The Last Airbender is the first of three films planned to theatrically retell the story of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in live-aciton. After a decade-long sabbatical from producing good movies, director M. Night Shyamalan sought this as his own personal “Star Wars Trilogy”. Tragically, he chose the wrong Star Wars trilogy.
I should warn you, I draw many parallels between The Last Airbender and Episodes I-III in this review, but only because they’re impossible to ignore.
TLA (as I shall refer to it) is a baron sequence of events; having no soul granted to it in its production and offers no opportunity to be given life through its connection with the audience. It is more mechanism than organism, devised to literally realize highlights of the cartoon’s first season and compress them into 90 minutes. Any spoiler warning tag placed on a review for this movie is in error, since nothing happens in it that fans of the cartoon have not already seen.
Made worse, it’s the butchered pacing of the movie that robs it most of life. The feeling is as if you were to take all the 30-second “Previously, on Avatar…” recaps from each television episode and string them into a line; this movie would being the end product. Plot points hit their marks as they should without any pause to relate to their players. Each character stiltedly says the story-driving line that they’re expected to say and perform the acts they’re expected to do. They’re puppets: Hollow images of human beings, incapable of emoting or evolving.
The worst crime is the portrayal of Sokka, who’s always been the Xander of the show in my eyes. Goofy and wisecracking, but has a noble heart and is big brother to all. Instead, TLA’s Sokka is distilled down to Mannequin Skywalker, complete with his ill-fated weekend romance with Padmé–er, that is, Yue.
The sacrifice of character development was not in vein, since this allowed for elbow room to fulfill the list of nitpickers’ checkboxes. Things have to happen because the audience already knows that they will…and the movie’s running out of time! I was reminded of how rushed Episode III felt; especially the end with Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader and birth of the Skywalker twins.
So, remember how Sokka throws a boomerang? That happens once. And Momo’s always thinking about food…so in one of the three shots he appears, he’s trying to eat the moon spirit fish. The Blue Spirit? Yeah, he’s in there…in a scene that serves no purpose but to give him a presence in the movie(s). And the Great Library? The Fire Nation just can’t shut up about it! It only makes me wonder if by mentioning it often enough, we’ll forgive not seeing later.
The warning sign posted at the top of the film is its attempt to recreate the cartoon’s opening narrative. It’s a failed attempt, separating the imagery from the voice over, accompanying the latter with a crawling scroll of text. With exception to Star Wars, every single film I’ve ever seen that begins with an expository text scroll (especially when read to me in voice over) has been a disaster. To illustrate, I offer Battlefield Earth, Alone in the Dark, Judge Dredd, and most movies involving a post-apocalyptic future.
Surrounding the movie since its early production announcements has been the topic of “racebending“. I agree with the abhorrence of “racist Hollywood”, but chose to enter TLA colorblind, just in case miracles were possible. While the reflection of our culture’s perception of races weren’t exactly palatable, there isn’t much reason why their arrangement within TLA’s universe is impossible.
The only point where the characters’ race disrupted my suspension of disbelief is that Kitara, Sokka, and their grandmother are the only white folk in a tribe clearly comprised of Eskimos. However, this can be easily dismissed since their family immigrated from the Northern Water Tribe, who are all as white as their native land.
The “bending” effects were satisfying in quality, but not nearly in quantity. In fact, in the scene where Aang and Kitara are practicing their waterbending kata, I think they forgot to add the waterbending effects to the shots with Kitara. Otherwise Aang’s look of discouragement from comparing her progress to his is very confusing.
Just as confusing are the words of guidance given to Aang by the dragon in the spirit world. Aang desperately pleads for a solution to defeat the Fire Nation’s siege on the Northern Water Tribe. The dragon reminds him that as the Avatar, he must never use his abilities offensively or harm others…only protect. Then his next sentence commands that Aang demonstrate the power of the water element; vaguely implying that he smite down the armada with furious wrath. Fortunately for them, Aang decodes the dragon’s message in what might be the only real deviation from the source material.
The Last Airbender is a terrible movie. It’s at a level of bad shared by movies like Highlander II: The Quickening, though that movie succeeds TLA by featuring Sean Connery…and other actors. Fans of the TV show will walk away disgruntled, while the unfamiliar, confused. Unless a new director is appointed, I have no desire in seeing the upcoming sequels.