The Last Airbender (2010)

9 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ll state right away that I haven’t seen a single episode of the popular animated TV series, aired on Nickelodeon, called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” So I don’t know the exact details of its story, characters, etc. But I do know that it is held in high regard—it has a cult following and apparently even the most stubborn critics can’t help but like it. So when the fans heard of a theatrical film adaptation of the show, they were hyped. When they heard that it was going to be live-action…they were worried. When newcomers to this story heard that the writer/director was M. Night Shyamalan, we had little to no expectations.

We all know that Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker and has brought us some outstanding achievements (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”). But he has really lost his way since then. Projects like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” were not promising evidence that Shyamalan was gifted, if we hadn’t seen the other three films. And now here he is adapting a film from this animated TV series. I’m surprised that the Paramount studio entrusted this man with something as apparently delicate.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the original show, so I’m reviewing “The Last Airbender” (the “Avatar” was omitted for obvious reasons) as a movie, like it should be. And the verdict is I hated it. It’s a confusing, uninteresting, jumbled mess that is a huge case of bad writing, bad storytelling, and bad filmmaking. This is not only M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film to date—it’s one of the worst fantasy films I’ve ever seen.

The plot is incomprehensible, though to be fair, I think it’s because I’m not accustomed to watching it develop in episodes on TV. There’s a scroll that tries to explain everything in the very beginning, and most of the dialogue is full of spewing exposition. But I couldn’t tell you what happens in this story or why it happens. I just know that in some distant future (or maybe a parallel dimension), mankind has split into four tribes, each representing an element—earth, air, water, and fire. And there are people in these tribes who can enchantingly manipulate their elements—or “bend” them, as they put it. These tribes are at war with each other, particularly because the Fire-benders are brutally hostile because…whatever. Only one can bring peace to the world—the “Avatar,” who can control all four elements.

The Avatar, named Aang (Noah Ringer), is found by two water-benders—a sister and brother named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, the “Twilight” movies). They release him after he’s been buried under the ice for years. But by the time they figure out who he is, they are attacked by the Fire tribe warriors, led by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) who tries to capture him before Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) claims him for the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis)…at least I think that’s why this is happening. Oh, and Aang, aided by Katara and Sokka, heads to the lands of different tribes to train and master his own abilities, so he can make himself known as the Avatar.

“The Last Airbender” takes itself way too seriously, to the point where we’re supposed to be familiar with most of the material. But it’s hard to be invested when it’s pretty much just a callback to those fantasy films that tried for the same “complexity” that this one does, and it ends up looking like a joke as a result. (Well hey, not every fantasy film can be “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter”—at least those films knew how to tell their stories.)

The screenplay is horrible. The dialogue is laughably bad and the story developments are inconsequential. It’s like we’re being challenged to follow along with what’s going on in this movie. I wouldn’t mind so much except that it’s so rushed and ends on a note that suggests a sequel, which I would definitely not look forward to seeing. And like I said, most of the dialogue is just awkward exposition—there’s no reason for these characters to explain these details except for informing the audience what’s going on. It’s not informatively helpful; it’s boring.

The special effects range from average to completely unconvincing. Some visual shots are clever, like the water spheres that the Water-benders create, and even a few shots of this “giant water buffalo” (I have no idea what Aang’s humongous pet really is). But mostly, they’re very weak. The fire looks like obvious CGI flames, the twister scenes (in which air is “bended”) are unimpressive, and every battle sequence is unintelligible, making for an uninteresting final-battle climax. Shyamalan’s gifts do not include action scenes.

I’m just glad I didn’t see “The Last Airbender” in 3-D.

But to be fair, the settings are quite extraordinary. It really does look like we’ve entered another world. Look at the icy mountains, the medieval-looking castles, the large-scale ships—the production design deserves credit.

I really don’t like to criticize young actors, but Noah Ringer is totally flat as Aang, and is given unable support by his two co-stars Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone. All three young actors are dull, stiff, and unconvincing. The villains—Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, and Dev Patel—are slightly better, but here’s the main problem with them. They play it too straight, like they’re leading men in another movie. Dev Patel, in particular, has apparently forgotten that his role is supposed to be hammy, not deadpan serious.

“The Last Airbender” is an unintelligible, badly-made fantasy film. And I find it very hard to believe that Shyamalan, this man formerly known as an influential filmmaker, botched up this adventure that should have been exciting. Maybe he’ll find his way again. I sure hope so.

NOTE: Sometime, I will watch an episode or two of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and see what all the love is about.

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