Movie Review – The Last Airbender (2010)
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a travesty of epic proportions lacking in virtually every department imaginable and begs the salient question of what possessed not only him but the producers and those executives at Paramount Pictures for even green-lighting this supreme dud. There is no arguing that M. Night Shyamalan has done some very good movies throughout his career but with The Last Airbender he truly hits rock bottom with a film so risible that perhaps only very young toddlers would love. Even then anything geared towards children like Max and Ruby or Toopy and Binoo literally tower over this monstrosity and would provide hours of solid entertainment that The Last Airbender is completely devoid of.
Based on the famous children’s cartoons series of the same name The Last Airbender chronicles the adventures of a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) who along with his friends Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find themselves in a constant struggle with the evil Fire Nation and its ruler the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis) and his son (Dev Patel) who intend to conquer the other three peaceful countries in order to unite the world under their rule.
I will readily admit that I have seen all of five minutes of the source cartoon and though I have always desired to give it a try after a movie like this I have lost all motivation to do so. Even without seeing another second of the cartoon I am sure it has to be much better than its cinematic counterpart at least judged by its quite sizable fanbase. I can only imagine how many of these diehard followers have decided to seek out M. Night Shyamalan and give him a swift kick to the groin for ruining their favourite show.
It has been a very long time coming but I’ll easily state before readers go any further in this review that this film is perhaps the first zero star analysis I have penned in the last decade. I really have no desire to give out such a score but a movie like this is so ridiculously appalling that I find myself running out of negative adjectives to describe it.
First and foremost a movie requires well defined characters and in a film like this which so obviously sets up an epic battle between the forces of good and evil it seems like a no brainer to get the audience to sympathize immediately with the heroes. Unfortunately, the core trio of Aang, Katara and Sokka are as exciting as watching paint dry as each is given virtually no backstory or character arc in which to grow. Being the hero Aang does get some insight into his character seen through ridiculously overwrought dream sequences that are so poorly framed or even explained but these just act to further the plot and rarely reveal his inner angst. Making matters worse, when we finally get more pertinent information regarding the genocide of his race the film decides to lapse into quasi-Obi Wan Kenobi force mumbo jumbo about letting your anger subside and to accept that past events cannot be changed. This sounds great except for one fact in that M. Night Shyamalan never bothers to show us even one scene where Aang lashes out at anyone or anything regarding his deep torment so that when he receives these instructions it makes absolutely no sense.
All three leads are so woefully underwritten that I feel a bit of sympathy for the actors and actresses involved since I can’t decide if the script or horrid acting skills are to blame for such lifeless characterizations. While none of these main characters are ever going to win an Academy Award I find it mind-boggling that M. Night Shyamalan never allows any of them to at least try to stretch themselves. Instead all they talk about is how to prevent the Fire Nation from conquering the world yet they never reveal anything about themselves effectively cutting all emotional ties with the audience. If anyone of them died a gruesome death I very much doubt any viewer would care.
I am reminded of the trinity in the original Star Trek series of Kirk, Spock and McCoy as each represented different aspects of the human psyche. Even when nothing particularly harrowing was happening the trio had an easy flowing camaraderie which was highly infectious and allowed fans around the world to identify with them. In comparison the trio at the heart of The Last Airbender have no such luck as we never see them properly banter and establish a coherent interpersonal relationship with one another and because of this there is no reason to expect this group to stick together.
Katara comes off as the motherly figure and through my unscientific methods seems to account for over 90% of all dialogue that the trio have when they are with one another. However, what dialogue she has rarely contributes to characterization and is wholly tilted to moving the plot forward. Even worse off is Sokka who will go down in cinematic history as perhaps the most useless sidekick ever because he does absolutely nothing heroic nor does the movie ever give him anything pertinent to say. When he finally falls in love with a white-haired Princess it literally comes out of nowhere and is based on ten seconds of loving eye contact between the two. His weapon of choice seems to be a boomerang but he rarely shows any proficiency and ultimately is as vital to the trio’s success as a gnat stuck to the bottom of Aang’s shoe.
Whenever Shyamalan finally gets to showing any exposition it is so poorly written into the script that it stands out like a sore thumb with massive neon signs proclaiming its arrival. As an example, it is quickly established that Prince Zuko has somehow been exiled by his father that generates a bit of intrigue as viewers will wonder how this came to pass. However, instead of somehow cleverly revealing the backstory Shyamalan merely lets Zuko talk to a young boy who basically narrates why the Prince is such a wuss. It feels as if Shyamalan filmed the whole movie and then realized that viewers were confused in the test screenings so he quickly shot more footage and merely rammed it into the film akin to a huge band-aid.
The film moves forward at a breakneck pace but it fails to provide adequate justification or rationale for doing so leaving Shyamalan to resort to that creaky old device of having a narrator explain to the audience exactly what is happening, why or any sense of time passing. As the film careens forward we are presented with huge titles proclaiming which geographical location we are now in yet Shymalan has seemingly forgotten that he’s never once explained the geography of the world thus we have no clue how different locations or countries are spatially related to one another. Imagine if you will that you land on an alien world asking for directions to the planet’s leadership and the local inhabitants just say go to XYZ by way of 123 after you’ve turned left at ABC. Whatever frustration you’d feel is exactly what permeates The Last Airbender from the very first scene to the last.
A film like this deserves a hammy overblown villain who loves to chew scenery in every shot yet Shyamalan has gone the total opposite route as both Dev Patel as Prince Zuko and Cliff Curtis as his father the Fire Lord underplay and internalize their pent up frustrations. I wonder what poor Dev Patel was thinking the entire shoot after coming off such a soaring performance in Slumdog Millionaire and ending up doing his best menacing glare that seems more like intense constipation than simmering fury. Curtis is even worse as his Fire Lord is never given an opportunity to show why he is evil robbing the film of a powerful antagonist. Without establishing his villainous credentials Shymalan gives the audience no real reason to hate him and whenever he confronts his generals Curtis’ take on being malevolent is about as believable as Jerry Seinfeld cast as Adolph Hitler.
Those viewers who find themselves bored silly or just plain lost at the constant lack of coherent information might hope to find solace in some good action or CG sequences. Unfortunately, once again the news isn’t great as the action is so hackneyed and filmed with a lugubrious style that it comes off as absurd. The first time I saw Aang begin to fight I was instantly reminded of an iconic fight sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones faced off against a skilled swordsman. While said blademaster was spinning his swords and showing his prowess Indiana Jones nonchalantly pulls out a gun and shoots him causing audiences around the world to howl in laughter.
Shyamalan shows next to no aptitude for creating a consistent and rational fighting mechanic as we are presented scene after scene where Aang and other benders excessively wave their hands like they are conducting a symphonic orchestra. Watching Aang perform Tai-Chi inspired movements that take forever to use made me wonder why any henchmen just didn’t walk up to him from the rear and hit him with a mallet since he rarely ever turned around and concentrated all these complex actions on the target directly in front of him. Heck, just throw a stone or a tea pot or a blasted shoe at his back to interrupt him since he takes far too long to use his powers.
Ever since M. Night Shyamalan surprised audiences with The Sixth Sense there have been many people proclaiming him to be one of the brightest lights in Hollywood yet unfortunately, with the possible exception of Unbreakable, his subsequent movies have progressively gotten worse and he truly hits rock bottom here with The Last Airbender especially when one realizes that there is no one else on the staff to blame for this debacle considering Shyamalan also was responsible for the screenplay as well as being one of the producers. If I were Shyamalan I would take some time off to take a break and perhaps clear my head in an attempt to rediscover my creative spark because if his next film is more disappointing than The Last Airbender it would truly rival Ed Wood’s universally panned Plan 9 From Outer Space and perhaps be the worst cinematic endeavour in history.
Zero out of ****
2010, USA, 103 Minutes, Paramount Pictures, PG
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by Scott Aversano, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, M. Night Shyamalan
Executive Producer Michael Dante DiMartino, Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Konietzko
Original Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie
Film Editing by Conrad Buff IV
Aang: Noah Ringer
Prince Zuko: Dev Patel
Katara: Nicola Peltz
Sokka: Jackson Rathbone
Uncle Iroh: Shaun Toub
Commander Zhao: Aasif Mandvi
Fire Lord Ozai: Cliff Curtis
Princess Yue: Seychelle Gabriel
Katara’s Grandma: Katharine Houghton
Master Pakku: Francis Guinan
Monk Gyatso: Damon Gupton
Azula: Summer Bishil
Old Man in Temple: Randall Duk Kim
© 2010 The Galactic Pillow