Film Review: The Last Airbender

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 16 Jul 2010

Widely reported as the worst reviewed film of the year, and currently on a less than 10% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Airbender was talked up as M. Night Shyamalan’s Indiana Jones (the filmmaker was once called the next Spielberg and this was to be his film to conquer the action/adventure genre), but it doesn’t seem like critical and general public opinion has taken to it as planned.

This should, however, still be a huge event. Based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender (James Cameron’s own Avatar put pay to using the first part of their original title), considered by many not only as one of the best animated TV shows ever made, but one of the best TV shows full stop. The accompanying acclaim brings with it a heavy burden, but in equal measure, it left fans baying with anticipation for Shyamalan’s effort.

Set in a world where four nations dominate the world, each tied to raw element, gifted individuals have the ability to control their nation’s power, be it air, water, fire or earth. Twelve-year-old Aang (Ringer) though, learns he’s different. Able to manipulate all four elements, Aang is the cartoon title-centric Avatar, tasked with the job of maintaining peace between the four nations.

Somewhat predictably reluctant to take on his new mantle, it’s a lot of weight to place on such a young boy’s shoulders and Aang runs away from home before he has the chance to perfect controlling anything beyond air.

When the rogue Fire Nation attempt to take reign over the whole world, Aang, however, he has no option but to fulfil his destiny, and after first tracking down masters of earth, water and fire to learn each elemental way, must defeat the bold Fire Prince Zuko (Patel) and save each race from wanton destruction.

In interviews and press conferences in the run-up to the American release, Shyamalan talked about the widespread negative reviews, explaining that critics don’t get his storytelling accent and that all he can do is portray the visions in his head onto the screen. He likened moving away from his filmmaking touches as like asking an artist to change his style. But we are not asking him to change his style, and bar the visuals and set design, which on the most part work OK, everything else is a catastrophic failure. All we want is to keep doing what he does, but instead do it well.

His most successful film to date, The Sixth Sense, possesses many of the same storytelling accents, the qualitative difference between that The Last Airbender is a good script, a well-executed narrative and an entirely focused and confidently directed cast.

Some of the action and fight sequences in The Last Airbender are nicely choreographed and planned out but it’s all put together in such an incoherent fashion that not for a second do characters ever feel in danger, nor the element bending feel serious.

Controlling air, earth, fire and water looks so cool in the cartoon but doesn’t transfer at all well into live action. With the characters performing a 10 second kung fu for each elemental move, the fight sequences look ridiculous and lose any sense of realism they may have once possessed.

As similarly hit The Happening, The Last Airbender suffers from chronic, and often amateurish over-acting. Bar Dev Patel, who gives the only performance that might suggest that actually, they are taking this film seriously, the entire cast really struggles to portray believable roles in an ensemble that quickly escalates into farce. Shyamalan needs to rapidly rethink his on-set guidance because what he’s doing at the moment really isn’t working.

Moving away entirely from the cartoon, Shyamalan also cast an almost entirely white Caucasian cast, at least within those fighting for good, where as in the series, the central characters are generally Asian. In cinema today, where there is great acting talent on offer from all over the world, and especially given the performances the hired actors gave, it was a great misstep to not be faithful to the source and match the ethics and values in the cartoon.

The problems though go far beyond the talent in front of the camera. The dialogue is sloppy, unnatural and thoroughly ill conceived. There’s no emotional connection between the characters, no bonds, depth or emotional development, instead the interactions are based solely around exposition and detail purely what has happened, what is happening or what is going to happen, each multiple times over.

Despite a multi-angled plot, there’s a surprising lack of story to the film. Aang’s journey to all corners of the earth, with battles here and there, and cuts to scheming from ulterior enemies back at their own base, but you can describe the story in a couple of lines and still capture all of the major plot points.

For a $150m film, the CGI is passable if not revolutionary. Some of the set pieces look nice, even if the fire and other elements won’t blow you away. Releasing this film in 3-D, however, was a definite bad move. Adding nothing, in fact even more so than Avatar, this film is 95% in 2-D, poor implementation where it is used only detracts from the experience, and with the film already given a largely dark, mysterious look, the darkened tint 3-D specs give to the screen makes it almost pitch black at some points.

The first of a planned trilogy, be surprised if two and three get green lit, at least while Shyamalan wants to retain control. The Last Airbender possesses enough energy for this film and more but somehow it quickly grows drab and boring. If you aren’t a fan of the original cartoon series, prepare to be disappointed, and if you are, it’ll be even worse

The Last Airbender completes writer/co-producer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s fall from grace; once regarded as the most exciting talent in film, he now sits pretty as the laughing stock of Hollywood. Shyamalan certainly once had the vision to create great concepts and ideas, but he no longer possesses the oversight to follow them through, nor the structure or craft to produce an accomplished piece.

The trailers looked so promising, and the cartoon series is unabashedly brilliant, it’s a then that pity The Last Airbender can’t close the deal, instead it might just be the end for Shyamalan until he lifts his head from beneath the sand, and sees his recent efforts for what they really are; way, way below standard.


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