The Last Airbender (2010)

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“Four Nations, One Destiny”

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone

In a world divided into four nations, where many have the power to ‘bend’ their nation’s element, generations of peace were ended when the Avatar, an individual capable of bending all four elements who acts as mediator between the nations, disappeared (and the Fire Nation set out to conquer the world, not that the prologue makes much of that. A century later, the Fire Nation are still searching for the one threat to their dominance; the reborn Avatar.

Siblings Katara (Peltz) and Sokka (Rathbone) find a mysterious boy named Aang (Ringer) in a glacier, and are soon visited by the highly driven Prince Zuko (Patel). Aang is the Avatar, and the last of the Air Nomads, and the group head north to study waterbending from the Northern Water Tribe, with Zuko and the Fire Nation in pursuit. En route they aim to inspire resistance within the Earth Kingdom.

What’s wrong with it?

I don’t want to harp on the changes made from the series, but in many cases they are at the heart of what makes The Last Airbender a bad movie.

That synopsis has just about as much depth as the film does. In attempting to adapt the entire first series of Avatar: The Last Airbender in a single film, Shyamalan produces a rushed and over-packed mess without any real depth or heart.

The characters are reduced to their most basic – and least appealing – traits. Katara has the idealism, but without the humanising compassion and anger. Sokka is the man with the plan, but not the humour and insecurity. Aang only has his insecurity. The same applies to every character, except for the Fire Lord, who simply comes across as a mild management type rather than the fearsome tyrant and leader of an army of conquest.

Given the central place of bending in the world of Avatar, the film adaptation is terribly reluctant to go big with its effects. Earthbenders lob small rocks; Firebenders throw small fireballs from existing sources of flame. In part this seems to stem from not knowing how to make Iroh (Shaun Toub) look super badass except by neutering the other Firebenders.

The Earthbender prison seems to be far too much surrounded by rock.

Great swathes of the narrative are only described or explained through voice over, there being far too much to put into the action of the film. There are also a lot of lines of dialogue which are painfully expository.

What’s right with it?

It’s a very, very pretty film. The effects by Industrial Might and Logic are of course superb, and when the film does go big, it’s really pretty kickass.

How bad is it really?

I really, really wanted to love this, especially given how much fans of the series complained about the changes. I wanted it to be good on its own terms, but I first saw it without having seen the series and I still found it rushed and cluttered.

It has the germs of good ideas within it, but it’s such a muddle that it wastes them all. The film needed a lot more pre-production work on what to include and what to leave out to tighten it up into something that worked as a movie; either that or a Jacksonesque runtime of 150+ minutes.

Best bit (if such there is)?

At the climax of the film, Aang summons a vast wave to overwhelm the Fire Nation fleet. It’s the only time the bending really gets large and it looks amazing. I actually prefer it to the Carpzilla in the series.

What’s up with…?

  • Commander Zhao’s travel capabilities? He appears to be able to report to the Fire Lord and return to a theatre of operations on the far side of the world several times within the space of a few weeks.
  • The Earthbender prison camp? It’s built on rock. It’s like holding gang soldiers in a prison made of flick knives and Mac-10s.

Ratings

Production values – The effects are beautiful, but underused. The framing of the film is overly lavish and indulgent, with long, lingering shots taken up by over-choreographed action. It’s like someone told Shyamalan he was a genius one time and now no-one wants to tell him to dial back.  10
Dialogue and performances – The clumsy expository dialogue is the curse of the film; it’s not just dull, it also messes with the pacing. The voice over and regular dialogue aren’t much to talk about either. The performances are mostly bland, although it’s hard to know if it’s the actors, the script or the direction to blame. 18
Plot and execution – The film suffers from the attempt to cram far too much into the running time, resulting in an overly complex and ultimately bland confection. 14
Randomness – Aside from a few oddities, like the time shifts created by the truncated story, the film is pretty focused. 4
Waste of potential – Oh, man; this is a doozy. So much good material to draw on; so much money and talent available. This one has to be a big scorer. 16

Overall 62%

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