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SECOND LOOK: The Last Airbender (2010)

Written by Mark Russell

Adapting a story into another medium, honouring the subject material, but allowing new audiences to understand it can prove difficult depending on the subject. In the case of The Last Airbender, based on the highly regarded Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, trying to adapt an entire 20-episode season into a ninety minute family film was not a good idea. This would be a hefty task for any director, but there was one who thought he could be up to the challenge: M. Night Shyamalan. What comes out of his attempt is a well-meaning but messy, convoluted film weighed down by its own crowded story, dull acting, and awkward dialogue commonly found in Shyamalan’s works. But is there some good to be found out of the film? Let’s leap onto our sky bison and take a second look.

Let’s first talk about Shyamalan. When he first arrived on the scene, Shyamalan brought with him the frankly amazing The Sixth Sense, which I first watched in school and it blew me away. He went to make a couple more good films like Unbreakable and Signs, and it looked like he was to become one of the great filmmakers of the modern day. And then in three films, he completely tipped the scales in how fast your career can plummet. The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening all sucked, had stupid plot twists, and were so abstract as movies that they could leave any viewer with a headache. Not to mention Shyamalan had a nasty tendency to cast himself as a misunderstood genius and a messiah type in at least two of his films.

With The Last Airbender, Shyamalan wrote the film for his daughter who happened to be a fan of the TV series. And let’s admit that the task of creating a film based around a full season of a show is no walk in the park. You have to introduce a whole world, the characters, story, themes, mythos, world rules, and backstories all in the space of ninety minutes. If they had a film the same length as say one of The Lord of the Rings films, maybe it would’ve been more slower paced and not in such a hurry to reach the finish line. It is like watching the series’ highlights, or a thrown together clip show. From information spread around, several subplots and elements (no pun intended) were cut from the film’s final version.

Another controversy of the film was the casting. In the series, all of the lead characters are either Asian or Inuit in origin, but in the film, they are played by Caucasian actors. A lot of people did not take kindly to this decision, blasting Shyamalan’s casting choices as “racebending”. For a series so enriched with Asian mythology and culture, it seems absurdly stupid to cast white actors in the lead roles. The characters from the Fire Nation were also reimagined as an Indian culture, while the Asian actors serve in minor roles. The whitewashing of characters remains a problem in Hollywood, repeated recently with the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character of Ghost in the Shell.

Let’s look at the actual content of the film. The story, being quite complicated, is irritatingly told about 99% of the time through narration and exposition. So much exposition! Hasn’t Shyamalan ever heard of “show not tell”. Anyway, in the world of Avatar (not that one!), the four nations’ citizens can manipulate the classical elements and are known as “benders”. Only one person, the Avatar, can control all of them and bring balance and peace to the world. But one hundred years ago, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked, and the Avatar vanished.

In the present day, siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who live in the Southern Water Tribe, discover a young airbender named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped within the ice. They quickly discover Aang is the long lost Avatar, who has been a human popsicle for the past century. The trio set off on a journey around the four nations so Aang can learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending to save the world. Pursuing them is Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the scarred, banished prince of the Fire Nation, who wants to capture Aang, return home and regain his misplaced honour. He is accompanied by his eccentric but fatherly Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub). In turn, both parties are chased by Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), hamming it up like he is Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons, seeking personal glory and to kick Zuko’s dishonoured ass.

Throughout the film, the trio insight an unseen rebellion amongst the suppressed earthbenders, learn waterbending, Aang gets kidnapped by Zhao, gets rescued by Zuko, they go to the Northern Water Tribe, and a billion or so episodes’ worth of character growth and relationships get flushed away to rush through the plot. So much and yet so little is crammed into the story, meaning pacing, character growth, and any interest in the world or plot is made irrelevant. We jump from scene-to-scene and set piece-to-set piece like someone really wanted to get this film over with. There is no heart, no depth, and if there is, all of it is explained to us through dreadful exposition. It is like someone read the Wikipedia recap of the show and applied that to paper.

Seriously, there is so much exposition in this film when half of it could have been delivered to the audience through visuals and dialogue. Sometimes the exposition tells us stuff before we even know the characters’ names. For instance, Katara explains how Aang was frozen but this is the first time that he learn his name, and in the very next scene, Katara asks him what his is. Did anyone proofread this stupid script!?

Character backstories are given to us through long-winded speeches, and only once, namely through Zuko’s backstory does it work. Another issue is the lack of characterization in our characters. Zuko and Uncle Iroh are the most developed of the characters and I praise Dev Patel and Shaun Tomb for capturing their personalities and relationships. But our leading heroes are as flat as pancakes. Aang lacks his cheery, mischievous, but dutiful personality and Noah Ringer, despite being a talented martial artist, looks like he is lost in this movie. Nicola Peltz sucks all the life out of Katara, replacing the strong, nurturing waterbender with a doe-eyed, useless narrator who can’t win a single fight.

And Sokka…in the name of Raava, poor Sokka. One of the great comic relief characters ever, Sokka is completely devoid of his snarky humour and is portrayed as a drippy stick in the mud who can’t even crack a single quip. Eeyore is more optimistic. Maybe Rathbone didn’t want to be in this movie, or it was the god-awful script, but how could they transform such fantastic characters into these potato sacks. I dread to think what they would’ve done to Toph. The rest of the cast don’t get much to work with. Cliff Curtis shows up as Fire Lord Ozai but he just looks bored out of his mind, and Seychelle Gabriel plays Princess Yue, Sokka’s love interest, but she is only it in for about twenty minutes and serves as a plot device. Heck, her relationship with Sokka is depicted via exposition!

Oh, and a vast majority of characters are absent from the film, and those who made it in are just more exposition machines. The team pets sky bison Appa and lemur bat Momo might as well have been left out since they are so inconsequential to the movie, you forget they are there. Also absent from the film include Suki, Jet, Bumi, Avatar Roku (who is represented by a random dragon spirit), the Cabbage Merchant, Sokka’s humour, Katara’s awesomeness, and Aang’s personality. Zuko’s crazy sister Azula shows up in the last scene in, you won’t believe it, a sequel hook. The dialogue openly describes the length it will take for the expected sequels to be released in an even more obvious manner then the Justice League promos in Batman v Superman.

Now being an adaptation, the film has to take certain liberties with the story and pacing of the plot. But, the alterations or shortcuts they take to move the story along are dreadful. For example, in the TV series, when the heroes arrive in the Northern Water Tribe, they spend several weeks there and key characterizations happen – Katara gets into a fight with a sexist waterbending to prove her strength, Sokka falls in love with Yue, and Aang struggles to find an effective way to defeat the firebenders. But none of that is involved in the film, as they skip all the important stuff to jump straight to the final battle. So, how are we supposed to care for any of these characters when we skipped straight to the action?

And then, there is the infamous “earthbender quarry” scene. Without a doubt the worst scene in the film. It lacks any sense of logic both within the story and as a piece of film, horrendously paced, acted, and filmed. Aang, Katara, and Sokka are imprisoned in an earthbender prison, dumbly built within a quarry. Yeah, you can immediately figure out what is wrong. How big a plothole can you make? In the show, the earthbenders are trapped on a metal oil rig in the middle of the ocean and have lost their willpower because they can’t bend metal (yet), but Katara inspires them to fight back. But, they are put in a quarry made of rocks and they don’t just leap up and rebel. It makes no sense.

Not to mention, the following battle is awful. It is shot in one scene, and actors awkwardly stand around waiting to do their attack like they are roleplaying. And less said about the five random earthbenders during a “dance number”, making it look like they need five of them to lift one rock, when it is actually thrown by another character offscreen. I hate battle scenes that are either filmed with the “wobbly-cam”, have too many quick cuts, or try to maintain a sense of action during one ongoing shot. It just doesn’t work.

The bending in the film is a mixed bag. In the show, bending the elements is an extension of a person’s body, and is quick-paced to allow for a lot of fast moves and exciting action. Here, it is slow and over choreographed, like an abandoned cheerleading routine meets an air hostess’ safety instructions. The actual bending doesn’t match the movements of the actors, and who on earth thought it was a good idea to limit the powers of the firebenders? To wit, they can only firebend using lit fires rather than their own body heat. An entire minute’s worth of screentime has Aang and Katara practicing their bending motions like they are in a fitness instruction video. If you can dedicate an entire minute to them doing virtually nothing, then you could have made this film longer.

But, for all the negatives, even in this movie, there are still some positives. Sure, the story, pacing, logic, characters, heart, bending, and Sokka’s humour are all crumby, the production value is surprisingly good. The costumes are lovely, the sets and props are so detailed and there is plenty to look at, the film manages to capture the look of the Avatar world, the score is big and bold, and the special effects are decent most of the time. As I said before, Dev Patel and Shaun Tomb are fantastic as Zuko and Iroh, and every now and again, Noah Ringer shows glimpses of Aang’s true personality.

So, does The Last Airbender work as an adaptation? No, but it isn’t as bad as say Dragonball Evolution. Is this Shyamalan’s worst movie? Definitely not, but it isn’t good either. It has some redeeming qualities, is worth the watch if you can ignore the constant exposition and urge to fan rage, and could have been the start of a good film series had the story been given more focus and not squeezed into such a limited timeframe. There have been on-and-off rumours that Shyamalan wants to do sequels, but I think it has been too long, and The Last Airbender should be left alone as an example of how not to adapt a TV show to film. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are two of the greatest defining shows ever made for television, and in the years to come, I hope people will still looking back on them fondly.

Oh, and don’t get me started on how they pronounced several of the characters’ names wrong. It is “Aang”, not pronounced “Uung”. Sounds like the noise Big Ben makes. And “Soak-a”. Really? Puh-lease! Urgh.

What are your opinions on The Last Airbender? Is it one of the worst films of all time or just a misdirected adaptation? Should M. Night Shyamalan stop making films or re-evaluate why he keeps going wrong? Is Avatar one of the greatest TV shows ever made (yes!)? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell