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The Last Airbender: He Can Generate Wind, But Not My Interest

Let me begin by saying I’ve never seen this TV show, but I understand it’s critically acclaimed and beloved all over the world. After seeing the film, all I can do is wonder why. The Last Airbender, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, certainly feels like it’s an entire season of a show compressed into ninety minutes– there’s zero character development, all of it having been replaced by bumbling speeches of exposition. Every single moment is dedicated to pushing the plot forward, which is odd since we’re given no reason to care. It’s slowly paced, poorly acted, and it is the absolutely worst thing a big budget film can be: boring. At one point in the movie, I began to get restless, thinking the end of the film had to be around the corner. Only fifty minutes had passed. When the audience begins wondering how much longer the movie can be, you’ve already lost.

It will be hard to summarize the plot, since the dialogue of the entire film is dedicated to summarizing the plot, but I will do my best to put it in layman’s terms. There are four Nations: Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water (Heart, it appears, is being saved for the inevitable Captain Planet feature film). Each Nation has Benders, people that can control the elements of their nation. There is one person, the Avatar, who can control all the elements and is used as a force for peace in the world. When the film begins, the Avatar has been missing. Two children of the Water Nation, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), find a young child frozen in ice. This is Aang (Noah Ringer), and surprise, he’s the Avatar. He’s from the Air Nation, but he’s the last left, since the evil Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be an Airbender, so they killed them all. Now Fire Nation knows the Avatar is back, so two forces are after him: Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), working for Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis)… and Ozai’s disgraced son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel).

There’s so much more plot than this. At one point, there’s a scene in which Sokka catches the eye of Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), and in the VERY NEXT SCENE, they are holding hands, and the Princess says, “I’ve enjoyed spending these last few weeks with you, Sokka.” We don’t get to see them fall in love– we don’t even know anything about the princess other than she’s pretty, or about Sokka other than he’s brave. Thus, when something bad happens to one of them later in the film, there’s absolutely no impact, because we don’t care about them and we never saw them fall in love. All it takes is one well-written scene with strong acting, and we’d root for this love. We get neither here. There are similar grievances for all the lead characters. Why should we care Aang is nervous about being the Avatar? Why does Katara need to follow him into battle? We know something bad happened to Katana’s mom, because she mentions it in exposition. We know Aang is upset that he lost his nation, because he talks about his experiences with them in exposition. None of these things resonate at all. There’s so much talking in this movie.

Shyamalan seems to have told his actors to be as serious as possible, and to speak as slowly and gravely as possible. There’s absolutely no humor in a movie that stars nothing but children. It also comes as a detriment to the actors and the dialogue. Every line feels stilted, because no life is injected into the delivery. Every actor comes across cold and wooden, because every line is really delivered in exactly the same manner. For a director who’s had terrific child performances in his first three films, not a child here compels, especially Aang, who seems to alternate between wise and whiny. All of these actors look great– they’re attractive, interesting in appearance, and their movements during their bending certainly look balletic and lovely. But once again, the issue is that we simply don’t care. The effects and cinematography throughout the film are great– Shyamalan’s films usually are.

Because we don’t care, a film with a lot of plot and a good amount of fighting still feels stagnant. I’m not convinced Shyamalan, who is great at directing horror and thriller genre set pieces, knows exactly how to stage an action set piece. The choreography is all good, but the camera placement is usually peculiar and he has a strange habit of switching in and out of slow motion during combat. This shows off the quality of the effects, but it takes one out of the speed of the fight. This is the first movie where I wished the editor might have chopped up the fight scenes a bit more. Shyamalan lets us look at the fight without much cutting, which normally is ideal, but the movie’s tempo is so slow that we never achieve any sense of urgency. The movie as a whole, with all of its effects and action, still manages to bore. If we cared about the characters, it would have helped. Even the music only grows to be epic in the last ten minutes of the film– for the most part, it’s slow sweeping sleepy symphonic strings.

Finally, there’s the issue of race. While it might not have bothered me in theory that these lead characters who were all Asian are all white here, it bothered me in execution for a number of reasons. 1. The racial makeup of the nations aren’t consistent. The water nation seems half-white, half-Eskimo, and the air nation seems mostly Asian and black, with one white Avatar. Why are only the leads white? 2. The child actors do a poor job. Certainly in all of Asia, you can find three child actors that are better… right? 3. If the show was enormously popular with Asian leads, why go out of your way to change what works? Isn’t casting white leads asking for trouble? If Shyamalan had stuck with Jesse McCartney as the evil prince, wouldn’t that have made it even more obvious that it’s a blatant case of racist casting? The only nation with any quasi-consistency in the racial makeup is the fire nation, and unfortunately, Dev Patel and Cliff Curtis aren’t the hammy scenery-chewers that this film needs. Again, they deliver their lines with the same humorlessness as the white lead roles.

The one good thing, I suppose, that Shyamalan brings to the table to his films, aside from lovely images, is someone to blame. Other movies can blame the writer, the director, the producers, the editor, and so forth. Shyamalan is an actual auteur– in a day and age where directors achieve auteur status in the media even when they don’t write their films, Shyamalan writes and directs and produces his own films. Thus, when they tank, it’s easy to place the blame. Ever since Signs, his films have been dreadful (though Lady in the Water is better upon repeated viewings than I first thought it was). They’re exquisitely shot and, up until The Happening, contained good performances. Now we have two films in a row with bad performances, lots of explanation-heavy dialogue, and characters we don’t care about. And at least The Happening still felt like a Shyamalan film. This feels like a movie from a man lost– he put none of his usual feel into this movie, it could have been written and directed by anybody else. After seeing the end result of The Last Airbender, maybe having it written and directed by anybody else would have been a good idea.

P.S. There is a scream of “Noooooooo!” to the camera that is easily the worst of its kind since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Note to everyone: never have a character yell “Nooooooo!” unless you want a laugh from the audience.

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~ by russellhainline on July 2, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Last Airbender: He Can Generate Wind, But Not My Interest”

  1. I totally agree with you especially about the acting and casting. You should def check out the show it’s great and gets better with each season (a total of 3). It’s on netflix instant streaming.

  2. Yea… If you can check out the cartoon. It’s a wonderful show and the moive did it no justice whatsoever.

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