The Fifth Element is Story

M. Night Shyamalan had his work cut out with The Last Airbender. Not only did he have to run with a different title than the original Nickelodeon series—thanks, James Cameron—but he also had to somehow condense sixty-one episodes (1342 minutes) into something feature length. Or, the trailers didn’t tell us otherwise, anyway, but let me happily spoil that for you: he doesn’t try to cram all sixty-one episodes into a hundred and three minutes. I haven’t searched it up, but this looks to be at least a trilogy. Wonderful. Only thing that would be better would be, say, a sixty-one installment series of theater releases, where the actors are fed some special hormones to keep them young enough to stay in character.

Shyamalan had one more obstacle to overcome here, however: his own track record. Since The Sixth Sense, the audience has been trusting him less and less. Unfairly, I think. I mean, sure, Joseph Heller changed the world with Catch-22, but didn’t he famously get asked once why hadn’t he written anything else that good? His answer: Has anybody else? Or, to keep this at the cineplex: we all fell for The Matrix, but, when we got to the second and third installments, it became obvious that, despite the quality of filmmaking going on here, still, we weren’t getting the original again. Because you can only pull the rug out from the whole audience once, as Shyamalan did that first time. Bad thing about doing that, though, is that then it’s expected you’re going to do that next time, and next time, and all the other times, and nobody can live up to that. Look at David Lynch, say. There anybody who makes us less sure of our footing? Yet, didn’t he also give us The Straight Story?

Thus far, for Shyamalan, Airbender is his Straight Story. Never mind that it’s based on an animated children’s’ series. Don’t worry that it’s set in some fantasy world. What Shyamalan is giving us here—adapting for us—is a story which relies on zero gimmicks. A story confident enough in its own developments just to set them up, knock them down. Instead of the audience investing itself in the plot, this time, we’re invested in the characters. Not just children, but children with amazing powers, children on a quest to save their world.

Surprised? It is surprising. But, just when these characters on screen should be adventure cut-outs, action figures, instead they’re real people, ones we can identify with, engage, more than likely because of some version of Scott McCloud’s argument that the less recognizable the character on the page (i.e., the more cartoonish, more iconic), the more room there is for us to be that character.

It all starts in familiar territory, too. Or, familiar to the die-hard fans, anyway: Sokkha and Katara, fishing (okay, hunting) in their icebound south, stumbling on this kid Aang, who’s the lost Avatar—the prophesied one who can heal the Fire, Water, Earth, and Air nations. And he’s got this cool luck-dragony sky bison, and there’s bad guys from the Fire nation after him, and almost immediately it’s a chase, a race. Or, in television terms, it’s set-up perfectly for an episodic adventure, a story that can be pieced out in twenty-two minute segments for months at a time: the gang gets to another village, city, or situation, and, by solving that place’s problems, they learn something that’s going to help them in their own journey.

Good storytelling.

And, as far as adapting that mode to the big screen, we’re just off A-Team, yeah? And X-Files and Star Trek Next Generations and Charlie’s Angels and Shafts, etc., each of which are fun, but are essentially just magnified single episodes, yes? But that wouldn’t work with Airbender. Or, as it’s supposed to be, ‘Avatar.’ No, with Avatar, you can jump into syndication, enjoy the single episodes if you want, but they mean so much more if you know the character arcs, the narrative context. With X-Files and the rest too, of course, but with all of them, there wasn’t a single, overriding goal. It was just to ‘explore strange new worlds,’ ‘to get the truth out,’ ‘to fight crime sexily,’ all that. But, Aang and gang, from the first season on, they’ve been trying to heal their civilization. To, yes, defend it against the industrialization the Fire nation represents, but more than that, just to end some tyranny, start the good old days all over again.

So, when Shyamalan stepped into this, he couldn’t just single-episode it. He had to tell the whole story. Which, seeing the trailers, terrified me—you can’t do sixty-one episodes in feature-film time limits.

As I said, though, he or the studio or somebody knew this.

Thank you.

And, as for his handling of this piece of the story we get, aside from the strange pronunciations of Aang and everybody’s name (except Appa), it’s masterful. A word I don’t just throw around. Sure, he skips over most of the episodes, but, too, he recognizes which one or two epitomize the journey, and then distills them down to their emotional cores (all the way from the pilot, “The Boy in the Iceberg,” to “Siege of the North”—season one). Very slick. And, yes, he doesn’t address the high point of that first season, the Miyazaki-homage “The Spirit World” (seriously; it’s so, so good, so Mononoke), and he misses Jet and the Library gets plundered off-screen, but, still: he only had an hour and three minutes, right? What we’ve got to be happy with is that he did as much with that hour and a half as he could. As he did.

And, the casting. Wow. Nicola Peltz’s Katara is as inspired as Maggie Gyllenhaal was in Dark Knight, as Emma Watson’s Hermione, as Ashley Greene’s Alice Cullen; she’s almost even able to render those huge, expressive blue eyes from the series. And Jackson Rathbone’s a solid Sokkha lookalike, though of course we’re wanting a bit more of the comedy (yes, this screen version’s a touch darker than the series). And Noah Ringer as Aang is very convincing—the new tats even look kind of cool—and Dev Petel’s Zuko is an excellent, tortured counterpoint to Aang, especially when guided by his uncle’s steady (though far thinner) hand. And Aasif Mandvi, when not in Daily Show correspondent mode, he’s an excellent, misguided Fire nation general, and Saychelle Gabriel’s white-haired princess would give Arwen a run for the soft-focus prize. And the fight choreography, all the various bending poses and postures, how real this world feels, it all works. Now I’m just waiting for some lion turtles, some badger moles, King Boomy, the bad-luck guy with the vegetable cart, and I’m especially waiting for Toph.

What I’m really waiting for, though, it’s for this Airbender to generate enough box office fun to finance a sequel. What I’m so scared of is that this’ll go the way of The Golden Compass, which, aside from being the most resonant imaginative feat since Lord of the Rings, was an excellent adaptation. One that seems to have got pulled down by controversy. Can’t begin to understand that, engaging the content or perceived message rather than the compelling nature of the story, but so it goes. The trilogy remains, and is its same old amazing self.

As is the original Avatar, yes. And, no, you probably don’t need to watch the whole series to understand the movie—Shyamalan makes it self-contained—but if, like me, you want to kind of have to blink a lot the first time you see all these characters, how real they are now—still—then, yeah, tune in, buy the discs, live with the story. It’s one of the best we’ve seen in a while.

Stephen Graham Jones
Boulder, 2 July 2010