As Bad as You Thought?: The Last Airbender
One of these days a book will be published and it will be titled: How to Destroy a Prominent Film Career by M Night Shyamalan. Now he is reviled for such cinematic travesties as The Happening but we tend to forget that at one time he was hailed as the next Hitchcock; with films like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and personally I even enjoyed The Village. But the praise he enjoyed seemed to go to his head and his ego got in the way of making films; he went from making neat cameos in each of his films to taking on major roles, despite his lack of acting ability, especially in the incredibly self serving Lady in the Water, where Shyamalan the brilliant writer, wrote a part of a writer who singlehandedly saved the world, and Shyamalan the brilliant director cast Shyamalan the gifted actor to play the role. After years of enduring such scorn from critics and fans he comes up with a film adaptation of the popular cartoon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. And to the surprise of everyone, the trailers to the film looked great, there may be some hope of salvaging his career yet. Though on opening weekend that hope was destroyed; now I have watched the first couple of episodes of the show and have thoroughly enjoyed them but I would not call myself a fan; but the fans of the show acted as if this movie were the second sinking of the Titanic. They railed against the lazy acting, the ignorance of how characters acted, and even racism. The movie was hailed as one of the worst flicks ever made, and since bad movies is what I do here every week, it is due time I ask if The Last Airbender is as bad as I thought.
The movie opens by filling us in with the story up to this point, we learn that their are four tribes each based on what of the four elements, and how the Avatar was the keeper of the peace between the groups, until he disappeared a century ago. From there we go to two of our main characters wandering in the frozen tundra; Sokka and Katara, a brother and sister team who have to take care of the people in their water-based village. Katara is training in the art of water-bending and is our monotone narrator, while Sokka just kind of gets ticked off at everything. On their hunt for food they discover there is something buried beneath the ice which they naturally break the ice to get to. What emerges is a big ball of ice with a kid inside of it as well as a big hairy thing named, Appa. They take this poor kid back to their village, where even though they’re Caucasian everyone else is Inuit for some reason. But if the kid rescued from the ice ball is okay with it so am I, because it seems that after he stretches a bit, he’s A-OK and ready to leave already; this movie’s gonna be shorter than I thought. It’s just too bad his emergence has gotten the attention of a ship full of bad guys who are gonna go check it out naturally. These bad guys are apparently the Fire Nation and they are feared for their “machines”, and their fearless leader Prince Zuko, played by Dev Patel. Patel rose to fame in the movie Slumdog Millionaire where he turned in a tremendous performance as a street kid struggling for success, so he definitely has some acting talent, but a believable villain he is not, he just comes off more as just a whiny kid, if they needed him to mysteriously become Caucasian too they could have cast Hayden Christensen. But we have nothing to fear from the bad guys apparently because once bald kid agrees to be there prisoner, and for whatever reason, the bad guys are cool with this and pack up and leave. I guess in Shyamalan’s world bad guys don’t really ask for much, just a random prisoner here and there, maybe a hug but not much more.
Katara feels an obligation to the bald kid that her brother does not share, and shows this by pouting and sitting in a corner. You know I change my mind, this guy should have been played by Hayden Christensen. Luckily they find out the hairy animal they also found frozen can fly so with this on their side they decide to attack the bad guys. Thus far Shyamalan has crammed like two or three episodes of the show into five minutes of movie, and it flows about as well as you can imagine. The typical moviegoer has no idea what’s going on or who anybody is, yet we must push on through. The kids are not really helping sell the emotional aspects of this, it’s like Shyamalan just found some kids off the street and asked them to read some lines while he filmed it. Normally I don’t like to dump on kid actors but in, The Sixth Sense and Signs Shyamalan showed great skill in casting kids who were talented actors so he has it in him, I guess the effort was not worth it for this flick.
Though the villain shows no indication of it, he suspects there is something special about his new prisoner. Man, Katara and Sokka better rescue him soon….or not, because the actors on screen don’t really seem to care or be in any kind of hurry to do anything so why should I be on the edge of my seat to see what happens next? The sibling’s grandmother tells them about how this kid could be an Airbender and that’s important to them because of…..well stuff. Back on the USS Evil bald kid who still is nameless shows off his tricks to Prince Zuko who is blown away in a very calm and staring with bug-eyes way that this kid is the Airbender, which is supposed to be a huge deal but you would not know it from the way he and his henchman are acting. The tests to check his powers seemed to have reminded the kid that he does in fact have super powers and he escapes from them effortlessly. Our narrator Katara again speaks in the calmest and most boring way informing us that they had to go to his homeland to find his friends. It is here that we FINALLY learn his name, Aang. Poor Aang’s return home changes in an instant when Katara finally tells him his people were wiped out. One has to wonder why she did not tell him about this on the trip, but with her boring voice and acting she probably brought it up several times but nobody noticed she was there. Learning that his people were genocided causes Aang to turn from happy-go-lucky kid to crying and upset so quickly that the filmmakers probably want to test this kid for manic depression. In his rage little Aang hulks out but instead of turning big and green, he starts glowing and goes into the “spirit world” which looks really foggy and cave-like and a monster who just happens to be there informs our young hero that he is the Avatar. Remember that guy from they mentioned in the opening credit.
Prince Zuko goes back home, even though we are told that he’s banished by his father and goes attends a nice dinner where he has a burn scar all of sudden. I guess the make up people forgot to apply it while they were filming the previous scenes. But he becomes the life of the party inadvertently because some guy there makes a long toast to him where he does nothing but berate the poor guy in front of all the soldiers. You may feel sorry for Prince Zuko, but I choose to feel sorry for the soldiers in the crowd, I mean how awkward have they got to feel.
Back in the forest where the good guys are having a moping and pouting contest a little kid runs up and seeks refuge from Fire Nation soldiers, who accuse the child of throwing rocks at them and “it hurt”. I’m sure that line was supposed to be comedic but with the blandness that the actor says it, it just comes off as strange and awkward. Katara tries to save the day but her bending powers backfire and the crew is arrested. I am getting sick of how Katara is treated in this movie; as stated before I have seen a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender and in just those few episodes I have grown very fond of her character, she never lets anyone push her around no matter who they are but at the same time she’s fun and relatable. Unfortunately, Shyamalan must not have figured out how to write a strong female character, and in this flick she does little more than take verbal abuse from her emo brother and stand around quietly…oh an narrate the story occasionally. The prison camp they go to is a prison for Earth Benders who are all Oriental so no anomalies like Sokka and Katara in this village; I guess nobody from this town is going to be a main character in the movie then. Luckily they have the Avatar on their side who summons up all his strength to…tell them to get their act together. This stirs the Earth Benders to action as they do some silly Kung-Fu moves and manipulate the ground to their advantage. I can not say I blame them whenever I get enslaved by an enemy I can apparently defeat with great ease I just kind of sit around and wait for a strange kid with markings on his head to give me permission first. This does not make a single bit of sense, if they can use the ground to defeat their enemies why didn’t they just do it earlier? Better than that when the Fire Nation first showed up to take them prisoner why didn’t they just roll their eyes at them and Earth Bend the crap out of those guys?!
But after they wage an epic battle and free themselves from months or years of captivity in a matter of a couple of seconds; seriously I got a refill on my coffee in the time it took for this battle to take place, they show young Aang their collection of Earth Bending Instructions which they apparently had the entire time. Upon learning of his heritage from the Earth Benders our hero, Aang ran away before he completed his training and needs to learn how to bend the other three elements. Under the encouragement (if you could call it that) of his buddies he decides to learn Water Bending from the Water Tribes in the north. While this is going on the obnoxious villain from the dinner party tells his boss about a scroll he found that will help them find the location of the Water and Moon Spirits, which I assume is good or maybe it’s not I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about, and his boss does not seem to really care because he just sits there looking off into the distance. The only thing this serves to do is establish a rivalry between Zuko and his paternal figure against the suck-up dinner party guy. Thankfully in the name of character development we get a scene where a little kid tells his in great detail about Zuko’s origin, if I were the good prince I would be suspicious as to how a random kid knows this much, but I digress.
Back on the incredible journey of our heroes Aang decides to take off on his flying buffalo to find some inspiration. He finds this inspiration in another Air Guy (I thought they were wiped out) who takes him to Avatar Hall of Fame for all intents and purposes. This is revealed to be a Fire Nation trap, and they capture him again, although why doesn’t he just use his super powers to escape again? While captured he has another encounter with the fog monster from earlier who tells him to go to the Northern Water tribes to learn Water bending. Wasn’t that what he and his comrades were in the process of doing before he got distracted, thanks for reiterating the plot smoke monster. Before any exciting plot points could come from him having to use his super powers to easily escape again a masked ninja breaks in and frees him, so he does not have to actually do anything. Aang gets inside this circle that has a stone shower curtain of sorts around it, so he has to fight the bad guys one at a time, seriously why do they have something like this, and he takes out a whole two bad guys this way (can’t make things too exciting can we?) Ninja masked person and Aang escapes because the ninja despite clearly being concerned for his well-being, threatens to kill the Avatar and is let go easily. But gets blindsided and taken down once outside leaving Aang removes the mask and learn that it is Prince Zuko. Fear not though they get away and Zuko is taken back to his ship, where I notice that his burn scar has changed shape, I’m kind of curious to go back and see if it’s changed appearances throughout the movie or just here, but that means rewatching this movie something I can not morally do.
Our heroes finally make it to the Northern Water Tribe where Sokka falls for the princess, with her blatantly unnatural blonde hair and Aang starts training in water bending. This sets up things for a massive battle between this tribe and the Fire Nation; and the Fire Nation conspires to succeed by getting rid of the Water Spirits or something, I have no idea what they are talking about. Along for the ride is Zuko’s father figure who is subjected to being around the obnoxious villain. In the Water Tribe, Sokka gets chosen as the protector of the local princess, because if I were in charge I would definitely put some mopey kid I did not know in charge of protecting a teenage girl who obviously gets his hormones raging, I don’t see a problem here. But hey this allows Shyamalan to shoehorn in a love story between two people who have absolutely no chemistry; the princess puts the moves on him by telling him that her hair is creepily platinum blonde because the Moon Spirit helped her parents dunk her in the icy waters as a kid and that turned her hair and frankly its really stupid but Sokka seems to be turned on by it, whatever floats your boat man.
Finally the poop hits the fan and ash begins falling from the sky signalling the Fire Nation’s approach, I have to admit that’s kind of a neat touch. We learn that Zuko’s caretaker only came along so he could smuggle the Prince into the Water Tribe to capture the Avatar. Because he can not help save the day unless he is at spiritual peace, Aang asks to go to a spiritual place to meditate, with war ships on the horizon taking a break to talk to the fog monster again seems logical. Maybe fog monster will reiterate the plot again, because that’s all its really done so far. Aang sits down to meditate which seems to weird out Sokka and his gal pal so they make weak excuses and leave Katara to watch over Aang. Unsurprisingly Zuko has followed them down there and shows up, which is shocking because you would think Sokka would have bumped into him on the way out given the time frame, but I don’t have Shyamalan’s filmmaking skills, so let’s carry on. We cut away from anything exciting that could potentially come from this fight between Zuko and Katara to see the the two tribes about to showdown; and apparently these “machines” we were scared of earlier are just large lizards that can be ridden. When Zuko’s uncle is told about the plan to contact the spirits in the battle, he gets excited about meeting a spirit, until the villain tells him that he’s going to arrange the meeting in a way that it’s blatantly obvious that he’s gonna kill him.
When we go back to the cave after this pointless scene for a Water bender versus Fire Bender fight we see….waitaminute we don’t even get a fight Sokka (he must have left his wallet behind or something) just happens to wander back in and find his sister unconscious and Aang has been captured by the bad guys AGAIN. Because actually seeing this happen might be cool and we can’t have that we have to have Katara tell us what happened in her boring way of speaking; speaking of which she has not narrated anything for a good forty five minutes. At least the prince is nice enough not to wake up Aang, who is talking to the smoke monster again who gives him more wonderful advice; to use the ocean. It must have taken the monster months to come up with that idea.
Aang wakes up from his meditative nap and runs away with his hands still tied behind his back, that is until we learn it’s a magic rope, because it disappears into thin air in the next scene. Katara uses her water powers to freeze Zuko and save Aang’s bacon. For such a great hero, he doesn’t really do a whole bunch. Before leaving his opponent to freeze to death in Katara’s ice cube, he tells him they can be friends; that’s nice. The suck-up villain goes down into the cave where Aang was meditating and kidnaps the fish from the pond, because those are the spirits he’s been going on about. What the crap?! Fish spirits?! Luckily the not so bad guy, Zuko’s uncle, is none to happy about this and after saying something about the fish spirits being a sign of humility or something (he just kind of skims over it) he makes fire out of nothing, which is a huge deal and he just kind of chases the bad guy off. He informs the princess that if she dies, the spirit fish will come back. This seems to have something to do with that dumb story she told Sokka but I really can not find it in me to care. Anyways the princess commits suicide (great kids movie Shyamalan) and everything is restored the way it should be, except the bad guys are still around. That’s when I notice there are torches and lamps all over the town, I guess it did not occur to them that if they are getting invaded by a bunch of guys who can control fire, they might want to put those out, but I don’t control water so I’m not really an expert. The Fire Nation captain who lead the invasion gets a verbal smackdown from Zuko’s uncle and gets drowned by the Water Benders. Meanwhile in the battle Aang flips around and waterfies some faceless fire minions until he “lets his emotions flow” and bends the ocean waters to slowly (and I mean very slowly) rise up and tidal wave the bad guys…er….the waves just kind of make a wall which scares off the bad guys until he lowers the water back into the ocean. Just a little bit on the anticlimactic side. The people from Fire and Water Nations below bow to the kid, which would give him a god complex except he really doesn’t seem to have anything going for him to get a complex about. In the end though we get the greatest and most horrific part, the king of the Fire Nation telling his daughter that a day is coming where the Fire Tribe will have enormous power; this can only mean……a sequel! From there, the end credits role and we are greeted with the first credit which reads: written, directed, and produced by M Night Shyamalan; normally I say to make a movie terrible is a group effort, but it was nice of Mr. Shyamalan to take all the credit himself.
So was it as bad as I thought? Yes it was, for a movie taken from such great source material about ninjas fighting with the various elements as weapons, this movie was ridiculously boring. The actors all seemed to be lazily reading their lines off teleprompters throughout the flick with all the emotional nuance of a bucket. A highlight of the movie could easily have been the fight scenes, except they are few and far between, Shyamalan does everything in his power to not show a cool battle, because the ones he does give us are incredibly dull. Beyond the acting and terrible acting is the screenplay; cramming an entire season of a television show into a single movie is bound to be a challenge for even talented screenwriters much less an egomaniac who obsesses more with coming up with a plot twist than telling a story. Trying to out so much into one movie, is bound to leave some plot holes and the ones we have here so big Galactus could feed off them. We spend have the time wondering what is going on: Why are the Fire Nation people so obsessed with this kid? Why didn’t the Earth Benders escape earlier? Who are these spirits they keep talking about? The audience of this movie is bound to be separated into two camps; the fans of the show who are angry at what Shyamalan has done to their beloved story and the camp of people unfamiliar with the story and the universe who will spend the entire movie confused about what’s going on. Since everybody on earth falls onto one of these two sides this makes the movie perfect for the demographic of nobody.