Theatrical Review: The Last Airbender

M. Night Shyamalan, I really was rooting for you.

After making a big splash with movies like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, an M. Night Shyamalan movie was something like a mini-event when it would come along. These were nice movies that embraced genre filmmaking and all punctuated with a twist of some sort, and they resonated with audiences Then came The Village and Lady In The Water. Things got a little more ponderous. While I like these, I don’t like them to the same extent that I like the other three movies. Then came The Happening, Shyamalan’s only venture into R-rated territory and things really devolved. The movie was ill-cast, there was little credibility to what was on screen and overall it was just plain laughable… and not in the good way.

But I like M. Night Shyamalan, I really do, and so when I heard he was going to adapt the Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar, The Last Airbender, I was hoping that he was going to succeed with something that didn’t rely on his past formula.

With it’s alternate history setting, The Last Airbender tells the story of the four nations of the Earth, each represented by different elements- Water, Air, Earth and Fire. All are kept in check by a being known as the Avatar, who has mastery over all of the elements. 100 years ago (from the present day shown in the movie), a young boy named Aang was chosen to be the next Avatar. Aang was part of the Air Nation and has mastery over the element. Aang didn’t want the responsibility and ran away. He got into trouble and found himself encased in ice only to be discovered 100 years later by Katara and Sokka, two siblings part of the oppressed Water Nation. In the time that Aang was gone, the harmony that the other nations had was no longer in place. The Fire Nation sought domination over the rest of the tribes and now rule the world. Aang now accepts his responsibility, but in order to succeed, he must first master the other elements. He sets off on a journey with Katara and Sokka at his side to first master Water.

The Last Airbender is a loose adaptation of the first season of the animated show. Shyamalan’s got a difficult task here in that he has to encapsulate that first season (20 episodes) into something that can run a reasonable time in movie theatres, and honestly, I think it was more than he could handle. The way the movie plays out, it’s almost as if the season was broken down into a bare bones outline without any of the glue that binds it all together. Of course liberties are taken, and I expected that they would, but some just seem to come out of left field. The biggest of these is just a mispronunciation of Aang’s name. I mean this is just about as basic as it gets- you already have 20 episodes of a show that pronounces the main character’s name in a pretty exact way. That’s right in front of you, so why ignore it?

So that’s the starting point and from there, everything else falls. Characterization hardly exists here. One of the big charms of the animated series is that Aang likes to have fun along the way and he develops a real bond with Katara and Sokka. Well, that fun aspect of the character is almost entirely lost here. There’s little bits in Noah Ringer’s performance as Aang, but it’s real threadbare (and no I don’t blame Ringer or any of the other actors for this). The bond with Katara and Sokka is just there. There’s nothing to show how it develops, it’s just there to move things forward. The only character to have any real sort of development is Prince Zuko played by actor Dev Patel (best known for his role in Slumdog Millionaire). Zuko is the disgraced son of the leader of the Fire Nation. He seeks to gain redemption by being the one to find the Avatar and bring him back for his father to control. Patel does a pretty good job with the character and at least by what’s shown on-screen, he gets the chance to show that he’s not just one-note.

The rest of the cast I think looks really good here, this script just uses them more as placeholders more than giving you something to really care about.

Now I might be willing to forgive the lack of characterization if there was more flow in how events happen here. Like I said above, this plays out as if it was just a plot outline with high points to hit. It hits the points, but it’s disjointed in how it goes from point A to B, it just happens without any real continuity. And when there is continuity, it’s told to us in either narration by Katara or long passages of dialogue by other characters. There’s nothing else to give us any real resonance, it just moves forward.

The animated series is also known for it’s action and the action on the show is quite good. It looks like Shyamalan has studied the action work of directors like The Wachowski Brothers and Zack Snyder and he tries some pretty cool stuff here, but it just doesn’t carry the same impact that you’d get from the Wachowskis or Snyder. They have a real affinity for action and I just don’t think that’s in Shyamalan. He’s never really been a guy to deal with this sort of fast-paced action in the past and I just don’t think that’s something that’s been real important to him. It shows here.

Now I only recently started to watch the animated series. I never watched it when it was on Nickelodeon originally. I only watched the show because I knew this was going to be Shyamalan’s next movie and I wanted find out a little bit more about it before going into the movie. I thought this whole thing was going to be little too “kiddie” for me. I was pleasantly surprised. The series is a whole lot of fun and it’s really sucked me in. Everything is there to craft a good live action movie out of it and yet Shyamalan misses the boat on just about every point. To it’s credit, as I said above, the cast certainly looks good in their parts. The production design is pretty decent and overall the visual effects are very nice. James Newton Howard provides a pretty stirring score. All nice parts, but the man in charge just can’t bring them all together. As the credits roll, the first thing you see is “Written, Produced and Directed By M. Night Shyamalan” and so there’s only one person to blame for the whole thing and that’s really unfortunate. I really did want him to succeed with this and get back on the right track.

One final note, this movie is being presented in 3D. I did not see it in 3D. After seeing Clash Of The Titans, I was pretty much in the camp that if it was a movie where the 3D was simply being tacked on- I was going to avoid seeing the 3D version and save myself a bit of money. I read a few things about the 3D in advance of this and if there was anything that was universal in what I read, it was just that the 3D wasn’t very good. So obviously, I can’t comment on that. It doesn’t matter though, all of the other elements are so far gone here, that even a good use of 3D couldn’t save this mess.

I’d still like to see M. Night Shyamalan succeed, but after the universal drubbing this movie has been getting (and justly deserved), I’ve little hope that that will ever happen again in a big Hollywood production. This one’s right up there with Robin Hood and Jonah Hex as one of the worst that I’ve seen this year.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

04. July 2010 by Darren Goodhart
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