The Last Airbender (Contains Spoilers)

There are certain films that directors or writers create that define their careers within the industry. Some win Academy Awards, some break bold new ground in film-making and some are achieved through minimal budgets and grow to success through their great storytelling. Some are even the brainchild of one person at the helm who creates all the parts of such a successful film single handedly, which then becomes their shining moment in the film-making industry. Unfortunately for M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender is not this film. In fact, it’s probably the furthest thing from it. He has written, produced and directed The Last Airbender and it really shows that he’s bitten off more than he can chew by himself.

I did actually have rather high hopes for this film when I first saw that it was being made into a live action film – after all, the original series Avatar: The Last Airbender (or The Legend Of Aang if you’re outside the USA) was a pretty good attempt at an American-made Animé series. It had plenty of layering and a concept that was pretty cool and original. There were a lot of things going on in the series that weren’t always pointed out, like the way that each Nation uses a different style of Martial Arts reflective of what Element they can bend (i.e. Tai Chi bends Water because of the flowing motion, the Fire element uses lots of jabs and sweeps, etc), it was dramatic and comedic in all the right areas and generally had a lot going for itself. However, it’s a shame to say that a lot of what made Avatar: The Legend of Aang good did not translate well onto the screen.

To start with, M. Night Shyamalan has tried to condense an entire series into a one-and-a-half hour long film, which obviously makes more sense than trying to condense all THREE seasons into one film, but this still means you’re likely to lose a lot of impact if you’re not very careful with what parts you cover. Everything gets introduced very quickly, and as such it means that characters announce themselves so that everyone knows who all the characters are straight away in a completely untactful manner (i.e. “My name is Prince Zuko, and I demand you give me your elderly.” – actual line of dialogue. True fact.), and from this point on there is a lot of untactful announcements of actions that are to come (i.e. “We should go to these small cities and liberate them. Shall we do this?” “Yes.” – more actual dialogue. Yes, it keeps going…). The whole script, from start to finish, seemed to have whole sections of disjointed lines of dialogue that didn’t have any point.

M. Night Shyamalan’s coverage of the events of the first season definitely manages to get all of the important bits in, that’s for sure. Only thing is that it completely at the expense of any kind of coherency of any kind. The storyline doesn’t so much progress, but more jumps about from bit to bit. One scene, the characters will be doing something in one place, and then the next they’ll suddenly be somewhere else without any explanation of how they got there. The plot starts becoming so full of holes, Shyamalan might well have written it on Swiss cheese. As well as this, he’s managed to write in this annoying narration that keeps cropping up at inappropriate times during the film. Sure, the series is narrated in part by the character of Katara (played here by Nicola Peltz), but in certain scenes during the film such as when they arrive at the Northern Water Tribe, it’s no longer a narration but a full-on audio description. Literally, the narration is telling the audience about things they are ACTUALLY WATCHING. It doesn’t enhance the viewing or tell us anything we don’t know, but instead is purely annoying and not much else.

Despite this, The Last Airbender did have some good effects going for it – the way they managed to achieve the bending of the elements was very well pulled off, but it was clear that a vast majority of the budget had gone on that as Aang’s flying Bison Appa made all of about 3 appearances throughout the entire film, even though in the series he’s pretty much part of the main cast. Obviously, there was a bit too much to animate there, and instead Shyamalan spent the money on cool Fire and Water effects instead. Even with this in mind, seeing the film in 3D wasn’t all that much more impressive as there were no real bits throughout the film that really made very good use of the 3D effects technology. Instead, you end up seeing the film with slightly better depth perception rather than having huge towering flames or water pulses flying out the screen at you like I would have expected.

On top of this, the acting left a lot to be desired. Newcomer Noah Ringer plays Aang (here pronounced “Arh-ng” instead of the original “Aa-ng” for some reason) and does as good a job as can be expected from someone relatively new to the big time, but being the central character you would expect Shyamalan to work with him to be as believable as possible, and that didn’t seem to have happened. Jackson Rathbone’s character of Sokka (again, now pronounced “Sow-kah” instead) was made out to be this serious hunter-warrior type when he’s actually more of the comic relief in the series as well as that. It’s easy to see why he’s becoming more successful for his role in The Twilight Saga, because the writing of the characters here didn’t help him much.

What I also couldn’t understand and generally confused me throughout the film was why the Fire Nation were suddenly all Indian. Shyamalan may be Indian in origin himself, but casting an entire nation of evil guys bend on enslaving the rest of the world as entirely Indian when the other nations are American or Asian has GOT to be a little Un-P.C., right? It wasn’t like that in the series (all the nations were generally Asian), so why is it suddenly like that now? More to the point, why is it that Uncle Iroh (Shaun Taub) looks nothing like the character he’s meant to play, and is part of the Fire Nation and speaks with a SPANISH accent? Its parts like these that generally make less and less sense as the film goes on. The only saving grace is Dev Patel as Prince Zuko. He plays his part with conviction, even though his character is written into doing actions that have no explanation other than setting things up for stuff that happens after the film has ended, such as his sister being favored over him for her Firebending skills.

Generally, I felt that not unlike the visual effects of the film, the script and the characters were surprisingly two-dimensional. Not only that, but it is now confirmed that there are to be another 2 films (at least) to follow this one in order to complete the storyline. If these are going to take off in any way, then Shyamalan is going to have to do considerably better than what he’s done with this film. It’s not even that the film wouldn’t have done well anyway – in fact, with the right approach to it, The Last Airbender could have been something really great. Only, it hasn’t, and there’s no changing that now.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh considering that this IS a film directed mostly at a younger age group, but I’m giving The Last Airbender a 4 out of 10 and that’s mostly just because I liked the series for its originality and because just a little of that made it through to the film, but probably not enough to make me go back for more.

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