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This is the 114 paged scriptment wrote before that Titanic, a scriptment known at the time as Project 880. This scriptment is very similar to the final movie in broad strokes, but in the details it's quite different. Much has been lost from the original scriptment, and much of what has been kept was abridged. I don't have much behind the scenes info on this - I don't know why Cameron made the changes that he made - but I think a film closer to the original scriptment would have been noticeably different and, in my opinion, much, much better. Some of this would be added depth of the world - a friend who read the scriptment compared it to seeing a Harry Potter movie and then reading the book upon which it was based; all of a sudden things are richer and make more sense - but some of it would have added depth of character and emotion.
I hope you find comparisons of different phases of a movie's life as interesting as I do; I'd like to do more articles like this in the future, tracking the changes that have been made on long-in-development projects.
For those who don't want to read this all, some bullet points. Read the entire piece for in-depth description and analysis, but these bullet points are the main, stark differences between Project 880 and Avatar:
- Earth and its environmental problems are explored
- We see Josh Sully's Avatar being born
- It's revealed the Avatar program exists to train Na'vi to be an indigenous workforce for the Corporation, since it's so expensive to send human workers
- There are more humans, including a bioethics officer on the take, a video journalist, a head of the Avatar program and a second military dickwad
- There is an Avatar controller who is burnt out because his Avatar died with him in it. He committed Avatar suicide because he had fallen in love with a Na'vi girl who had been killed by the military
- The Avatars have a Na'vi guide named N'Deh, who is sleeping with Grace
- Grace survives the soul transfer
- Josh Sully gains the Na'vi trust by being a member of the community. He also excels in a major hunt
- Josh Sully shows his leadership not by taming a dragon but by leading a raid on Hell's Gate to rescue prisoners
- Josh Sully isn't the only Na'vi to ride a big dragon
- Pandora is a living entity and it sees the humans as a virus; it has been mobilizing the plants and animals to attack all along because it wanted to force the humans out
- There is no unobtainium beneath Hometree. The military just wants to wipe out the local Na'vi to send a message to all the tribes that they must be obeyed.
- Some of the humans and the Avatar controllers rise up in the final big battle
- Josh Sully tells the Earth that Pandora will give any humans that return a disease that will wipe out humanity
The differences between the scriptment (which I'll call Project 880 from here on in) and the finished film are immediate from the first page. In Avatar Cameron feels like he is rushing to get to the Na'vi, and we begin the movie off Earth. Project 880 spends time establishing Earth and the life of wheel-chair riding ex-Marine Josh Sully (there are a number of character name changes between 880 and Avatar); the opening page of 880 presents a very Blade Runner dystopia - rainy and gray and filthy and high tech. The people are miserable and stink because of water shortages. The entire surface of the Earth is essentially industrialized, and there are even cities spread out across the Moon. There are no longer national parks, and Yosemite is pointed out as a posh condo community. Josh lives in a megalopolis that takes up the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States, and his cramped, prison-like apartment is located where North Carolina is today.
This is the Earth of 100 years from now, and Project 880 takes its time setting this world up. Earth isn't just polluted (with filth as well as waste from nuclear terrorism) and ugly, it's literally doomed; extinctions have destroyed the planet's biodiversity and its entire ecosystem has collapsed. Humans scrape by because they can turn sea algea into food, and most waterfront property has been turned into manufacturing for the protein farms. This is an Earth where the people aren't just urban, they've completely and utterly lost touch with anything green. Keep this in mind, because this is one of the guiding elements of what makes Josh fall in love with Pandora.
Josh's cramped apartment has a huge TV screen that takes up an entire wall. It's on this TV that we learn about the state of the environment in the wake of a news report about the death of the last lion outside of captivity. Then Josh watches a report on a massive fire on the Boston subway that asphyxiated one hundred commuters; soon we'll learn one of those commuters was his twin brother.
In Avatar Jake's twin brother was killed for 'the paper in his pocket' - a robbery. It's an interesting change, probably made because it's easier to get across to the audience in a quick voice over. In Project 880 the Boston fire is a not uncommon event, and it's an illustration of the world that is quickly going to shit in every conceivable way. Project 880 has Josh attending his brother's cremation - Tommy is cremated in a cheap cardboard box in a non-descript municipal building with no ceremony, really hammering home the ugly hopelessness of Earth - and we see him sitting down to dinner with two agents of RDA, the Resources Development Alliance. In Avatar we see them come to Jake in flashback, here we see their whole spiel, a spiel that really explains why Pandora is important.
Everybody on Earth knows Pandora - it's been big news for years now. What these guys tell Josh that's really interesting (and answers a huge number of questions from Avatar) is that RDA is chartered by the ICA - Interplanetary Commerce Administration - the future Earth trade regulating body. This charter allows RDA to exploit any moon, planet, etc they want, but they must follow strict rules, chief among which is they are allowed a limited military presence and no weapons of mass destruction.
There's more. As in Avatar they want Josh because his brother has a Na'vi composite clone growing in a tank, to be used in the Avatar program. In Project 880 it's explained that this is a particularly big deal because only one in a hundred human/Na'vi composites actually take, making the Tommy Sully Avatar growing in a tank a very rare and very valuable thing indeed. And there's more: the avatar program in Project 880 isn't just a meet and greet program. Because interstellar travel takes massive amounts of energy - it essentially costs one million dollars for every pound of matter flown to Pandora - RDA is hoping to train the Na'vi as an indigenous workforce, saving them money on ferrying people back and forth. They want the Na'vi to work in Pandoran refineries - it's cheaper to refine the metals they mine on site, making them weigh less, before shipping them back home.
That's a pretty huge wrinkle to the Avatar program in general, and it makes the reasoning for spending so much money on it clearer. In Avatar it feels like a PR stunt, which is especially weird as there's no PR entity involved. In Project 880 the billions spent on Avatars means saving trillions on workers.
Another major difference: nobody promises to give Josh his legs back. In Project 880 the Avatar program itself is the way Josh gets his legs back, by being in a walking Avatar body. There's no promise of future reward for Josh, the program is the reward itself. This is one of the few places where Project 880 doesn't feel like an improvement on Avatar; while 880 really sets up why Earth needs Pandora, and why Josh would be happy to get offworld, it doesn't offer Josh a reason to ever stop being an Avatar.
And so Josh is off to Pandora. All of this is stuff that happens before the first frame of the movie Avatar. But there's still more that's different before Josh gets to Pandora. Coming out of hibernation, Josh is brought in to see the birthing of his Avatar body. It's an intriguing scene because the Avatar is shown to be alive on its own without having its controller plugged in. We're told that the newborn Avatars react better when seeing their controller in the room (the Avatar and controller have spent the entire trip linked psionically; Cameron describes it as formatting a hard drive). If the Avatar is a separate being, is it right for Sully to impose his will on it - a question that mirrors the larger question of whether humans should be imposing their will on Pandora. It's complex and intriguing, and the birth scene would have made good cinema. It also would have had Sully touching his Avatar, something that I do not believe he ever does in the film (I may miss some details about what's missing from the film; I've only seen it once. Corrections will be made to the text when pointed out).
Cameron fills the approach to Pandora with tons of jargon and science fact; I'm not sure how much any of it would have made it in any version of this movie, but there are a lot of interesting facts presented, including a description of just why those floating mountains float. It's actually a description that would have been welcome in the film, as it ties into unobtainium. In the script it's mentioned that unobtainium was the joke name for the metal, which happened to stick; unobtainium is a room-temperature super-conductor, pretty much the only reason the expense of a Pandora trip is worthwhile. It's also what makes up much of the floating mountains; Pandora, while as big as a planet, is a moon of Polyphemis, a huge gas giant with a super magnetic field. The unobtanium levitates in a high magnetic field (Cameron really explains all the science in the scriptment), and thus the mountains. Which, by the way, are very holy to Na'vi.
On Pandora Josh meets a group that is quite different from who Jake meets in Avatar. But first he discovers how deadly Pandora is - as he is disembarking from the shuttle there's a shriek from the jungle and giant sentry guns spray fire into the darkness. Immediately we see that Hell's Gate is a place that is under constant siege.
At the base Selfridge greets the newbies and gives them the speech that Quaritch gives in the film. He also drops some heavy info - no one gets colds on Pandora. See, the planet's thick biosphere has managed to create antiviruses for every single virus the humans bring with them. RDA is actually bringing those antiviruses back to Earth and curing the common cold. It's an example of the depths of what Pandora can offer - a heavy handed example, as it's a scifi version of the old trope 'the rain forest you're burning may contain the cure for cancer,' but a cool one.
Selfridge next introduces everybody to Parrish, the bioethics officer from ICA. He's there to make sure that RDA is following all the rules, and he's heavily on the take. It's a more nuanced view of how this stuff works; RDA games the system in Project 880, as opposed to being just monolithically evil in Avatar. This is how it happens in the real world, too.
The next new character is Marcia de los Santos, a videographer who sends home footage for advertising and PR.
Next is Giese, the head of the Avatar program. This is not the Sigourney Weaver character from Avatar, but rather a new character and her superior.
Finally Josh meets Quaritch, and right from the start doesn't like him. Quaritch seems impressed with Josh's disability, so Josh tells him he got injured drunkenly falling out a window at a base party. Quaritch doesn't like the attitude.
Josh's meeting with Grace, the Weaver character, is more or less the same (with the cigarettes and everything); his first Avatar link experience involves him first meeting a couple of Pandoran creatures that are set up in a small zoo on the base. Among these are weird fish that I can't recall from Avatar.
The next big change is the first Avatar link. In the film Jake wakes up in his Avatar body, has no trouble adjusting and then disobeys every single order given to him and runs around in the wild. In Project 880 it's nothing like that. Josh can barely stand, and his motor skills are weak. But when he gets on his feet and begins walking he has a very different reaction than Jake Sully - he cries.
It's a great moment, a truly beautiful little character moment. Jake Sully acted like a kid who had finally been let out of a car after a long ride; Josh acts like someone who never thought they would walk again.
In Project 880 the strange hotness of Grace's Avatar doesn't go unnoted - 'Ain't I a babe?' she says when Josh first sees her.
Project 880 then has a long montage of the weeks of training Josh undergoes to learn to control his Avatar (including basketball, as seen in the film). Meanwhile, Quaritch is telling Selfridge that attacks are getting worse; he's lost twice as many men as he did last year, and he's already blown through his ammo budget. Selfridge tells Quaritch to cut a newer, bigger safety perimeter around Hell's Gate.
In Avatar we are told how deadly Pandora is. In Project 880 we are shown it. Quaritch, outfitted in a power suit, walks with the huge machines that clearcut trees around Hell's Gate. He sees the forms of Na'vi in the woods, and fires on them. Stingbats attack him and he splatters them. Then nettle plants shoot little needles at him. We see the planet attacking the humans, and we see Quaritch having a good time killing the planet.
The controllers are presented as sort of MMORPG players - kind of smelly, pale, only interested in being plugged in to the computers. They all eat together in the mess hall, and they're served by a guy who seems like a drug addict. But it turns out his story is crazier, and the fact that he was left out of Avatar mystifies me.
The guy is Hegner, and he used to be a controller - until his Avatar body was killed by a Slinth (a creature I don't believe is in the final movie). And not just killed - eaten alive. The shock of experiencing his own death and then the withdrawl from his Avatar has left Hegner a shell. And it gets better; later in the film it's revealed that Hegner committed Avatar suicice because he had fallen in love with a Na'vi girl and married her - and she was killed in an incident where five Na'vi were shot by human soldiers. This incident caused the rift between Na'vi and humans, and is the reason why the Avatars are no longer working with the Na'vi.
Hegner's story is the dark counterpoint to Josh/Jake's, and it's integral, if only because it shows us what happens when an Avatar dies. In Avatar it's vague, and then at the end is shown to be sort of no big deal; with Hegner we see that it's a major issue and is about more than inconvenience. Hegner's failed romance also reflects Sully's coming romance, and it establishes the idea that 'going native' is actually an issue, not something that begins with this crippled guy.
When Josh makes his first trip into the brush of Pandora he has a very different reaction than Jake - Josh has never seen a forest. Ever. He's actually kind of scared of it, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. Grace has to lead him through it all, showing him what he can and can't touch. In Project 880 the Avatars can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, and the fauna looks very different to them. It's hinted that there are POV shots.
Josh's first trip into the wilds of Pandora does not end with him being separated from the others, and his first Na'vi is not the one he falls in love with. The Avatars have a Na'vi guide, named N'Deh, and this is the first Na'vi Sully gets to know. This makes it seem less like he falls in love with the first alien he encounters. While his first trip isn't a disaster, there's a big problem - the human security detail decides to kill three direhorses while waiting for the research team. N'Deh is heartbroken, while Grace is furious. The human security guy is about to shoot Grace in the head when Josh throws him twenty feet, breaking his arm.
This leads to an interesting philosophical point back at base: no court would convict that guy of killing a cloned biological construct. It's another moment where the super-otherness of the Avatars is highlighted. But while the philosophy is interesting, it all leads to a very concrete situation: Geise wants them out of Hell's Gate. He sends Grace and the rest of her Avatar team to a remote site to work.
In Project 880 the remote site is there because the flying mountains screw up the psionic link with the Avatars, so they need a stronger signal closer to the mountains. Grace and the team head to the mountains to do some research and it's here that Josh gets separated from the crew.
While Avatar has Jake running from a couple of monsters, Project 880 is way more involved. First, Josh is snatched by a Medusa, a huge flying jellyfish, which takes him off the floating mountain on which the team is working. As Josh tries to get free the team follows in their chopper, which gets crashed by a leonoptyrx (the huge dragon that Jake rides at the end of the movie). Josh kills the Medusa, but ends up in a tree made of snake heads. Then he ends up meeting the animals that Jake meets in Avatar, but he has less of a chase with the Manticore (that's 880's version of the Thanator).
Interestingly, the creatures in Project 880 act more like real animals than the ones in Avatar. The Manticore doesn't really care about Josh - it's just attacking the big rhino monster he was staring down (much as Jake stares one down in Avatar). And the Medusa gets killed largely because bansheerays attack it, drawn by blood from Josh hacking at its tentacles.
While all of this is happening, a Na'vi is watching Josh. As night falls and Pandora becomes bioluminescent, Josh finds himself surrounded by viperwolves. He doesn't make a torch, though, which makes sense as how would an ultra-city boy ever think to make a torch? He fights off the viperwolves best he can and is rescued by Zuleika, Project 880's Neytiri. Except in Project 880 she doesn't save Josh because a puff fell on her arrow - she does it because she likes his bravery.
Josh follows her into the forest; much of this is the same as Avatar, except with many, many animals along the way. There are dozens more species in Project 880, some of which are truly weird. The slinger throws its head at enemies; the head is actually its young - it's complicated and very bizarre. Then there are Moonwraiths, odd insects that swarm together to look like a bansheeray.
As in Avatar Josh does eventually get covered in puffballs, which gives Zuleika, who has a crush on him, an excuse to bring him to the village. And Grace and the team are already in the village. This is a major departure from Avatar, obviously.
The head of the clan decide to keep Josh around, and they want Zuleika to train him as a Na'vi - for reasons that seem sort of dilettantish, saying they want to see if it's possible. There's a montage, much like the one in Avatar, but interestingly the Project 880 montage has much more of Josh involved in the Na'vi community life, to the point of having a scene where he is teaching Na'vi kids how to play baseball. The differences in the hunting and such seem to come down to Project 880's Pandora having a much, much wider biodiversity than Avatar's, but otherwise it's all similar montages.
After taming his bansheeray, Josh engages in a massive hunt with the Na'vi, which is being filmed by de los Santos, and in which he is incredible. Everybody is very impressed with Josh's feats, except the rival guy in the tribe (the same dude as in Avatar). Back at the Hometree there's a big dance; we see that the Na'vi use the bioluminescent spots on their body to tell stories and express emotion. We also see that Grace is actually schtupping N'Deh.
It turns out that Grace is very close to the Na'vi, but Josh has gotten closer. It's explained that because she's a scientist Grace can't quite throw herself into the animistic world of the Na'vi, but Josh has no compunction - he has come to them like a baby, totally unfamiliar with nature, and has learned to see it through their eyes (a huge thematic element in both 880 and Avatar, but much more clear in 880).
Much of what comes next in Project 880 is the same as in Avatar: Josh and Zuleika go off and do it, and are woken up by the machinery crashing through the jungle. In Project 880 Josh has never worked for Quiritch, though, and Grace tries to stop the machines by calling Parrish, but he's so in the bag to RDA that he can't help at all. Josh tells the Na'vi what the humans are up to, everybody is mad at him. As he fights the alpha male guy, the soldiers pull Josh out of his Avatar link.
The Avatar program is shut down. Giese explains that the real treasure on Pandora is the biodiversity and that the world holds more secrets. How did it wipe out the cold? How do the Na'vi communicate long distances? If RDA fucks this one tribe, the other tribes will know.
Selfridge doesn't care. He thinks Avatar is a failure, and they'll never get the Na'vi to work for them. Instead he'll breed his own slave Na'vi race from the Avatar bodies. Everybody is being sent home.
In the forest we see that the humans are cutting a firebreak. They set a huge chunk of the forest ablaze.
Josh runs to the controller room and delivers an impassioned speech telling the other controllers that Pandora is Eden, not hell. That the Na'vi are being fucked and only the controllers can really understand. They won't rise up, though - the pay is too good.
That night a Na'vi raiding party attacks Hell's Gate and destroys machinery. That gives Quaritch the excuse he needs and he launches an attack on Hometree. In Avatar they want Hometree because of the unobtanium beneath it; in Project 880 it's all in the mountains. In 880 Quaritch wants to send a message to all the Na'vi on Pandora by wiping out this tribe - this is the shock and awe campaign he's talking about in Avatar, and the night raid was the terror he says must be met with terror. Those lines are obvious holdovers from the Project 880 script.
de los Santos tells Josh the attack is happening. He and Grace hijack the controller room (Josh breaks a soldier's nose) and de los Santos keeps guard as they jack in. Much of what happens here is the same as the movie, except with more mech suit action. Also, Zuleika is captured by the humans.
Eventually the soldiers get into the controller room, and there's a small fight and Josh and Grace and de los Santos are put in jail. It's Hegner who breaks them out, though, and he's the one who stays behind as Josh's man on the inside.
Parrish flips out that RDA is burning the forest, but he's threatened into silence.
Grace is mortally wounded, she dies in the Well of Souls. N'Deh takes her Avatar body away to keep it alive.
Josh has a plan to free Zuleika and the other captured Na'vi. He gets identity cards from Hegner, and he and a raiding party slip into Hell's Gate. They rescue the prisoners but get caught on the way out. There's a huge chase/running battle as the Na'vi head back into the forest.
All of the local Na'vi have assembled in a holy valley. Josh gives them a speech and when it's over he gets congratulated by... Grace. She's alive in her Na'vi body. They did a soul transfer.
She tells Josh that Pandora is alive. It's the Gaia theory - planet as bio-organism - writ large. Pretty much the same explanation as in Avatar, but with more detail, and with the allusion that maybe Earth was like this. But this is why the colds get cured, and why the animals kept attacking - the humans are seen by Pandora as a virus. The planet is trying to expel them. Josh wants to know if the planet can be told the true extent of the threat, and they try to talk to Gaia.
The next morning the humans attack, and in Project 880 the wildlife are in the fight from the start. Josh rides a leonopteryx, but it's no big deal for the Na'vi, since his rival, the alpha male guy, is also riding one.
de los Santos flies around in a helicopter with Chacon (the Michelle Rodriguez character, who has not been terribly prominent), sending a live feed back to the base so that the human workers can see what the military is doing.
Back at Hell's Gate, Norm Cheesman (the Joel David Moore character in Avatar), who has not been involved in any of this, has seen enough, links in to his Avatar and takes up arms. So do the rest of the Avatars.
All of the many animals of Project 880 battle the humans, including a huge swarm of Medusae.
At Hell's Gate Selfridge wants to blow up the link room, but Parrish finally finds his balls and puts a gun to Selfridge's head, telling him no way.
There's a second military jerk, Wainfleet, who takes on some of Quaritch's jerkiness. When the alpha Na'vi rival guy is injured, Wainfleet scalps him, cutting off his braid, which plugs him into the planet. He's the guy in a mech with a big knife, not Quaritch; Zuleika and her Manticore (Thanator in the movie) kill him.
Quaritch gets in a mech suit and heads to the remote base, where Josh's body is. He and Josh's Avatar fight, but instead of killing him, Josh lets a pack of direwolves rip him apart.
They've won. Josh and the Avatars take control of the base. Some Avatars will stay, all humans will go. Josh does a video with de los Santos, telling Earth that Pandora will not allow humans to step foot on it again, so don't bother coming back. In fact, if humans come again, Pandora will send them home with a horrible virus that will wipe out humanity. Josh tells Norm there really isn't such a virus.
Just like in the movie, Project 880 ends with Josh transferring his consciousness into his Avatar. The end.
The changes are major and go throughout. The third act is the closest to Avatar, but Project 880's greater biodiversity and larger cast makes the ending somewhat different.
The major changes are in character beats and story points. Obviously, much of Project 880 should have been condensed, but some elements - like Josh proving his leadership in the great hunt and cementing it in the raid on Hell's Gate, are so good you wonder why they got cut. Also, Hegner, the shattered controller, seems like a weird cut to make. He adds a layer of pathos as well as drama - we see what will happen if our heroes' Avatars are killed.
Some of the action set pieces are a bit much. The scene where Josh gets cut off from the team would be over 20 minutes long if shot as written. That said, the first Na'vi raid on Hell's Gate feels very important; the natives getting restless makes the big battle feel more organic. In Avatar the humans attack Hometree because they're just sick of waiting to get at the unobtainium. Moving unobtanium to Hometree makes much of Avatar's storytelling more streamlined, but it also makes the flying mountains nothing but a novelty and creates a weird lack of urgency in the humans' mission.
The survival of Grace is a welcome change. While it makes Josh's switch at the end less 'dangerous,' it isn't too dangerous in the movie anyway. Grace is gutshot - it seems likely that she would be too far gone to save. Of course 880 Josh has nothing to lose - he has no legs to gain, his homeworld sucks, he has no family, and he knows he won't die in the transfer - but Josh is a much more active hero than Jake Sully. His affinity for Pandora is also explained in a way that's very convincing and that Jake's never is. We see Josh fall in love with the planet and understand why his mind is so blown.
The addition of more humans is welcome, also. Parrish's arc is nice because it not only shows that it's never too late to change, it shows that not all humans are dicks. In Avatar it's only the humans in the Avatar program (and only the small hero group) who get the problem on Pandora; in Project 880 many of the humans figure it out. And more importantly, we see the other controllers stepping up - they're missing at the end of Avatar.
I would liked to have seen a movie version of Project 880. I can't say for sure why Cameron so severely streamlined his own story, but 880 feels like a Cameron film. Avatar feels like the footnotes of that. Many of the problems I had with Avatar's story are addressed in Project 880's scriptment. I like Josh Sully better than Jake, although I suspect my biggest problem with the character lies in Sam Worthington. But other characters have more flesh, and the story unfolds at a pace that feels interesting and not like it's on rails. Project 880 relies less on Josh being ordained or chosen and more on him proving his worth. He's never torn between humans and Na'vi (although he barely is in Avatar; the scenes of Jake informing to Quaritch feel really perfunctory and the two characters seem to have no relationship), and he doesn't become the leader of the Na'vi in quite the obvious way he does in Avatar (it's hard to say who he's leading at the end of Project 880, but it's probably just the remaining Avatars and few support workers, not the Na'vi themselves). The rival alpha male guy is also given his own role and moments, and his death feels actually tragic.
Project 880 isn't much more subtle with its allusions than Avatar; at one point Josh actually compares the plight of the Na'vi to the Sioux and the Navajo. The scriptment also has very little dialogue, although what is in there tends to stink ("I'm your wingman, babe," Josh says to Zulieka when he first tames his bansheeray), so no improvement there.
Obviously this scriptment would have made a five hour movie. Things needed to be cut. I just wish Cameron had been able to keep the decent story and rounded characters along with his deeply designed world. But when you're spending that much money, it's the story and characters that get canned before the FX.