The Last Airbender (2010)
Film Review by Daniel G. Keohane
(with assistance from Andrew and Michael Keohane)
OK, before I get to whether THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010) is worth the price of admission, I want to discuss a trend with movies that popped up after James Cameron made an astronomical profit with AVATAR (2009). “Converting” new releases to 3D and charging $3 – $4 more per ticket. Unlike Cameron’s film, which was shot as a 3D movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, like CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010), was not. It was converted to some semblance of 3D as a trendy gimmick. The “In 3D” tag at the end of the previews for this film only began appearing in the past couple of months. Now, this is not to say that the process did not add something to the visuals. There was a depth to the image you saw on the screen you might not have gotten in the 2D version, and perhaps some of the visuals such as the climatic ocean scene might not be quite as oh-wow-ish. But not by much. It much akin to watching a movie on DVD, then seeing it on Blu-Ray. Yes, there is a slight improvement, but not enough to justify the extra cost, or the eye strain I felt after the movie ended. Putting on glasses to see a simulation of 3D isn’t going to do much for a film with already-beautiful cinematography, which is how I’d describe most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, say what you will about his storylines. Like my 18-year old son Andrew said after the movie ended, this fad is driven by the studios in a quest for as much money as possible, and will probably fade out with time because the Surgeon General will finally announce that watching too many 3D movies ruins your eyesight. More likely, moviegoers will finally stop being suckered by the words “in 3D!” on a marquee. Most of us have already figured this out. I recommend if you see THE LAST AIRBENDER, or the upcoming HARRY POTTER films, pay for the original 2D version. Save the extra 4 bucks for a down payment on popcorn, or for a film that was actually filmed in 3D.
Now, to the film. This review is culled not only from my own opinions, but two others’. Andrew is going into his sophomore year in college, where the anime television series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (2005 – 2008) is a cult hit (Shyamalan renamed the movie version without the word AVATAR for obvious reasons), much like STAR BLAZERS (1979) was for my generation in high school. My nephew Michael, another fan of the show, is turning 11 this month (the screening doubled as his birthday present). I’ve watched a number of episodes with Andrew (the entire series is available instantly on Netflix), so I’m familiar with the series as well.
The movie was not officially subtitled BOOK ONE: WATER (this was shown in the opening credits, however), so I assume the studios have not decided whether or not the next two films in the series will be developed. THE LAST AIRBENDER covers the first of the three seasons of show, which takes place on a mythical world where the four natural elements: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, are embodied and harnessed by four distinct “nations.” People from each are able to “bend” these specific elements to their will, and have lived in harmony with each other for centuries because of one person called The Avatar, who can harness all four elements and act as a GORT-like police officer, keeping balance between the nations and kicking butt when one gets out of line. Reincarnated over and over, the most recent Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer) ran away from his Air tribe when he was twelve years old and had been missing for a hundred years. With no Avatar, the Fire Nation decided to wipe out the Air Tribe to assure he won’t come back, and began taking over the world. As the movie opens, Water and Earth have become subjugated by the war machines of Fire, and all hope is lost.
Teenage siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang frozen in a ball of ice. They free him, and the boy slowly discovers that his people are all dead and a hundred years have passed. Once people discover who Aang is, the hope for an Avatar-inspired peace begins to spread. The Fire Nation discovers who Aang is and sets about trying to capture him before he can complete his training as Avatar – learning how to master the other three elements: Water (this film), Earth and Fire (whether the other two films ever see celluloid, box office sales alone will decide). Aang and his new friends set off for the northern Water Nation to get trained and battle the forces of Fire along the way, with a rather good climatic battle.
So, that’s Season One of the series, and this film, in a nutshell. Did the movie do the AVATAR series justice? How do you make an entire season of a television series into an hour and forty minute film? You can’t, unless you rework it, but doing so would have alienated the movie’s target audience. What Shyamalan did was stick to the main, underlying storyline of the friends striking out to master the element of water (Aang is already an accomplished Air Bender).
The attraction of the series wasn’t just this underlying quest, however, but the adventures the three young people have along the way. Each village they encountered had some unfortunate person(s) who needed help, and every experience inexorably served to train Aang as the Avatar. They touched on this briefly in the film, but there wasn’t enough time. What we get is a movie version of the primary quest for Water skills, with very little of the trademark humor which made the series so popular, or much growth in the relationship between the characters, who are drawn closer together as family by shared experience. One exception to this is the interplay between Aang and the Fire Nation’s exiled Prince Zuko, played to perfection by Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 2008). Zuko was banished by his evil Firelord father and has decided to reclaim his birthright by delivering the Avatar to his dad and thus insuring the continued success of Fire Nation’s dominance.
Let’s back up and see what worked in this rather complicated, dark film, and what didn’t.
As I said, some of the performances were on key. Patel played Prince Zuko to perfection, hopefully slamming some critics who complain about Shyamalan changing the implied nationality of the Fire Nation from Mandarin Chinese to his own ethnic background of Indian, or a more generic East Asian. I think it worked well, and so did Andrew. Aside from looking exactly like the character, Noah Ringer also kept on target as Aang. Like I mentioned, most of the humor was filtered from the story, so Ringer could only play the serious side of his character. That’s a loss, since the Avatar was part messiah-like figure, part goofy twelve year-old kid. In Patel’s and Ringer’s scenes together everything clicked. Shaun Toub (THE KITE RUNNER, 2007) also shone as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. Though he didn’t look anything like this anime counterpart, he played the part with tight intensity and was a powerful presence in the film. Thankfully, Toub and Patel got quite a lot of screen time in this film.
This next plus is only a plus if you’ve seen the series. If you haven’t, the act of “bending” the elements is going make you mutter, Is this a movie about epileptics or something? No, it’s how they did it on the series. Andrew explained it best on the ride home. Each element requires specific style of gesture to control it. Water benders move with a grace, a flow like Feng-Shui. Earth benders stomp their feet and thrust their arms. Fire benders have violent arm motions, like martial arts. Air benders have a looping, Whirling Dervish dance. It’s clever, and specific, and I’m glad they kept these in the movie.
Many of the pluses mentioned above are also Andrew’s. He and nephew Michael would add that the action sequences were top-notch. The fights were well-choreographed and fun to watch. Especially those with the “Blue Spirit,” which were complex enough that the action was occasionally slowed to show what was happening – like THE MATRIX (1999), but without the cartoonish flair–more like a well-done martial arts film– which in many ways this film is.
Michael also liked how the film covered the primary plotline, and that it didn’t change the story much at all. He saw what he expected to, and also thought the graphics– the overall look of the film–was great.
The sets were the expected mix of CGI and elaborate physical sets, and this matched the series perfectly. It looked like the show. Fake 3D aside, some of the cinematography was stunning, though personally I think Shyamalan shines most when you get him outside in the real outdoors, but there wasn’t much of that, being set on a different planet and all. The ocean scene with the Fire Nation fleet parked outside Water Nation’s walls was gorgeous, and the ensuing battle a visual feast.
Which brings us to what did not work. As I mentioned, most of the humor which made the television series so fun to watch had been leeched from the script. This is unfortunate, and not a small issue, because what we were left with is a rather dark film. Considering this movie is geared to teenage and “tween” boys, maybe that’s OK. When humor was used in the film, it didn’t always work. I’m not the only one who felt this was a major gap, both Andrew and Michael wanted more of it.
Not a lot of praise, either, for the characters of Katara and Sokka. Next to Aang and Prince Zuko, the brother and sister are the most important in the series. Nicola Peltz’s stilted portrayal of Katara brought the film down quite a few notches, due to her dialogue being mostly a series of overdramatic rhetoric. It’s how they talked in the show, but always interspersed with goofy clowning around and a wealth of humor. Since the latter was almost nonexistent in the final script, all she was left to speak were vague philosophical utterances. This seriousness could have been balanced by the brother, played by Jackson Rathbone (the TWILIGHT series, 2009 – 2010). In the television show Sokka is the comic relief, the joker who pulls everyone from their high horse if things get too La De Dah-ish, but this wasn’t possible with so much lightness lost in the script.
I mentioned the motions which benders use to control their elements as being very specific, and loyal to the anime series. However, I think the film spent way too much time showing Aang and Katara (a water bender herself) practicing their motions, sometimes with no water globules being raised up with their moves. These scenes could have been shortened a lot, especially considering how much of the story was cut to make room for scenes like this, where nothing really happens.
Being someone who’s seen every episode, Andrew was irked that pronunciations of many character’s names were changed. “Ahng” in stead of “Ayng” for instance. Why they did this is baffling, considering most people coming to the movie have seen every episode.
In the end, there are pluses and minuses to THE LAST AIRBENDER. Most of the pluses will come from fans of the show, but also a few minuses. Anyone watching this movie without any knowledge of the AVATAR television series will likely walk out with another reason to hate M. Night Shyamalan. Which is a pity, because he’s the best thing to happen to Hollywood since sliced alien fingers, in my opinion. Shyamalan is by far one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. I know I’m in the minority here, but too bad. SIGNS (2002), THE VILLAGE (2004) and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) are easily in my Top 20 favorites. Think what you will about his occasional plot issues, his films have style, the acting is (almost) always top-notch and his musical collaborator James Howard’s scores are consistently on-target. Unfortunately for THE LAST AIRBENDER, Shyamalan’s signature style, by necessity of recreating a well-loved TV series for the big screen, is missing.
Michael, Andrew and I agree that if you’re a fan of the AVATAR series, this movie (in 2D) is worth seeing, especially for the sets and the action sequences, and how it tries, and in many ways succeeds, in paying homage to the show’s basic storyline. I worry that we won’t see the next two seasons of AVATAR on the big screen. The studio, however, should consider the film’s target audience. My nephew said, “Why wouldn’t people want to go see this? This kind of movie is what draws me and my friends to the theaters in the first place!” That’s a quote from an 11-year old. Smart kid. And he’s smack in the middle of the film’s intended demographic. In that respect, it was successful.
Andrew and I give the film 3 out of 5 flying bisons, if you’re a fan of the show.
Michael was more generous and offered 4 out of 5.
If you are not familiar with the series and you’re over twenty, I can only offer 2.5 lemur bats out of 5. I’m sorry, M. Night. Don’t hate me because I’m honest. You still have created three and a half of my favorite movies of all time, and I know you’ll do it again.
If they let you.
© Copyright 2010 by Daniel G. Keohane