People often compare terrible experiences to root canals, saying they’d favor time in the dentist’s chair over one thing or another. I found it fortuitous, then, that I actually had a root canal scheduled the same day that friends and I intended to see The Last Airbender. Having heard how terrible the film was supposed to be, I had to find out for myself if there was any truth to the saying.
The film, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is based off of the hit Nickelodeon animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show was a brilliant mix of playfulness and serious drama. It was too much to hope that Shyalaman had actually understood what made the show great in the first place, because it really felt like dentistry gone awry.
The movie begins with the first of far too many voice overs by Katara (Nicola Peltz), who explains that everything was peaceful and awesome back in the day (of course). In this world there are people, called benders, who can control an element (Fire, Water, Air, or Earth) using Tai Chi and special effects. Katara herself is a novice Waterbender. Only one could control all four and thus keep the world balanced: the Avatar. One day, the Avatar disappeared and everything went to Hell in a hand basket. Now, the world is being slowly taken over by the brutal fire nation and their infernal machines. This opening narration is akin to the dentist sitting you down in the chair and explaining what’s going to happen while the anxiety of impending discomfort sets in.
Katara and her hapless brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), discover and free Aang (Noah Ringer), the titular hero, and his flying bison from an iceberg-an act that pushes the ramshackle plot into motion. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot here. It still hurts my brain trying to figure it out. It involves a troubled father/son relationship for Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis ). Meanwhile, Zuko’s uncle, General Iroh (Shaun Toub), is trying to give lessons in tactical spiritualism while Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) is being awesomely obnoxious. This of course, is the part of the visit where the dentist tries to distract you from the fact that you are actually paying him to inflict pain.
I have a sneaking suspicion that there was supposed to be more plot in the movie. At least Katara’s never-ending narration told us so. (Remember kids, the key to making a story not suck is to show, don’t tell.) There was a wee bit of a romance between Sokka and the white-haired Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabrielle) of the Northern Water Tribe. There was even a large, climactic battle with a lot of Tai Chi and special effects. The battle and the romance, like the rest of the movie and its attempts at preaching about responsibility and spiritualism, were lost to terrible dialogue, awful editing, horrible acting, and even worse attempts at storytelling. It was like hiring Steve Martin to do your dental work, Shyalaman liked watching us suffer.
On the plus side, where everything else failed in the movie, the music by composer James Newton Howard, was fantastic and the special effects weren’t half-bad. Though to be honest, it’s not like great music is going to really distract you the fact that there’s a dude drilling into your skull. It’ll make it more pleasant, but the whole thing still sucks.
So, was seeing The Last Airbender better than getting a root canal? Just barely. It only won because I snuck in a vodka flask (my attempt at Novocain), there was no drilling involved (just spiky hats for getting through some ice...don’t ask), and I liked the music better than the Muzak in my dentist’s office.