The Last Airbender is based on the animated series of the same name — which I have admittedly not seen — and is written by M. Night Shyamalan, based on his own interpretation of its first season. And I have to say, his interpretation bites. Even as a standalone movie (which is how I have to see it), nothing makes sense. It is horridly scripted, acted, and executed. Its only saving grace is its visual effects. And maybe its soundtrack. Other than that, it is a worthless adaptation of what I’ve heard is a fantastic animated series.
I’ve seen some really bad movies. Batman & Robin and 2001: A Space Travesty come to mind. For all their innumerable flaws, they have charm, and replay value. I can watch them, cringe at their rubbish, and still enjoy what little they have to offer. The Last Airbender has nothing to like. It has no charm. Even its fight scenes are languid and amateurishly choreographed. The Benders (people who have the ability to manipulate the four elements) have to perform complex movements and stances in order to make some water rise, or some earth move, and all I kept thinking was, “By the time their ritual is completed, I could have walked up to them and knocked them out with a punch to the head”. Imagine watching a fight between Bruce Lee and Ip Man, but instead of them moving close to each other and exchanging lightning fast attacks, they have coffee.
The story involves Aang (Noah Ringer), a young bald headed monk-in-training who comes from the Air Kingdom. He’s been imprisoned — or cryogenically frozen — in a giant ice sphere for a hundred years. When two kids discover him in their Water Kingdom village, they take it upon themselves to look after him. Katara and Sokka are their names, one played by Nicola Peltz, the other by Singapore-born Jackson Rathbone. I don’t know where they dug Rathbone up, but he couldn’t win an acting award even if they were handing it out for free. He is plastered with one expression and one emotion throughout the entire movie, and by the time it ends, I am surprised his face isn’t stuck that way.
Aang wakes up from his icy slumber to learn that he could be the next Avatar, the Dalai Lama of the element-bending world. An Avatar has the power to bend any and all of the four elements — unlike normal Benders who can only bend the element of their own kingdom — but has to learn how to. The Last Airbender is subtitled “Book One: Water”, which means that by the end, Aang will have the strength to create a giant wall of ocean water that is supposed to defeat the enemy, but instead sends them running away with their tails between their legs. I didn’t know water could be that scary.
The enemy is the Fire Nation, led by a general (played by that pizza shop owner from Spider-Man 2) who is as two-dimensional as a piece of paper. He wants to capture the Avatar because the Avatar could spell doom for the entire nation, and we can’t have that. Also wanting the Avatar is the Fire Nation’s king’s son, Zuko (Dev Patel), who has been exiled for some stupid reason and can only find his way back into his father’s good books by bringing him this mighty gift. It should come as no surprise that both men fail.
Then again, it’s hard to succeed when your characters are given no motivation and no substance. They are not alone, though. Our hero, Aang, is no better. I read that the Aang of the animated series is a jolly, fun-loving young boy, who resents his position as Avatar because it forces him to commit violent acts. They go against his personality, and this creates great conflict that is perfect for us to build some sort of emotional connection with him. The Aang of this movie shows no love of life whatsoever. He seems to be burdened by that arrow tattooed on his head. Constantly frowning, constantly fearful. He is too mature for his age, and not intelligent enough. He is simply cast wrongly. As is everyone else. If Shyamalan had managed to scout white actors who took this story less seriously, then perhaps it’d be easier for us to overlook the ethnic differences. As it stands, every character is way too serious, and they see Bending as an art instead of a way of life, something to work hard at instead of enjoy.
This is good advice for Shyamalan too. He needs to enjoy a bit more. He seems too bogged down with reaching the right pitch and molding the best action. Maybe if he had just relaxed a little, and allowed the story of the original series to shine through, he would have produced a better film. It’s hard to make such a prediction, though, because at the end of the day, there are just too many things wrong with The Last Airbender. If Shyamalan were to make annual sequels with one improvement each, he’d make a masterpiece by 2034.
Best Moment | Yeah… no, I can’t think of one.
Worst Moment | Apart from the whole movie? Well, anything involving Jackson Rathbone was rather horrendous. Really, really bad.