I know I still have to finish my post about the best parts of college, but this couldn’t wait.
This past weekend, my mom tricked me into seeing The Last Airbender. I just had to write something about it.
The first thing you have to know about Airbender is: it’s written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. That’s your first clue as to what sort of movie you’re about to see, which is to say, a bad one. I genuinely enjoyed The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and tolerated Signs. However, the rest of Shyamalan’s work has been disappointing.
Somewhere along the way, he confused twists and surprises with plot development. Similar to Michael Bay who does the same thing, except with explosions and gun fights. This time, he uses elaborate costumes, vast set pieces and special effects in place of plot development. So, it’s nice to see that he’s starting to show some variety in his terrible movies. I guess.
The Last Airbender is based on the Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It takes place in a world that owes much to Eastern religion, mysticism and martial arts. In this world, four different “nations” occupy the world: the Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Certain people of these nations have the power to manipulate their eponymous element and are called “benders.”
The story that follows is a standard hero’s quest. Of all the groups, there is one “Avatar” who keeps balance and peace in the world. He (although it’s never stated if the Avatar can be male or female) can bend his birth element as well as the other elements. Also, he can communicate with the spirit world and the embodied spirits present in the world. Much like the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Avatar sacrifices a bride and a family and, therefore, is reincarnated.
Those are the basics.
The Avatar disappeared 100 years ago and has been missing ever since. The Fire Nation took the opportunity to go Colonial Britain on everyone’s ass and disrupted the peace by invading the other nations. They’re also looking for the missing Avatar and intend to use his power for nefarious purposes (of course).
While hunting, a brother and sister of the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka and Katara, find a mysterious frozen orb. Katara breaks it open and finds Aang, a young Air Nomad. Aang is soon revealed to be the Avatar. He ran away from his nation on a giant, flying buffalo-dragon-dog , Appa, (I honestly don’t know what the hell that thing was) when he found out he was the next Avatar. They got caught in a storm and crashed into the ocean. Some magic stuff happened and they were frozen in stasis for 100 years (sure).
Meanwhile, the exiled prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, is trying to find the Avatar because he has daddy issues and wants to be un-exiled (naturally). Zuko captures Aang and discovers he is the Avatar. But Aang escapes because, well, he’s the effing Avatar. So, Aang, Sokka and Katara go on a journey to learn water bending and liberate villages from the Fire Nation.
In addition to Zuko chasing Aang, Admiral Zhao, of the Fire Nation, is also searching for the Avatar. Honestly, the rest of the plot doesn’t matter much because it’s ruined by community-theater-esque acting and mediocre action sequences. If you care, the trio goes on a journey to the Northern Water Tribe and stops along the way to the fight the Fire Nation’s totalitarianism. Aang learns that the rest of the Air Nomads have been exterminated; He gets captured again and escapes again; The trio goes to the Northern Water Tribe and there’s a battle, sort of.
I should say that I love this type of story. I love Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter. I love the idea of an unassuming loner finding the strength to save the rest of the world. Somehow, Shyamalan manages to screw up this simple formula. Instead of the next Lord of the Rings, we end up with a high school production of The Hobbit.
Although, Shyamalan isn’t completely to blame. The acting in Airbender ranks somewhere between The Lifetime Movie of the Week and a day-time soap. Noah Ringer’s (Aang) acting was so wooden he should have been credited as Pinocchio. Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone (awesome name) as Katara and Sokka weren’t any better. The acting seems so manufactured that I wondered if they were reading from cue cards or if someone off camera was feeding them lines.
Dev Patel who you might remember from Slumdog Millionaire was, perhaps, the biggest disappointment. He was too over-the-top for his own good. It’s as if he modeled his performance on Gary Oldman but forgot the subtlety or focus.
I guess that might be a little harsh considering what they had to work with. Shyamalan goes in the opposite direction of most of his scripts. Instead of trying to shroud everything in mystery, he uses the dialogue to beat the audience over the head with each and every emotion and plot point. It seems like, since it’s a “kids movie,” he doesn’t trust the audience to pick up mood, tone or details. So, the characters tell the audience exactly how they’re feeling with the obtrusiveness of a firecracker in a library. Many scenes could have benefited from simply showing instead of telling.
There are always exceptions to the rule, though.
Aasif Mandvi turned in an impressive performance as Admiral Zhao. He showed surprising range and managed to move beyond his dry, sarcastic persona from The Daily Show. His character has a snake-in-the-grass quality usually reserved for Christopher Lee’s characters. Shaun Toub and Cliff Curtis both turn in good performances as Iroh (Zuko’s uncle) and Fire Lord Ozai, respectively. It’s worth noting that, although Ringer’s delivery leaves something to be desired, his body language and facial expressions were quite good.
Then there are the action sequences.
It should have been like playing Texas Hold ‘Em with X-Ray Specs: a sure thing. The elements of the story read like a recipe for epic battle scenes: martial arts, the ability to control elements, large standing armies, oppression, rebellion and enormous fortresses. Instead, the audience is treated to pedestrian battles that don’t seem to have any urgency or intensity. The battle at the end of the movie between the Northern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation could have been like the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers, instead it’s more or less boring. It isn’t even helped by the special effects, which are so-so.
It’s disappointing to think that Shyamalan could have done so much more with Airbender. Instead of a new fantasy classic, we get a muddled mess. Shyamalan was heavy-handed with the dialogue and relied on visuals to carry an unpolished story. That sleight of hand wore thin after the first 20 minutes. In the end, gorgeous locales, impressive costumes and a few decent performances couldn’t make up for stiff acting, terrible dialogue and mediocre special effects. Take your 10 bucks and see Toy Story 3.
I give this film one convoluted plot twist out of five.