling.
That’s the first element. This kind of enhanced, transcendent feeling of wonder that is baked into both the first Avatar and the sequel.
The second element is that there’s something political about Avatar.
Now the truth is, the first Avatar is way more political than the second. There’s the obvious themes of environmentalism that roll through both of these films, there’s the obvious parallels to the colonial experience of America, and the colonial experience of Pandora.
In the first Avatar, without ever telling you he’s doing so, James Cameron is going to make you look at the second Iraq War from the perspective of the Iraqis.
The first Avatar is sending in a guy who thinks he’s a hero into a world where he’s going to discover that he’s actually not.
And through his eyes, we’re going to see what the experience of “shock and awe” and a war for resources, set up under false pretenses, looks like for the people on the other side. We’re going to empathise with what that feels like when you are the person living there.
The first Avatar has his very strong political angle to it. That’s another part of the feeling of the piece.
Avatar: The Way of Water has politics to it as well. It certainly has the same environmental politics, and the colonial politics. But it’s slightly less complex politically in the way it’s built. for reasons that we are going to talk about later.
For now, just remember, that’s the second element of the feeling of both Avatar movies, there’s a political aspect to them.
The third element of the feeling of the Avatar series is the action adventure element.
You’re going to get your adrenaline pumping during these movies, you’re going to feel transcendence and wonder, and you’re going to have some political thoughts.
That is the package of emotions that everything in Avatar is designed to deliver to you.
And because the primary feeling of Avatar is one of wonder, spectacle becomes even more important in this film than it might be in some other movies.
Spectacle becomes urgent in the making of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water, because without spectacle, Avatar is not Avatar. Avatar:
Avatar: The Way of Water: you can see, right in the title, the promise of the spectacle.
In the first Avatar, what’s the spectacle?
The spectacle is these incredible 12 foot tall blue creatures, that are impossibly thin with impossibly big eyes, (and kind of look like James Cameron’s ex wife). That is the spectacle.
This world of Pandora that’s going to completely envelop you, people riding crazy flying creatures, feeling like you’re immersed in this world that is aglow with special spirituality that you wish that you could experience.
That’s part of the spectacle.
In writing Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron essentially says to his team of writers, okay, we’re going to do exactly the same shit but we’re going to do it under the water.
And just like the first Avatar was going to revolutionize the nature of special effects, CGI, and motion capture to show you a spectacle in a way you’ve never seen onscreen before, James Cameron is going to once again reinvent filmmaking technology to ensure the spectacle of Avatar: The Way of Water looks different from any movie you’ve ever seen before.
He’s going to do it with a new technology that will make this the first movie with CGI water that looks real. He’s going to do it with free divers. He’s going to do “wet for wet” and then work CGI into that.
What James Cameron is doing here is wild on the visual scale. But he’s not just doing it to be fancy and spend lots of money.
He’s doing it because that feeling of wonder is essential to the series.
That feeling that you’re watching the best National Geographic video you’ve ever seen in your life, taking place in a world that you’ve never experienced before, is fundamental to what James Cameron is trying to build in Avatar: The Way of Water and the feeling of wonder that he’s trying to deliver to the audience.
In a movie like Avatar, where they have pretty much an unlimited budget, it seems obvious that you’d build spectacle.
But I’d like to argue that if you’re an independent filmmaker, spectacle is even more important than if you’re making something small. And the reason is very, very simple: most independent films don’t have it.
The reason most independent films don’t have spectacle is that most independent filmmakers are so busy thinking about how to tell their beautiful story inexpensively, that they don’t give enough thought to the question of how they’re going to get audiences to show up for the movie!
They’re not thinking about their trailer.
If you’re an independent filmmaker, you’ve got to remember that if butts don’t get in those seats, if people don’t see your movie, it doesn’t matter how beautifully written it is. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous your dialogue is.
The original Avatar has one of my favorite examples of truly terrible dialogue.
I’m going to paraphrase the expository monologue that takes place when Jake Sully first arrives at the planet Pandora. It goes a little bit like this:
“As you may know, Jake, you are here to obtain Unobtanium. As you also may know Jake, since you’re an astronaut, who’s been training for this for ever, Unobtanium is very hard to obtain. As you may know, Jake, in order to obtain the Unobtanium, we are going to put you in this crazy blue creature that’s going to look freaking awesome and send you out into this tribe to infiltrate. And as you may know, Jake, if you do this successfully, and you get us the Unobtanium, you will no longer be paralyzed; we will give you your legs back…”
This is potentially the worst monologue ever written, from a dialogue point of view. But it doesn’t really matter. Avatar transcends the weak dialogue, because we’re really connected to this visual spectacle.
The moment they stick Jake in the Avatar, Jake’s going to get up and start running. And we’re going to have this amazing, beautiful action sequence. Everything’s going to look so gorgeous. We’re going to feel like we’ve been dropped into this amazing world.
And we don’t really care that the writer is barely learned how to do exposition. (Okay, well, I care, but billions of dollars shows that the rest of the world did not).
The truth is, James Cameron is a better writer than this. He has done a lot better job in films like The Terminator. or even a film like Titanic. It doesn’t matter that he’s being a little lazy in this monologue from the original Avatar, because the spectacle around the bad dialogue elevates the piece.
Of course, it’s also true that great dialogue can do the same thing to elevate a screenplay. A beautifully written scene can lift something doesn’t look beautiful.
But it’s really hard to capture a beautifully written scene in a trailer where you’re only seeing little clips of it.
Trailers for independent films often look like a bunch of talking heads. And it’s really hard to get excited about a bunch of talking heads.
If you’re making an independent film, I want you to think about the spectacle in your script with the same intention the writers brought to Avatar. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money. Spectacle doesn’t have to look the same in every kind of movie.
If you’re writing a horror movie, the spectacle might be the blood and guts of it.
If you are writing, Mare of Easttown, the spectacle is the way that you create the feeling of this little town in Pennsylvania.
If you’re writing a movie like Saw–everybody talks about Saw like as a great example of a little contained horror film that was shot on no money and made so much money– but they forget to mention that it looked freaking beautiful.
If you look at a movie like Brick, it’s literally shot, I think, on one soundstage. They don’t even make a real show of hiding the fact that it’s a soundstage. And it was obviously shot for no money. But the spectacle of it: they made it look freaking beautiful for no money.
What that does is it gives you a trailer. It gives you a teaser. It gives you something to show the audience.
Also, by capturing the spectacle in your script, rather than depending on the director to figure out, you director-proof your script and give your movie a much greater chance of being made.
It costs you nothing to do that. It only costs you time. It only costs you the time of reminding yourself: let me really visualize this. What does the room look like? What does this image look like? How do I make it cool or specific?
The spectacle can be a close up of a face (if you look closely enough and notice something cool).
If you notice a character crying, that’s not spectacle. But if you notice a tear caught on the edge of a quivering eyelash. that is spectacle!
That spectacle costs you no more to shoot than “she cries.” But you’ve created a visual that actually matters is going to stick with us.
You can replace the word spectacle if it’s scary for you, if it sounds expensive, if it makes you think of Avatar rather than microbudget indies like yours. Replace the word spectacle with specificity.
You want to ask yourself, How am I going to look at this specifically enough that every element can have something visually cool, visually interesting to it.
It often costs the same amount to shoot something visually interesting as to shoot something totally boring.
Many independent filmmakers think, Okay, let me just shoot against the white wall, because I have it here in my apartment, as opposed to thinking, Okay, let me make a list of every cool place I have access to that actually looks good that I can shoot in for free or for cheap. Let me think about how do I use bodies in that space. Let me think about what the characters are doing, what’s the fun action that they’re doing that I can root them in.
Everything can become spectacle, but you want to remember that your piece should be visually beautiful, and that your spectacle, the kind of spectacle you want to create, is connected to the feeling of the movie.
If you’re writing a thriller– let’s take Chinatown for example– the spectacle is different than the spectacle of Avatar. The spectacle is the knife up Jack Nicholson’s nose. The spectacle is Jack Nicholson caught in the flowing water, pulling himself over the fence.
These things don’t have to be hugely expensive. But you want to make sure that you are capturing something visually beautiful that connects to the feeling of the piece.
If you’re writing a horror movie, it might be about the blood and guts. It might be about the costumes or makeup. You want to think about where are you spending your money.
If you’re writing an action movie, the spectacle is in the action sequences. And if you’re writing The Fast and the Furious the spectacle is the crazy stuff you’re doing with cars.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing big movies or small movies, or even TV series, you want to capture things in a visually powerful way in your script, so people can see it in their mind’s eye and realize, Wow! This is going to be cool. It’s not just a bunch of people saying interesting stuff. I see it in my head and I can visualize the trailer and it feels real.
This is a huge part of your job as a screenwriter. Your job is spectacle.
To choose a movie on the polar opposite side budget-wise of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water let’s look at the role of spectacle in Darren Aronofsky’s,The Whale.
The whole film takes place in a living room and on a porch. Aronofsky’s chosen to shoot those locations in what used to be the old 4:3 TV format back when TV sets were square. That’s a wild decision that has everything to do with spectacle.
The reason Aronfsky chose to shoot in the old 4:3 format is to make the main-character’s body the spectacle of the piece: he wanted to fill the frame with him.
You can have whatever political beliefs you want to have about whether that is is respectful, an empathetic or whether that’s exploitative. That’s a completely different question.
But the spectacle of it is unavoidable. The way he’s taking that on in a tiny little film. How do I want this to look? I want to make sure you that you actually think about that as you’re writing as as you’re directing your film.
We understand spectacle now. We know that this is really why the audience went to the first Avatar, and we know from the title of Avatar, The Way of Water, that the focus of the spectacle in the sequel is really about the stuff in the water.
It’s about Jake Sully’s son’s relationship with the Tulkun, the whale-like creature that’s an outcast like him, which he’s going to connect to. And that means that we can have these long, beautiful underwater sequences about kids playing with aquatic animals.
Avatar is about kids playing with fish. But it’s about kids playing with fish in a beautiful transcendent way that fills you with wonder.
That’s the primary thing the script is delivering. And in that three and a half hours of film– a great proportion is just “National Geographic” footage, in a fictional world.
The movie is about the wonder of the aquatic world. Just like the original is about the wonder of the forest world of Pandora.
It’s really important to understand what you’re building. Within that you can see how James Cameron is literally mirroring the same elements in Avatar: The Way of Water that gave him success in the previous Avatar.
In the first Avatar, the most important element of the forest world is Hometree.
In one of the best structural choices of the original film, Hometree is set up to be the most important thing in this world and to the culture of the native characters.
We know that these imperialist people from the sky are going to destroy it in their search for Unobtanium. And we assume that’s going to happen at the end. Or maybe there’s going to be an epic battle, and Jake Sully’s going to save that tree.
But James Cameron makes a really interesting structural choice in the first Avatar: he kills Hometree halfway through the film!
The audience is as shocked as the characters! Things are not playing out in the order we anticipated. If Hometree has been lost, what is left? What else can there be? What’s going to happen.
And then James Cameron establishes a second “Hometree” that they can defend in the second half of the movie.
This is a really brilliant move structurally. Get to the big thing first, get to the thing that the audience know it knows is going to happen at the end… and do it in the middle.
Structurally, that knocks both the audience and the characters off their axis, and allows the film to take us to places neither we nor they expected.
So we know Hometree is a vital element to the engine of the first Avatar, so that means it needs to be replicated in Avatar, The Way of Water, not just as a plot element but as an element of the feeling of the film.
It’s important to remember that Hometree is imbued with a spiritual feeling in the first movie– not just an object of worship, but as an element that gives both the character’s and the audience a spiritual experience and a feeling of wonder.
So, of course, there’s going to be a Hometree in Avatar: The Way of Water. Where does it live? Under the water! It’s literally the same element transported to the second movie..
Although structurally, you can probably see that what’s done with Hometree in Avatar: The Way of Water is much less interesting, much less dangerous, much less problematic for the characters, than what’s done in the first movie.
In the first Avatar, we have an element called Unobtanium. You can think of it almost like a joke. Hitchcock used to call it the MacGuffin, that thing that everybody wants.
Hitchcock called it the MacGuffin because it doesn’t matter what it is. In this case, in the first movie it’s Unobtanium. In the second movie… it’s the exact same thing!
Except, instead of being called Unobtanium, it’s called Amrita. And instead of being located at Hometree, it’s located… a little bit of a spoiler here…
It’s located inside of the Tulkun,, the giant whale-like creatures with whom the boy has bonded– which are essentially, in themselves, the next evolution of Hometree – a natural, spiritual element, vital to the culture of the native peoples, that is going to be threatened by the imperialists from the sky.
In Avatar, the Sky People (the Americans) were on Pandora hunting the Unobtanium under Hometree. In Avatar: The Way of Water, they’re on Pandora hunting Amrita in the Tulkun.
And that means that the Tulkun must be a creature that the characters in this piece that we care about, have a tremendous connection for. They have to have the same value as Hometree. They have to be that important.
So how to create that? By giving Jake Sully’s kid an emotional connection to these creatures… just like the emotional connection to Hometree in Avatar.
It’s not enough to have the intellectual understanding of the connection,the many lines of dialogue pointing out how important the Tulkun are for the culture of the Metkayina (the underwater clan in Avatar: The Way of Water). We need a visceral connection, and that connection is going to be built through spectacle.
We’re going to see the arrival of the Tulkun and what it means for the clan. We’re going to see the Free Willy worthy relationship between a boy and his whale-like creature, these two outcasts who find each other. We’re going to invest the Tulkun with all the emotional value that the first movie invested Hometree with… and then… (again some spoilers here)…
We’re going to see the Tulkun be slaughtered, just like Hometree in the first Avatar.
Unfortunately, Avatar: The Way of Water is not going to kill off the Tulkun in as interesting a way as the first movie killed off Hometree.
In first Avaatar, you thinking to yourself, for half the movie–there’s no way they’re going to kill Hometree– only to lose Hometree halfway through.
But by the second movie, you’ve wised up. You know how this series works. You’re waiting for them to kill the Tulkun that the boy loves. But that Tulkun is not going to be killed. And while the slaughter is certainly going to be disturbing, it’s going to be highly predictable, and far less emotionally impactful than the loss of Hometree in the first film.
We’ve talked about the political element being another replicable element of the feeling of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water. And of course that political element is going to be tied to the killing of the Tulkun.
The political element of Avatar: The Way of Water is that the Tulkun, is that this school of brilliant “whales,”– who we are told are way more intelligent than humans are– have agreed to never fight again.
These incredibly powerful sea creatures have made an agreement with each other, they’re never going to kill again. And in fact, ourTulkun , the little boy’s Tulkun that we love, has been made an outcast, because he made the terrible mistake of fighting back against the people trying to kill him.
And this is going to connect to the main character’s journey. Jake Sully, by the end of the film, is going to realize you can’t just be a pacifist, you’ve got to fight back.
Now this is a much less interesting political message than that of the first Avatar.
The first Avatar takes a character who believes that he is the good guy– he’s just like most us, entering the Iraq war. He’s an American hero, who believes in his country. Yes, he has a selfish goal. He wants his legs back. Who wouldn’t? But he believes he’s on the side of the good guys. He’s fighting for his country.
And it’s only in the process of going through this journey, this experience that he didn’t expect, that he comes to realize:
I’m not the good guy. I’m the bad guy. And, I’m working for the even worse guys, who are here to take the most precious thing from these people. Oh, and by the way, I’m in love with this girl that I had been secretly betraying from the beginning in ways that I didn’t even know.
And now I have to stand up to the people that I used to consider my friends, my mentors, that I used to believe in… I have to stand up to them to protect this tribe that may not even accept me, that may never forgive me for what I’ve done, because we’re only halfway through the movie and I’ve already cost them the most important thing in their world.
That’s the political structure of the first movie, connected to the character’s journey.
Avatar: The Way of Water is an anti-pacifist movie.
Now look, I think you should write your movies about whatever politically you believe. But I’m not sure that our nation desperately needs an anti-pacifist movie right now. I’m not sure that pacifism is our big problem.
But even if that was the big problem facing our nation, to be poltiically convincing you still want to make sure that you’re weighting your political arguments, in a way that captures the other side of the political argument and the full complexity of what makes these problems so difficult to overcome.
Whatever it’s expositional problems, the first Avatar did a spectacular job of navigating a complex, hyper-charged, political concept inside the scope of a spectacle-filled action movie.
Avatar: The Way of Water does exactly the opposite.
What we have in Avatar: The Way of Water is the dumbest school of brilliant fish ever.
These gigantic Tulkun, who could easily kill the people hunting them, instead are just shrugging their fins. Well, what can you do? You know, sometimes they kill one of you, but we’re just never, ever going to fight back.
In fact, they’re so stupid that they’ve ostracised one Tulkun who tried to fight back to protect his loved ones. What a terrible dude.
What they’re doing is so idiotic that it stops us from really getting invested in the complexity of these political ideas.
There’s no weight given to the beauty of pacifism or any intelligent argument for it. There is no John Lennon singing Imagine here. There’s only a bunch of idiots going, well, I guess we’ll just swim around and maybe we’ll be fine.
If you’re building a political screenplay, want to weight your argument so that you can allow your beliefs to do battle with the strongest arguments of the other side, not the most idiotic ones. Otherwise, you have no chance of convincing anybody who doesn’t already agree with you to see the world the way you see it.
Here’s where the two movies are going to start to diverge.
Even though it appears that Avatar: The Way of Water is replicating the political element that made Avatar successful, it’s failing to replicate the compex emotional value of that element in the first film.
The first Avatar is saying something politically important, that’s rooted in a real world problem, and dramatized in a complicated way through a main character and a relationship that we can viscerally connect to and that resonates with our real world lives..
Like Jake Sully, we love our country and we also (may or may not) realize that our country is doing a lot of terrible things. The movie forces us to answer some challenging, and extremely relevant questions: How do you love your country and honor what you actually believe in? What are the things about your way of life that you simply accept as normal, until you start to see that there are other ways of living? How do you honor your love for your country and your people, even as you start to realize that there are other people with ways of living that are maybe even more beautiful than yours that may be threatened by your way of life?
In Avatar there’s a complicated political element that connects to a real world problem, dramatized in a complicated for the main character, (at least for a big-budget action movie).
Whereas in Avatar:The Way of Water 720-741-8051 there’s an obviously stupid idea about an extreme version of pacifism that very few people can relate to, and that seems to have no benefits at all for the creatures that believe it. That one-sided debate is going to play out through the whole film.
And guess, what? We knew it was wrong the moment we saw it. And we’re waiting the whole film for our Tulkun to finally fight back, which, predictably, it finally does. And, predictably, it works.
As a result, we don’t just lose the complexity of the political elements of the film, we also lose the complexity of the stakes.
What’s successful about the first Avatar, for all of its dialogue weaknesses, the structure is highly unpredictable. You feel like anything could happen, and anyone could die. Even Hometree can die. In Avatar: The Way of Water, you can predict nearly all of what’s going to happen.
There’s been a lot written about Avatar: The Way of Water feeling a bit slow and predictable because of the familiar plot elements. But the first Avatar is also using familiar plot elements. It’s essentially just a remake of FernGully. It’s the structure of the first Avatar that allows the familiar plot to still feel high stakes and unpredictable.
Whereas in Avatar: The Way of Water, the oppositional point of view is not weighted enough for us to have any real emotional complexity or sense of stakes.
Instead, we are dependent on the tremendous power of the spectacle to carry us through the movie like a fireworks display. The spectacle becomes even more important, because we don’t have the structure underneath.
And that’s why the three and a half hours feels long. It’s not just because the script is long, it’s because we are being pulled by spectacle without the power of structure to root us in the takes of the film.
The next element I want to talk about is theme. And as you’ll see the thematic choices in Avatar: The Way of Water are related to the structural challenges we’ve discussed above.
We’ve talked about how the writer’s purpose in creating a sequel like Avatar: The Way of Water, (just like the writer’s purpose in creating an episode of a TV series) is to make it feel both the same and different from the pilot episode.
We’ve talked about some of the replicated elements in Avatar: The Way of Water and how they both succeed and fail in making it feel the same. But how do the writers also allow the film to feel different, so that the audience can feel like they got something beyond what they expected.
The original Avatar is about a man of tremendous bravery, the kind of guy who will throw himself off a cliff who will ride a flying dragon. This is the kind of guy we’re talking about. And It’s about a woman who’s just like him, who’s a part of this tribe with a completely different way of life, but a very similar relationship with bravery. We’re talking about people who risk their lives for the things they believe in.
James Cameron has a very interesting idea when it comes time to write the sequel. Time has passed, and just like us, the main characters are not kids anymore. They’re parents. And they have a new responsibility: they want to protect their children.
And this is the part that’s actually emotionally connected for James Cameron. Unlike the totally idiotic expression of this theme among the Tulkun, this is a really powerful idea, that’s grounded in a reality people can relate to.
How do you stay a hero when when you have children you love? How do you stay brave, when you also want to protect the people who are dependent on you, and when they want to take the kinds of crazy risks you took when you were their age?
That’s a really interesting question in the second movie– especially since so many years have actually passed in the real world since the original Avatar. And it’s an interesting question to ask.
So in the structure of this film, the kids are a lot more like their parents used to be. The kids are taking big risks and experiencing big dangers. And that’s interesting, because when Jake and Neytiri were young, that’s what they were like.
But now they don’t want their kids to be like that. They want their kids to be safe. So there’s something interesting about that, and there’s something emotionally connected to it.
But structurally, it doesn’t totally work.
The power of spectacle compensates enough for the structural problems in Avatar: The Way of Water that people can go see the film and have a great experience.
But if you watch the two movies next to each other– while they share the same crappy dialogue– you will realize that the first Avatar has a powerful narrative drive that is propelling us through the movie in a way that feels like a breakneck pace, even as we get the beauty and the spirituality and all that gorgeous spectacle.
Whereas the second movie feels much slower. It feels more like a National Geographic video where we’re kind of just sitting and watching the effects wash over us and going, Wow, how do they do that? Until we get to the final hour of nonstop incredible action.
There’s a feeling of slowness to it. But the feeling of slowness has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we’ve seen the plot before. We’ve seen both plots before!
The feeling of slowness in Avatar: The Way of Water is actually connected to the simplest problems in structure (and the most common ones in screenwriting): the main character’s want and the threat in the film.
Let’s start with the main characters. In Avatar, it’s pretty clear that the main character is Jake Sully. But in Avatar: The Way of Water, there are multiple main characters, which is part of what makes it really hard for the film to find it’s structure.
Avatar: The Way of Water starts off, and it really feels like it’s going to be Jake Sully’s movie…
But then you start to realize… no, it’s actually the kids’ movie…
But then you also start to realize it’s not just the kids’ movie, it’s also a Quaritch’s movie (the Stephen Lang character).
Quaritch is the bad guy, but it’s also his movie. He’s got a tremendous amount of screen time, not even related to the main character. And then there’s his relationship with Spider…
And you realize… its also Spider’s movie.
And that’s when you realize, wow, no wonder it’s so long!
There’s nothing wrong with having multiple main characters. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple points of view in a movie. But you really have to power those wants for multiple main characters to work. And that’s where Avatar: The Way of Water is really struggling structurally.
In the first Avatar, you have a main character, Jake Sully. And what does he want? He wants his legs back.
In order to get his legs back, he has to do this nearly impossible thing. He has to take on a blue body and somehow infiltrate a tribe he knows nothing about.
Along the way, he’s going to end up falling in love. And that’s going to create the threat.
The threat is he’s falling in love with the enemy, he’s realizing he’s wrong about his own people, and if he does what’s right, he’s still either going to get killed by his own people or killed by the tribe!
And somehow he’s going to navigate all that, and figure out his loyalties and what he believes in, even as his people are destroying the world… because of him.
And by the end of the movie, he is going to make the choice to sacrifice his legs, (even though, of course, we’re still going to get a happy ending). He’s going to end up in the Avatar body, but he’s going to sacrifice his legs, he’s going to sacrifice his people, he’s going to sacrifice everything he wants for love.
We have a character who goes on a journey in relation to his desire for his legs, who tries to do something nearly impossible to get his legs back and then ultimately lets go of the desire for his legs in order to serve a greater love and a greater belief.
That is a spiritual journey that’s in baked into the structure of the piece.
In Avatar: The Way of Water, we have the same character, but now his want is: not to get caught up in the trouble.
He starts with a clear want, and there’s nothing wrong with this want:
I want to leave my tribe, even though I’m the leader and they need me and I love them. I know I’m going to bring death to them, because I’ve got a crazy man trying to kill me. So I’m going to leave my tribe. I’m going go live among the water people…
This is a hard goal. This goal could be the whole movie. The whole screenplay could be Jake Sully’s journey to live among the water people.
But instead, by the end of Act 2 (in a 7 Act Structure), around 45 minutes into the movie, Jake and his family are living with the water people! It’s happened!
He basically leaves his home, shows up among the Metkayina, asks if he can stay, they say, “sure.” And now he’s living with them.
So this want is now completed. And it’s completed without a lot of obstacles, without a lot of change, without a lot of hard choices.
The mai obstacle he has to face is that his wife doesn’t agree with his decision. She doesn’t want to leave. So he has to overcome that. And then she agrees to go, and she’s sad. But once he leaves, there are no real obstacles. He doesn’t have to make any real choices, or any real changes. Once he’s made the decision to go, he goes, he’s accepted by the Metkayina. And then, what he wants to do is basically lay low and not get involved for the next two hours of the movie.
As a result, there’s nothing to be built around him.
Yeah, there’s a little relationship with his children. He wants his kids to stay out of trouble. There’s some normal parenting stuff happening. But there’s not a really strong, active want driving him.
He’s our main character, but he’s actually just being reactive. He’s reacting to the kids, he’s reacting to the chief, he’s reacting to the new dangers that happen, he’s reacting to the threat, but he’s not actually pursuing anything, because his want is already completed at the moment he arrives!
And that’s why we end up cutting away from Jake Sully in the structure of the piece.
We’re cutting away from Jake Sully. because there’s nothing to do with him! Because he doesn’t have an active want. And so we lose that narrative drive. We end up with a passive main character in an action movie!
I’m not saying Jake’s not doing stuff. I’m saying he’s reacting, rather than choosing. And that undermines his journey and our feeling of propulsion.
Okay, no problem. At least we’ve got the two boys.
One of the boys, no matter what he does is not good enough for dad. And the other boy, he’s the perfect one, the warrior that he’s supposed to be. But he always wants to take these big risks that his dad doesn’t like.
The boys have wants, particularly at the beginning before they get to the world.
But then mostly what happens once they get to the new world… is nothing.
Yeah, there’s some bullying. Yeah, there’s some beautiful stuff with Tulkun and stuff like that. But really, what’s happening is the kids are playing for about an hour and a half.
There’s nothing wrong with the kids playing. The spectacle elevates it. But the kids don’t have really clear powerful wants that are driving them. And so again, we kind of have this feeling like we’re watching something gorgeous, and it’s feels beautiful, but it feels slow.
It feels slow, because we are in the emotional relationship (Dad doesn’t accept me, the kids don’t accept me, I feel alone) rather than a structural relationship (I want this clear thing that’s really hard to get and I have to make these profound choices to get it).
Similarly, we have the teenage girl, who’s feeling actually connected to the water, and she’s able to do things in the water that no one else can do. And we have the youngest one who’s kind of going on her own journey.
We have all that and it’s all great.
But with the exception of defying his father to spend time with the Tulkan none of them go, I want this. And this is so hard to get. And I’m going to do it no matter what. And I’m going to make choices I’ve never made before.
And all that affects the narrative flow that affects the structure. It gives a feeling of slowness and bloatedness to the piece.
Who’s the character who has the strongest want in Avatar: The Way of Water? Stephen Lang’s character, Quaritch.
The guy from the first movie! The bad guy, who’s back in this movie. At least he’s got a really clear want!
And you might notice that Quaritch ends up hijacking the movie. It actually becomes his film, much more than Jake’s film or even a film about the kids. It becomes Quaritch’s film, because he’s got the strongest want.
What does Quaritch want?
He wants, more than anything, to kill Jake Sully.
That’s what he wants.
He wants it desperately. He is Captain Ahab chasing the whale. It’s only thing he wants in the world.
We won’t get into exactly how, but he has literally come back from the dead to do this thing! This one thing. He wants to kill Jake Sully. And he’s going to spend the whole movie trying to do it.
Qauritch also has an obstacle: his son, Spider, who has grown up with Jack Sully. And he’s developing a relationship with his son. And he doesn’t want to admit that he loves his son, but he does. Which makes navigating that relationship with his son an obstacle.
Now, the desire to kill Jake Sully is not the best want for this character. And let me tell you why.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to kill somebody. But this particular character is functioning exclusively as an “antagonist,” in the film. Meaning he’s not a fully formed character. He’s purely a bad guy.
Outside of his desire to kill Jake Sully, until the relationship with Spider really starts to kick off towards the end, there’s nothing else in his life. He exists only to torment Jake Sully.
If we compare Quaritch in Avatar: The Way of Water with the same character in the first Avatar, his how is the same, but his want is much less rooted in any kind of reality.
In both movies, Quaritch’s “how” happens to be that he is ruthless, he is bold, he is completely insensitive, he is racist, he believes that his way is the only way that matters, he is violent, he is cruel, he has no limits. Those are all his “hows.”
But his want– in the first Avatar, he’s in charge of security. He’s serving his people, and they want to get this Unobtanium, and his job is to make sure they get it. And he gets betrayed by the guy he’s dependent on, Jake, and that sends him off the rails.
And that makes sense. We have pressure in that character. And that’s complicated and that is a human relationship.
He’s not existing to torment Jake.
Jake is a tool for him… until Jake betrays him. And that hurts him and offends his values and makes him want revenge. But really, he’s there to serve his job. A job that makes sense within the socio-political world and the themes of the first Avatar.
Now, does that mean that some people don’t get obsessed? Sure. Okay, that’s fine. Let’s pretend. Let’s go with it. Quaritch is obsessed.
He’s gone through all this, and all he wants now is to get to Jake and kill him.
The problem is, Quaritch doesn’t really have any obstacles either. Not until the final showdown.
In fact, just like Jake, everything he does works.
They catch Spider, and (for reasons that are a little hard to understand…I guess Spider’s been tortured a little bit), Spider gets pretty enthusiastic about helping Quaritch.
He gets dared by Spider to ride one of these flying creatures (replicating the element of Jake doing so in the first film). And he does it. And it works.
He uses some brutal strategies to track down Jake. It works.
He uses some trickery to flush Jake out. It works.
Every single thing he does works! So he doesn’t really have to change, not until the very end of the movie.
This is what makes Avatar: The Way of Water feel slow compared to the first Avatar. Not the length of the script, but it’s structure.
The characters are not really changing until that final fight sequence, when they start to have to make choices because the obstacles start to grow.
If you want your structure work, you’ve got to remember your characters need to want something. And what they want needs to be hard.
The truth is, the writers of Avatar: The Way of Water have every opportunity to make it hard for their characters. And they could have made it hard in a way that more closely replicated the elements of the first Avatar, simply by leaning into the reality of the world they created.
This would not only have allowed the sequel to be politically more complicated like the first move, but also emotionally feel more like the first movie, while also being different.
In first Avatar, we have a main character who thinks he’s the good guy, who ends up at war with his own people, and having to make choices between what he wants and the needs of the people he serves.
That element could actually be replicated with Quaritch, if we just sat in the reality of the world.
Here’s the reality of the world if Avatar: The Way of Water: These people, the Sky People, the people Quaritch works for, the people run by the general played by Edie Falco, those people who brought back Quaritch from the dead… they don’t give a crap about Jake Sully.
Jake Sully is living mostly peacefully among a tribe of Na’vi. Yeah, he’s causing some trouble for them. I’m sure they’d like him dead. But he’s not the important thing to them.
The important thing to the Sky People is getting the new Unobtanium, this Amrita stuff, out of the Tulkun.
That’s why they’re there on Pandora.
And Quaritch’s obsession with chasing down Jake Sully in this way, and pissing off the tribes that love the Tulkun, doesn’t support the Sky People’s important goals at all nor their desires to make billions selling Amrita.
Quaritch’s desire for revenge at all cost is actually the worst thing for the Sky People, politically and economically. It’s a total waste of time and resources.
From a reality perspective, in its current execution in Avatar: The Way of Water, it seems the Sky People have gone through all this trouble to bring Stephen Lang’s character back from the dead for no reason that actually serves them.
They don’t need him at all! They’re successfully extracting this stuff that’s worth billions. He’s a fly in the ointment, because of his desire for revenge.
And if the writers simply allowed the Sky People to actually have something they needed Quaritch for, then suddenly you’d have all this pressure on Quaritch, just like you had pressure on Jake Sully in the first movie– between his obligations to his people and his own “conscience” and desire to “do what’s right.”
In the first Avatar, the pressure comes from Jake Sully’s love. In the sequel, the pressure would come from Quaritch’s hatred.
But it’s the same thing, the internal desire to kill Jake would put Quaritch up against the forces of the Sky People, his people, and replicate the elements that made the first Avatar work: the pressure between serving your people and following what you really believe in.
It might be a twisted version, but you can see that that’s actually closer to the engine of the original Avatar. And that all the structure you need is already there… with the exception of a want for the Sky People that actually puts pressure on Quaritch.
Suddenly, the movie would start to move, because Quaritch would have to make big choices and changes, just like Sully did in the first movie. And that would allow the relationship between Quaritch and Spider to evolve in a more believable and powerful way, rather than just getting kind of “fudged in” at the end.
And this is what you want to think about when you rewrite your own screenplays. Not changing everything, but rather leaning into the reality you’ve created and addressing the biggest structural problems.
Having given the script a more solid spine around Quaritch’s journey, if we want the structure of Avatar: The Way of Water to move even more strongly, we can then figure out what Jake Sully wants.
We know what Jake doesn’t want. But what does he want?
We’ve got to get him moving towards something that matters to him, so that can be tested.
We’ve got to figure out what each of these kids really want.
We’ve got to figure out what Spider really wants, that is making him choose to help Quaritch.
But first, we have to understand what the General wants, that she brought this guy back from the dead for, that’s really hard to get. What’s Quaritch supposed to be doing?
And we need to feel the pull of his desire to kill Jake pulling him away from his mission so he can make those hard choices.
In other words, we have to look at what’s already there. What does the character want? And what makes it hard?
And if you do that in Avatar: The Way of Water, you elevate the whole movie.
Because rather than feeling slow, and rather than taking three and a half hours to bounce from set piece to set piece to set piece, you will actually find yourself propelling through those set pieces faster, because the characters are carrying you.
You don’t have to manipulate them into situations through external plot, because their wants and desires are going to create these action sequences, are going to create the spectacle rather than you having to force it upon them.
Now you might argue, Avatar: The Way of Water is grossing billions of dollars. Why would you want to rewrite this script? Are all these structural changes actually necessary?
But I’d like to remind you that, unless you’re James Cameron, you probably don’t have a an action franchise that everyone’s already in love with. You don’t have a five picture deal with Fox to make five sequels to this movie.
You’ve got a new movie that you’ve got to get out there into the world.
And there are some simple things that you need to do– the same thing James Cameron had to do in the first Avatar to create the franchise that allowed this sequel to be made in the first place.
You need to make sure your character wants something and wants it really bad. And it’s clear what they want. And it’s not what they don’t want. It’s what they do.
You got to make sure that’s really hard to get.
You need to make sure that you’re honoring the reality of the world and the complexity of the moral choices your characters making, so that their structure their journey can feel complicated and real rather than predictable.
You’ve got to make sure they go on a journey of change, that they’re having to make choices they haven’t made before.
You need to make sure that the threat is real, and that the threat is materializing in the worst possible way, not just at the end, but throughout your movie, so the character and the audience both get knocked off course.
But the incredible thing is, if you don’t do that perfectly, there are still ways spectacle can help you overcome the shortcomings of your script.
There is a visual image at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water that is going to make you cry whether you like the movie or not.
It doesn’t make you cry because the writer has built a real relationship with this character. It doesn’t make you cry because the character has a real structural journey. It makes you cry, because it is so freaking beautiful, that it’s almost impossible not to feel the emotion of it.
And this is the thing that I want to leave you with. When we’re talking about structure, we don’t need to get everything perfect. We want to do the best job we can nailing those fundamentals.
But remember, movies are a visual medium. And sometimes when you can’t get it perfect, you can use the power of spectacle either to elevate something that’s already beautiful, or to take something that should not work and load it with an emotional charge.
If you’d like to learn more about screenwriting, please check out my online Write Your Screenplay Class and Write Your TV Series Class, which includes a 1:1 consultation with a professional writer.
Or join us for free every Thursday at Thursday Night Writes where a guest and I cover a different screenwriting topic each week!
*Edited for length and clarity.
Jake, this is BRILLIANT! I can’t tell how much I appreciate your breakdowns. So thoughtful, and you always get to the heart of what the problem. I tend to ruminate on a film for a while afterward, especially if the theme or messaging is hard to swallow, but if there’s a Jake Krueger breakdown podcast, I AM THERE FOR IT. You always deliver the Ah-HA! moment that perfectly articulates what i was having trouble pinning down. I mean there is a LOT of room to criticize AVATAR 2, but you do it in such a constructive way. and with so much humor!! “we don’t really care that the writer has barely learned how to do exposition. (Okay, well, I care, but billions of dollars shows that the rest of the world did not).” So funny. Or “I’m not sure that our nation desperately needs an anti-pacifist movie right now. I’m not sure that pacifism is our big problem.” BRILLIANT! Anyway, I hope you’re doing fantastic. I just wanted to write and tell you how much I appreciate these podcasts.