The Last Airbender
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan
Noah Ringer as Aang
Dev Patel as Prince Zuko
Nicola Peltz as Katara
Jackson Rathbone as Sokka
Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh
Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao
Believe it or not,
“Eclipse” isn’t the worst film coming out this weekend.
This weekend marks the release of The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the popular series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which may be one of the finest television shows ever produced. It’s easy to pity audience members who watch this awful movie before the series. The Last Airbender may be one of the laziest cinematic adaptations ever made. Not only did Shyamalan fail to translate the characters, humor and larger thematic context, he apparently couldn’t be bothered to pronounce half the characters’ names right, up to and including the eponymous protagonist. For his sins I’d challenge Shyamalan to an Agni Kai, but apparently he can’t pronounce that right either. Sigh…
For those who don’t know (shame on you, incidentally), The Last Airbender – renamed from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” because of that other movie you might have heard of – tells the story of a fantasy world modeled after Asia and divvied up into four nations: The Earth Kingdom (China), The Fire Nation (Japan), The Water Tribes (Inuits) and The Air Nomads (Tibet). Natives of these lands are often born with the ability to “bend” their nation’s element to superhuman ends. Once every generation an individual known as the “Avatar” is reincarnated to one of these nations, just like the Dalai Lama, and alone amongst the world can manipulate all four elements, as well as communicate directly with the Spirit World that controls the collective fate of mankind. One hundred years ago the Avatar disappeared, and the imperialist Fire Nation used the Avatar’s absence to conquer the world and commit genocide.
Cut to the “present” and two Water Tribe kids named Sokka (name mispronounced in the film, played by Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) find a young Airbender and his pet Air Bison frozen in a glacier. It’s not long before they realize that he’s the Avatar, who has been in suspended animation for the last century, and not long at all before Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) tries to abduct him. Zuko is the prince of the Fire Nation, banished without honor until he brings the Avatar before his father, Firelord Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Aang, Katara and Sokka journey from the South Pole to the North Pole liberating conquered Earth Kingdom cities along the way as they dodge The Fire Nation and struggle to teach Aang the remaining bending disciplines before it’s too late to stop the Fire Nation from taking over the world.
The film adapts the 400 minutes or so of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” Season One into a 120 minute movie, so changes were inevitable, and of course much of the plot is jettisoned completely. Unfortunately, in his rush to throw out all the bathwater Shyamalan inadvertently dropped his baby into a pit of spikes… and poisonous snakes. None of the characters from the series, so beautifully realized and human, make the transition to the big screen. Katara, the surrogate mother and practical protagonist, has nothing to do besides occasionally shed single tears and tell Aang that she believes in him. Sokka, the normal guy on a journey to manhood, is barely along for the ride. Worst of all is Aang, played by Noah Ringer. Ringer nails Aang’s trembly-eyed fear of responsibility, but is hampered by a script that doesn’t understand why Aang is so reluctant to accept the role of a savior. It’s because he’s a kid, Shyamalan, and not mature enough to understand his greater significance. He wants to laugh and play. Despite M. Night Shyamalan’s efforts to make a film for children he seems to have forgotten that he was also making a movie about children, and Aang’s iconic prankster persona never makes an appearance. Then again, neither does anything else even remotely resembling fun.
Shyamalan’s rush to get through the plot in a scant two hours has dire consequences. He doesn’t tell the story so much as give us the gist of it. The greater context of the war – with an entire continent of oppressed working class Earth Kingdom residents – is glossed over quickly in a half-assed action-sequence and a montage of Aang liberating occupied Earth Kingdom townships in a series of shots that appear to have all come from the same action sequence and then parceled off bit by bit because they ran out of money. (That, or all Earth Kingdom towns look alike.) Sometimes the filmmakers just get so lazy that they have Katara tell us what’s important in a lifeless voice-over. Zuko particularly suffers from the judicial cutting in the development phase. Although Zuko’s motivations should by all rights make him the film’s antagonist, the structure barely allows him to appear at all, and never lets him present an effectual threat. Instead, Aang’s nemesis is Commander Zhao, Firelord Ozai’s right-hand man. Commander Zhao is played by “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi, a very funny man whom Shyamalan unfortunately allows to read his lines like a series of comedic sketches. Zhao was portrayed in the original series by the great Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and the miscast Mandvi never comes close to Isaacs’ knack for portraying true diabolical villainy.
One gets the impression that Shyamalan doesn’t understand or appreciate the source material he’s been given in The Last Airbender. All of the admirable qualities from the original series are either given lip-service, cut entirely or changed in inexplicable ways. Besides the mispronounced names – which might have been forgivable if The Last Airbender had been based on a book, rather than a television series in which everyone’s name is spoken repeatedly, correctly, in every episode – the coming of age elements, romantic subplots and greater sociopolitical context feel completely off. The Fire Nation is a country shaped like Japan, filled with people with Japanese names, who in Shyamalan’s movie are Indian. The Water Tribes live in terrains with zero cloud cover and refracted light from every surface, but in this film are uniformly Caucasian. In real life, metaphoric colorblindness is a very good thing. In a story in which cultural and geographic distinctions are at the forefront of the concept, it’s somewhat more inscrutable. Don’t get me started on the weird little details, like the complete lack of air scooters and the bewildering decision to give the lovable fluffy Air Bison Appa a giant creepy baby face. As with Jonah Hex, one is forced to wonder why they adapted this material at all if they had no interest in what made it special in the first place.
M. Night Shyamalan has in the past been a good director, and until now even his worst movies demonstrated an uncanny knack for dynamic composition and pacing, but The Last Airbender suffers from murky photography and a narrative that keeps moving forward but never checks to see if you’re following along. Isolated moments allow the old “Avatar” magic to sink back in, usually in smaller scenes with misused talent like Dev Patel, but at no point does The Last Airbender come close to the original series in quality. Towards the end of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” the series did its own version of a clip show, in which the protagonists watched a play about their exploits performed by a theater troupe with miscast actors misinterpreting important elements of their lives. The twist is that it was performed by Fire Nation actors, who ended the story with Aang being murdered by the great and victorious Firelord Ozai. How appropriate. The Last Airbender may cover the events of Aang’s life, but it doesn’t understand them at all, and ultimately feels like a work of pure evil.