July 4, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Airbender

lastairbender2_largeOriginally titled Avatar: The Last Airbender, from the Nickelodeon series, the film dropped the leading word since it was already snagged by the blockbuster from James Cameron and there was a desire to not cause confusion over the potential audience. In any case, the film has arrived on the big screen courtesy of M. Night Shyamalan. The twenty episode initial season, called Water, has been condensed to a 100-minute film that is an utterly frustrating experience even without the baggage of fandom or even familiarity. That's right, while I am familiar with the name, I have never seen an episode nor read any sort of synopsis. Hey, I watch a lot of stuff but I can't watch it all!

Like I mentioned, this movie is a terribly frustrating experience. There are bits and pieces that I really like. Unfortunately, they tend to be the window dressing and technical elements that should come in support of a good, well-executed story. When the viewer, me in this case, are looking for things to like that cannot say much about the movie as a whole, can it? It is not for a lack of interest as I really wanted to like it. The story seems interesting, the trailers looked good, and for better or worse, it is a Shyamalan film.

The story begins with the introductions of Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). They are members of the Southern Water Tribe. All right, I guess it should be mentioned that this world (I am not sure if this is meant as a version of Earth or not) is inhabited by four tribes representing the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Each of these tribes will occasionally produce members who can control their respective elements, called "bending."


All right, where was I? Ah yes, Katara and Sokka. They are out hunting and come across a large block of ice. They break it open and find a boy and a big furry critter inside. This draws the attention of the powerful Fire Nation, who have been actively trying to take over the world. It seems this boy is the Avatar, destined to bring balance to the four elements and bring piece to the world.

Of course, just being a boy and not having control of all the elements means we are about to embark on an adventure where lessons will be learned, battles will be fought, and he bad guys will have plenty of opportunities to catch our heroes. Funny, looking at it like this rather reminds me of Anakin Skywalker during his journey to becoming Darth Vader. Now don't tell me that this series concludes with him turning evil (does it?).

That about sums up the surface of the story. There are undertones of personal responsibility and sacrifice, recognizing your destiny and standing up for yourself. Many virtues that are admirable. It's too bad that the characters learning them fall decidedly to the dull side.

One of the problems with the movie, and it was probably an unavoidable one, is that the story ends just as it is beginning. Each season of the series brings a different focal element. That would be a lot to cram into a single film. So, this gives us the subtitle of "Water" and a very water-based tale and a climax that makes it feel far from over. Now, are we guaranteed a sequel? Has the studio committed to the sequels regardless of the outcome of this movie? This is a problem, what if no sequels get made? The cinematic tale will not reach a conclusion. I do not believe this is a case similar to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter where it was pretty clear that the full story would be told. This feels more like The Losers, which also ended before it really began, failed, and will likely not get a conclusion. This is a minor issue as The Last Airbender has bigger problems to deal with.


The fantasy movie was written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan. It is the first time in his career where he is seemingly doing work-for-hire. Prior to this film all of his projects originated with him. I have been hoping for this man to have a hit for a number of films now and despite enjoying The Happening, he has not exactly been on a positive streak. I had hoped this would be it. Unfortunately, despite is obvious gifts and talent, this does not appear to be the thing to get him on the right track.

What I feel Shyamalan needs to do is start directing from screenplays written by someone else, as this is just another example of poor writing. The dialogue of The Last Airbender is absolutely mind numbing. There is not one bit that goes to developing the characters in anyway. The lines are written in a semi-formalized way and delivered in such a fashion that it does not sound real, much less convincing. It all just feels off, as if the heart has been sucked right out of it. It is clear that Shyamalan has an idea of what he wants to do, but much like George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels does not quite know how to convey in convincing dialogue.

On the other side of the coin, Shyamalan is a gifted director and there is much to admire in his work here. I know it sounds odd considering how calling the film mediocre would be incredibly generous. The man has very good technique. He makes full use of the widescreen frame with interesting character and item placement, using foreground and background effectively. There are some great moments that use rack focus and slight camera shifts as the eye is drawn from, say, the right foreground to the left background as characters move into frame. The camera is quite dynamic, moving around to reveal the bigger action or reveal an action sequence. This is what makes him such a frustrating cinematic artist, he is a big ball of conflict, not seemingly able to reconcile his poor writing with his exceptional eye.


I am sure the screenplay is a big reason, but not the only one, for the poor performances. There is uniformly nothing of interest from these actors or their performances. It is like they are just there reciting lines rather than playing a character. There were moments where actual characters wanted to break out, but it never actually came to be as they always fell back into rote delivery. There is no room for them to breathe, the screenplay never allows them any true character moments.

Sure, there are a few moments that masquerade as character development but actually only serve to push the plot forward. This is actually pretty funny as the story moves forward in fits and spurts as if falling down a series of hills despite it slipping in and out of action and allowing boredom to set in.

One last piece before closing and that regards the 3D. I did not see this in 3D and do not believe anyone should see it in 3D. It was a decision made by the suits after the fact, the film was not shot with 3D in mind. This is clearly a cash grab by the studio. Let it be known that I really like the current 3D technology, I only insist on it being used from the start, be that shooting in 3D or shooting with intentions to convert is fine.

Bottomline. This is not a good movie. It is a good property with plenty of potential that goes sadly unrealized here. I am curious as to where Shyamalan goes from here, at some point he will either stop making movies are start putting it back together. I would love to see him turn it around. So far as The Last Airbender goes, I recommend giving it a pass. There are better things to spend time with.

Not Recommended.



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