The Last Airbender (2010)
Let The Last Airbender be a shining example of how NOT to adapt a children’s fantasy series into a standalone 90-minute movie. M. Night Shyamalan was hired to write and direct the popular Nickelodeon cartoon into a major movie with a major budget. It’s astounding how poorly made on every front this movie is. Seriously, people should be taking notes because Shyamalan has given a blueprint of blunders to avoid. The first blunder, and perhaps the source of all the others: hiring Shyamalan to begin with.
The film takes place in a fantasy realm where human beings are divided into four different nations based on the natural elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. Each nation has a special select group of people that can control that element. These people are known as benders. The one figure who can control all four elements is referred to as the Avatar, and this figure is reincarnated into a different nation each generation. In the absence of the last Avatar, the fie nation has invaded the other nations. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has dishonored his father, leader of the fire nation, and been banished. He seeks redemption by attacking the water nation, where siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) live. They discover hidden among the ice a small bald child named Aang (Noah Ringer). This kid is the last of the airbenders and is believed to be the last reincarnation of the Avatar. For obvious reasons, Prince Zuko is after the Avatar to regain his father’s acceptance.
At one point christened with the moniker of “the next Spielberg,” the writer/director has been slipping and sliding down into the pits of his self-deluded grandeur and stubbornness. After Lady in the Water and The Happening, who in their right minds would give this guy $150 million to direct a special effects-driven summer action movie AND let him adapt the show too? Even if you somehow managed to convince yourself that Shyamalan sitting in the director’s chair was a feasible solution, why on Earth would you let this man near the screenplay? I must repeat: did people see Lady in the Water and The Happening (this is a rhetorical question, because nobody wants to remember seeing them)? The Airbender series is a very well regarded television show that has appealed to audiences of all ages, including those old enough to buy their own beer, thank you very much. What purpose does it serve to ditch the show’s creators and longtime show runners in place of giving the responsibilities for coming up with plot, characterization, and God help us, dialogue, to the man that last gave the world The Happening? The Happening, people! What did you think was going to happen? Even with the lowest of expectations, The Last Airbender will still confound with its dead-on-arrival acting, zero character development, and overly serious spiritual mumbo jumbo. Who at the studio read Shyamaln’s adaptation and thought it was ready to move forward?
The Last Airbender begins with an opening scrawl informing the audience of the four different nations and the significance of the Avatar. Then it sprints forward without ever establishing context. Spending time to explain the rule and makeup of a new world is essential to the fantasy genre; we need to be able to know the rules of this universe and the dramatic stakes. Shyamalan establishes his villains via a lame text crawl. How hard would it have been to open the movie by showcasing the Fire Nation being big and bad? Most films open by establishing the bad guys in true villainous form. This movie would have started out so much better by establishing the villains, their mission, why they’re so bad, and introducing the general audience to the family of bad guys. That way our first introduction to them isn’t so perfunctory. In the film as it is, Shyamalan just sort of slides his characters into the plot in the most bumbling, awkward fashion. We don’t even learn about Prince Zuko’s banishment firsthand. In grand Shyamalan style, characters explain to the audience at every opportunity. Because why would you rather watch Zuko try to impress his father, fail and become scared, and have his father banish him from his nationality, promising to return and win back his father’s approval… when you could just listen to a character recite what took place? Isn’t that way better than watching something in a visual medium? There are a terrible amount of moments that feel clumsily strung together, like several important scenes were taken out at the last minute.
This is emblematic of the entire movie because unless you’re well versed in the Airbender story, you will be as clueless as I was. I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie. Suddenly characters appear. Suddenly they can do some magical ability. Suddenly they can’t. Suddenly they’re gone. Suddenly we’re somewhere new. Suddenly this character’s dead/ Suddenly the Earthbenders are all kept together in a prison that lies atop plenty of bendable earth. Where’s the correctional planning on that one? I couldn’t explain why anything was all of a sudden happening, or what the exact rules were that helped or hindered characters, and I was left grasping for any sort of workable motivation among all the ridiculous and reflexive New Age spiritualism. Shyamalan and the film’s producers do not set up a damn thing. The film operates on a false assumption that the audience is already familiar with the source material, so it never stoops to setup plot or explain characters and events. That would be a waste of time when they have more substandard water effects to show. Because why would you want to spend $150 million on a movie that appeals to people outside a narrow margin of fans? And when you try and try and cannot understand what’s happening on screen, it’s only natural to lose interest. When the film is as dopey as The Last Airbender it only speeds up the process. I was deeply apathetic all the way through this ungainly mess.
I don’t think there’s anything that irritates me more in a fantasy film than when characters treat everything with such general indifference: “Ho hum, we just found a bald kid and his flying buffalo in a block of ice. Ho hum, he can master all the elements. Whatever. What’s on TV?” If the characters can’t be bothered to care then why should I?
I don’t know what this movie spent on special effects but whatever it was it clearly wasn’t enough. Last Airbender has some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen in a major Hollywood summer release. Did the ILM gurus pass along their effects work to their interns? The green screen work, featured early with Katara and Sokka in some Icelandic realm, is ridiculously shoddy. People look like they have halos as they stand out against the all-too fake backdrops. The special effects in general are missing a polish and resonance that helps to disguise the illusion. I have to admit that it gets pretty boring watching one character hurl blue water orbs while another hurls red fire orbs. You would hope that a movie where people can control natural elements for combat they could do something more imaginative than fling different colored blobby orbs at each other. You have the power to control fire, the power to command the oceans or the wind, why must you low-ball it? I saw infinitely better choreographed elemental fighting on old episodes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
Once again Shyamalan completely betrays the trust of his actors (don’t think Zooey Deschanel can give an awful performance? See The Happening). He gets lost in the whirlwind of special effects and fantasy worlds, so his actors get short shrift when it comes to direction. Ringer look the part and can perform the tricky martial arts moves with ease, but is that the best reason to hire an actor? Can’t makeup take care of perfecting a look? Can’t a stunt double fill in for the more challenging physical stunts? I’d rather have somebody who can act rather than just look like the human form of an animated character. Ringer is an annoying messianic figure to have at the center of your franchise. His counterparts don’t fare much better. Peltz (Deck the Halls) is impassive and routinely hits the wrong note for a scene, and Rathbone (Eclipse, New Moon) is fairly wooden and plays too many scenes like he was given one note (“bigger eyes”). Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) gets to glower and his voice kicks up in volume at weird intervals. It’s another example of unmoored actors struggling for direction. But the worst offender in the film is Aasif Mandvi, though through no real fault of his own. He is dreadfully miscast as the movie’s chief villain, and wickedness is not in Mandvi’s repertoire. He’s a cutup on TV’s The Daily Show but here Mandvi couldn’t seriously menace anyone. His tone, demeanor, and even very look lack intimidation. He has a glint of mischief that you can’t take seriously. I’m usually not one to point and shout “racism,” but the fact that Shyamlan and the producers have whitewashed the film’s casting is troublesome. Caucasian actors have filled in for the series’ predominantly Asian characters, and all the villains happen to be transformed into dark-skinned figures played by Indian actors.
I can’t explain most of M. Night Shyamalan’s thinking when it comes to the finished product. The Last Airbender seems intended solely for fans given how forgetful it is when it comes to plot setup and explanations and back-stories. Why should an audience be able to follow along? Comprehension is overrated (David Lynch being a lone exception). At the same time, Shyamalan gives nothing back to those fans who have looked forward to a big-budget realization of the popular TV fantasy series. Shyamalan even seems downright disdainful, again falling victim to his own ever-swelling hubris. Why shouldn’t he write the script? Why would the creators have any clue about how to condense their mythological dense show into a satisfying two-hour taste? If you’ve never watched the TV show, you’ll leave the theater wondering why the hell anybody would give a crap about all this junk. The movie presumptuously sets itself up for a series of sequels that I doubt we’ll ever see, certainly not with Shyamalan’s involvement at the least. Shyamlan once again defies his critics and lives on to make yet another artistic disaster. If three straight duds couldn’t detract somebody from throwing $150 million and artistic license his way, then I don’t know if this man and his ego will ever be humbled or tamed.
Nate’s Grade: D