A frequent question I would ask myself – and others – was, “What is so bad about The Last Airbender?” I saw this film when I was extremely young, having been a huge fan of the animated series. So after seeing another negative review on this film, I re-watched it. And I was astounded at how oblivious my younger self was.
This is another M. Night Shymalan film, and unlike Tom Green or Tommy Wiseau, this guy is (or was) actually sombody you’d want to helm a movie. His early filmography is full of astounding talent, so much so that it is rather sad to see a director go down the deep end, albeit through self-arrogance.
As for the movie itself, The Last Airbender is a dull, poorly written disaster that would take hours to explain the problems. It fails to re-create the same atmosphere that the fantastic animated show had, and it fails as a film.
So we’re introduced to our protagonists. Not in the form of visual storytelling, mind you, but rather in the form of Katara (Nicole Peltz) blandly reading through a few paragraphs of exposition. Then they cut to the film (oh goody!). Sokka, Katara’s brother (Jackson Rathbone), and Katara find a boy, Ong (Noah Ringer) (oh wait sorry, I meant Aang, but if you never saw the cartoon, you’d think it’s spelled “Ong”) encased in ice. It turns out that this kid is around 100 years old or so, and is the only guy in the world who can bend air. Then suddenly big bad Prince Zuko Banished Prince of the evil Fire Nation (Dev Patel) and Kind Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) arrives in search of the Avatar, the warrior who can control (bend) all elements (rock, water, air, and fire). Aang is taken prisoner, escapes, and rendezvous with Sokka and Katara, whose grandmother gives them another bout of helpful exposition, as if the Peltz-reads-a-bunch-of-title-cards scene wasn’t enough. After Exposition Grandma is done, Aang, Sokka, and Katara decide to go to Aang’s airbending temple, where it turns out that all of the airbenders were killed by the fire nation. Aang, Katara, and Sokka decide to fight the fire nation and teach Aang the other elements, because they’re most certainly the most qualified, combat-ready, and the boldest warriors willing to sacrifice themselves in the line of duty. Aang gets caputured by Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), fire nation baddie and Zuko’s humiliator. Zuko dons a mask and captures Aang, but is injured in the process, allowing Aang to escape, but not before watching over Zuko. They decide to learn waterbending first, but travel to the northern water temple or whatever it’s called to learn. Fire nation arrive, Zhao kills some fish that embodies the spirit of the moon, disabling all waterbenders’ ability. Sokka’s girlfriend, whom he met during their stay at the temple, sacrifices her life. The trio then embark on a quest to learn earthbending.
The Last Airbender will not do the animated series justice; the characters are racially mismatched, which I normally wouldn’t have a problem with if the actors were good, except for the fact that the lead actors/actresses really are only good at playing one role: a plank of wood. In fact, they’re not so-bad-it’s-hilarious, they’re just so infuriatingly bad; Jackson Rathbone has a bad case of Mark Sestero-itis, staring off into deep space constantly. Nicole Peltz cannot act terrified; cannot act happy; cannot act curious; cannot act any single emotion. Noah Ringer is just about on par with Peltz; he has only one facial expression.
Apart from the leads, this movie completely missed the point of the character dynamics. Most characters aren’t particularly compelling on their own right; it’s the way that makes them special that really does allow us to be immersed in with this show. Take Zuko, by far the most intriguing, is split between the forces of good and evil; his malicious sister and father represent his corrupted side, the side of cruelty and grimness, whereas his uncle Iroh, and Aang, who, in the show, actually tries multiple times to befriend Zuko, including saving Zuko’s life, represent the forces of good. Eventually, by the third and final season, Zuko’s inner goodness comes out and he defeats his sister and the Fire Nation along with it. The movie simply does not have the time, nor the effort, nor the skill, to flesh out these characters and create a compelling dynamic; it simply isn’t there.
It’s fine if the movie attempts to differ itself from the show, but is still has to do a good job at being a film. Which it doesn’t.
The movie’s CG are painful to look at, most notably that flying bison, Appa. The water that is bent by Katara in the first scene (oh sorry, second scene, because of that hideous exposition) really is just a highly textured white ball at times, the fire moves in a uniform, fluid-like movement, and the rock-bending doesn’t fare any better.
The tone of this movie is sporadic; there are some scenes that are incredibly dark and overly serious – which is just eyeball-rolling considering the fantastical premise – and there are those even more inspid scenes that attempt at humour. At one scene, a bunch of earthbenders rise up against fire nation troops, with ten guys doing an assortment of martial arts (no scratch that – their movements are so stupid that it would be insultive to suggest that they are, in any way, related to martial arts) movements that only manage to lift some tiny little boulder (that does, as you might expect, nothing). It’s an obvious attempt at humour, but the result is a humiliating faceplant. Some say that there are two types of comedy: surrealist comedy – stupid humour, and silent comedy – implied humour through the use of gestures, facial expressions, etc. Let me make up another category: ghost comedy – humour that’s so poorly written and so poorly executed that you can’t even tell it’s a joke until some guy on the Internet does a review on a movie and points out that joke, leaving you scratching your head and thinking that was a joke?
I’d also like to point out that some of the logic is completely devoid of intelligence: at the aforementioned scene where the earthbenders rose up against the Fire Nation, the only reason why they succeeded is because the Fire Nation trapped the Earth benders in a stone quarry on the side of a mountain.
The only light in the darkness is Dev Patel, who does at least manage to portray a sense of what Zuko is in the cartoon, as shown in the opening sequence. The problem is his character isn’t likable enough for us to sympathise with him, unlike in the cartoon, and another thing – he got beaten by some 13 year old (or 113 year old, either way you look at it, it’s embarrassing) and two teens with no fighting skill nor bending ability (Katara is so bad at bending that she actually gets them captured and chucked into the stone quarry by accidentally freezing Sokka with ice). That one bit just completely ruined his character. And we’re supposed to believe that he can go toe-to-toe with a top-level commander.
I’m the kind of guy who would see any film, so I won’t deter you from searching this movie out. Just be mindful of the consequences.