Last Airbender, The

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.

2 Replies to “Last Airbender, The”

  1. This movie was horrid. I try to imagine how the writers thought their methods were best suited for this movie and I can only imagine M Night Shamalan sitting in front of a t.v. with a notepad and taking notes on the show as it was. Then, based on those notes he made a first draft of a script with no effort to rearrange the scenes in a manner that wouldn't be; 1) nonsensical 2) repetitive 3) unnecessary. Many shots were far too focused on the actors faces. They were so zoomed in they cut foreheads off. I could see the material that the Northern Water Tribe town was made of (it looked like blue foam I used in an art class before). They didn't explain the Avatar state at all. I feel as though they tried too hard to fit so many details in a small timeframe so everything feels extremely rushed. Anything else I have to say was basically already stated above except for a few other things.

    Why is everyone in the Southern Water Tribe eskimo except for Katara, Sokka, and their grandmother?
    Why is the royal family in the fire kingdom Indian, but when Prince Zuko pulls out his family portrait they're all Chinese or another type of Asian (other than Indian)?
    Why are all the soldiers such punks? They were stopped by fog for goodness sake!

    Part of the issue is that it seemed geared towards younger children, but even for kids, this was a poor movie. The slight physical comedy displayed by Sokka (who usually is made fun of a bit in the series and is a bit clumsy) didn't translate well on screen. Also, the camera angles were very narrow minded. They were either arial and showed too much of the scene (making large fight scenes look unimpressive) or they were eye-level and unimaginative.

    Save your money, see if you can buy the series box set or something. It's what I wish I had done instead.

  2. I can't stress this enough:

    DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

    “But why, Nick?”

    Quite simply, this, hands down, is the worst major movie I've seen other than The Spirit.

    “But I love Avatar: The Last Airbender on Nickelodeon!”

    Then you will especially hate this movie. The 6-year old sitting in front of me in the movie did, and Avatar is his favorite cartoon. If a six-year old can tell it's a crappy movie, you know there's a problem. Changes were made to the story for no reason, and they completely got certain characters wrong. Most importantly, they got all the bending wrong.

    “But the trailer looked so good!”

    The trailer is a carefully crafted lie. You know that whole scene with Ang in the Air Temple, where he's practicing surrounded by candles? Not in the movie. How cool is that scene in the trailer where he bends a huge wave of air and sends it pouring out of the opening in the Air Temple?!? Also not in the movie. Finally, inexplicably, the scenes where the Fire Nation ships lob their trademark fireballs… also not in the movie.

    “But I saw that they got a bunch of good actors!”

    I can think of 2 characters, with any significant screen time, who were not stilted, slack-jawed, and terrible in the movie: General/Uncle Iro and the Princess of the Northern Water Tribe. Of course, Iro was completely miscast, and nothing like in the animated series, but at least he had a good acting performance.

    “But at least bending is cool…”

    Bending is cool… in the animated series. In the animated series, each motion in bending has a corresponding reaction/effect from its element. In the movie, however, benders can do elaborate Tai Chi katas, lasting more than 10 seconds, before anything even begins to happen. “Normal”, skilled warriors should eat benders for breakfast: Simply walk up to them while they're dancing and smack them in the face… you've got plenty of time to do so. And let's not even discuss the fact that they got how bending works wrong too. Apparently, bending water is something like using the Dark Side of the Force.

    “It can't be all that bad.”

    Pray tell… what's the name and title of the main character?

    If you said Aang the Avatar, you'd be wrong.

    It's AHng the AH-vatar.

    Let me put it to you this way: I see a lot of movies in the theater. I've done so for most of my life. Other than in a case of technical failure, twhich made large parts of a movie unwatchable, I have never asked for my money back after seeing a movie.

    This time, I did. And I got it.

    I still feel robbed.

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