The Last Airbender: A Whirlwind of Plots Leaves the Air Too Thin

2 07 2010

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is quite a departure from his previous, twist-ending movies (The Sixth Sense, The Village, etc.). An adaptation from the popular Nickelodeon animated TV series, The Last Airbender has had its share of woes: it sparked a heated race debate after Caucasian actors were cast as the three Asian leads, then the movie opened to scathing reviews, especially from Roger Ebert. Is it deserving of all the flack? Here’s the breakdown:

The Water, Earth and Air Kingdoms are under attack from the power-hungry Fire Nation. “Benders,” powerful individuals who can manipulate one of the four elements, are being thrown into camps or arrested, as the Fire Nation searches for the missing Avatar, a prophesied savior with the ability to manipulate all four elements.

Enter Aang, a small boy from the Air Nomads and the last of his kind. After teaming up with Katara and Sokka, Aang must head to the Northern Water Kingdom to begin his mastery of the four elements, bringing him closer to fulfilling his destiny as the Avatar. Along the way he must seek guidance from the Spirit World, fight the ruthless exiled Fire Nation Prince, Zuko, and accept the responsibility of the Avatar.

The Monkey: While many reviews have bemoaned the special effects, I found them quite impressive (this could be because I saw the movie in 2D – 3D conversion often darkens the film and can cause unwelcome visual inconsistencies). The water effects were realistic and the element-bending fight sequences were original and fun to watch.

Any movie faced with the task of “world-building,” especially a world that exists in another medium (in this case, television) is a difficult task, considering there are only two hours to work with. And in most cases, the world-building setup must take place in the first half-hour. The Last Airbender did a decent job of establishing a vast world, although fans of the show definitely have an advantage. An opening crawl set the stage and Katara’s (unnecessary) voice-overs filled in some of the gaps (more on this below).

Despite the dire circumstances set up in the plot, the script allowed for a few brief moments of humor, due in large part to the brother/sister relationship between Sokka and Katara. And speaking of character relationships, the storyline involving the exiled Prince Zuko was one of the more interesting points, especially his relationship to his Uncle.

The themes presented in The Last Airbender were strong and the movie’s greatest strength. What does it mean to take on a huge responsibility? What are the consequences of turning your back on that responsibility? What is the definition of family and what are you willing to do to maintain that definition? What does it mean to be a traitor, a savior?

Unfortunately, as will be discussed below, these themes often became muddled and were never completely fleshed out.

The Weasel: The dialogue was appalling. With lines like, “Your chi will warm you,” and “I will stop them!” there was no end to the cringe-inducing quotes; however, in defense, while I have never seen an episode of the Avatar TV series, the anime I have watched (and truly enjoyed) have never scored high on the dialogue charts. Stilted dialogue is almost a staple of anime, at least the anime I have been exposed to (Gundam Wing, Cowboy Bebop, etc.) and I almost expect it. Whether it’s a product of the medium, or haphazard translations, I won’t guess.

And just a quick note on the race debate: I was fully prepared to defend the movie on this point, feeling the protestations have been over-the-top and somewhat ridiculous; however, after seeing the movie, the three leads are practically the only White people in the movie – what? About 98% of the extras and secondary characters are of Asian or Indian descent, making me feel the racist accusations hold a lot more water than I originally anticipated. While I’m not here to give a dissertation on Hollywood and race, I think there is much to be explored here, and all the blame does not belong on this film or Shyamalan.

The biggest disappointment was the scrambled mess of a plot. There were glimpses of an exciting, Lord of the Rings-esque trek movie, a Holocaust-like handling of the “Benders,” even some inklings of family betrayal and political maneuvering worthy of Shakespeare; unfortunately, no one of these evanescent story lines received the attention they deserved. And with the clear intention of a trilogy (this installment was titled “Book One: Water”), I found it frustrating that Shyamalan didn’t take his time introducing some of the more obscure story elements. It’s already a daunting task establishing a world of “benders” and the mystical nature inherent in a fantasy world, but piling plot point after plot point, and level after level of storytelling, does nothing but bog down the story and audiences alike. For example, three-quarters into the movie, the concept of physical manifestations of “Spirits,” (and their demise) is introduced, seemingly out of nowhere. While an interesting story construct, such a massive bit of information might have benefitted from a bit more setup in a sequel. And why were there random Katara voice-overs, other than to blaze through significant plot points? And a montage of our three leads wrecking havoc across Earth Kingdom villages was both confusing and completely unrelated to the plot.

Similarly, character development suffered the effects of the disjointed pacing and plotting. Aang and Katara are on a parallel journey, both trying to master their water-bending abilities; this could have given rise to some wonderful character driven moments. But it was glossed over. Sokka fell in love with a Princess who was introduced at the very end of the movie, one of the most unbelievable “love stories” I’ve ever seen on screen, wasting a perfectly decent (considering the script) performance by Jackson Rathbone. And the dynamic between Zuko and his family (especially his Uncle, whose fascinating character was woefully underutilized) was ripe with character development possibilities, but with so much else going on in the movie, this was mostly overlooked as well. In short, Shyamalan spread himself too thin, trying to do too much at once.

Maybe this is an argument against TV-to-movie translations. A TV show has so much more time to establish setting and explore characters. Thank goodness George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is getting the television treatment from HBO; a movie studio adaptation would surely fall into the same trap as The Last Airbender.

Overall, The Last Airbender is hardly as bad as most reviews have made it out to be. In fact, the theatre I was in applauded at the end. Why? From the snippets of conversation I overheard before the movie started, I was surrounded by fans of the show and fans of anime in general. They were most likely familiar with the mythology and back-story of the movie, used to cheesy dialogue and were just thrilled to see a beloved cartoon get the blockbuster treatment. And at the end of the day, as long as the fans are happy, what’s the harm? While I may never understand the Twilight obsession, and while I may think the movies are subpar (at best), those movies weren’t made for me, just as The Last Airbender wasn’t made for Roger Ebert – they were made for the fans.

And frankly, I think The Last Airbender would actually benefit from another installment, giving Shyamalan the chance to take a chill pill and focus more on story and less on world-building and information overload. But only the box office will tell.

2.5 Death Stars out of 5

What did you think? Are you a fan of the show? Do you think the horrible reviews are too harsh, or spot on? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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2 responses

2 07 2010
Cal

I agree with everything said. There were so many great plot points that were not explored and made me very confused when leaving the theater. The weird use of the Northern Water Kingdom made it seem like a Hollywood set and not some gigantic village surrounded by monsterous brick walls. I’m pretty sure Aang Cirque du Soleil-ed himself up the same wall 3 times.
The special effects were really good! The last huge special effects scene with the ocean was the most inspiring part of the whole movie. However, the plot should be a little more important and since they had too many, I also think it only deserves 2 1/2 DeathStars. 🙂

19 08 2010
K-style

This is going to be difficult for me to say, considering I adore the tv show and loathe Shyamalan (honestly, after going to see the village expecting a horror movie, I think I earned the right to loathe him). But, given the fact he was translating someone else’s story and condensing a season of television into roughly two hours, he could have done worse. But, even giving him the benefit of the doubt, there were numerous things he changed that just felt wrong.

For one thing, the tone was much to serious. The show always takes a lighthearted approach to things. Above all else, the main characters are children, and much of the show is about the main characters growing up in a time of war and holding on to what is precious: their childhood. Hell, most of the series Aang and Sokka could be considered the Abbot and Costello of revolutionary insurrectionists. I can understand trying to take a different approach to express different themes or points of view, but if something works you really shouldn’t mess with it. Particularly if you are going to go in the opposite direction.

The dialog was bad, which is depressing because the dialog in the show was good. This movie was based on a western cartoon show who’s only eastern influence was the artistic style. When anime comes to America and gets dubbed, many jokes and character interactions get skewed in translation. Avatar: The last airbender was never dubbed for American audiences because it is American. So the atrocious dialog was either Shyamalan’s fault or the screenwriters. If they were attempting to be “true to source” (i.e. making it feel like an anime) they should have taken their heads out of their rectum and watched the show before writing it.

Finally, I feel I must not overlook the fanboy dilemma. A series as popular as Avatar has some die hard fanboys, just like LOTR, Star Wars, and virtually any superhero movie adaption you can think of. As a devoted fan, there is an expectation for there to be an inside joke or two to thank the fans of the series for supporting the franchise. Prime example: watch the first X-men movie and wait for Scott to make the yellow spandex joke to Logan. Half of the theater I was in laughed while the rest of the audience stared at us dumbfounded. Though not integral to the plot, nor necessary, it’s a nice way for the director to say “Thanks, and I hope my interpretation didn’t sodomize your love of the series”. There were so many potential inside jokes for fans, but none of them made it into the movie. Not even Sokka’s never-ending search for meat that typically leads to hilariously awesome antics. The only conclusion I could draw from this is that Shyamalan wanted us fanboys to cry nerd tears.

I will say the way he handled Zuko, his motivations, and the relationship with his uncle felt right. I’m almost depressed that there will probably not be a sequel, since I would’ve enjoyed seeing how he handled Zuko’s relationship with his psychotic sister, Azula, considering how well he did with the Zuko/Iroh relationship

If I had to give this film a rating it’d have to be 1 1/2 deathstars. Yeah, it’s a pretty bad rating, but it could have been much worse. He could have had Appa voiced by Robin Williams and sing numerous catchy songs throughout the movie.

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