Last Airbender, The (United States, 2010)

June 30, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Last Airbender, The Poster

Seen in standard (non-IMAX) 3D.

Every since word got out regarding some race-change shenanigans in the motion picture version of The Last Airbender, controversy has hovered over this production. Having seen the movie, I can assure anyone concerned about racism (latent or otherwise) that this is a far less pressing issue than how a movie crafted with such obvious and far-reaching incompetence could be allowed to open with the label of a "major summer release." With a script written on a level that only a seven-year old could appreciate, The Last Airbender is an insult to anyone with a triple-digit I.Q. and a willingness to use it inside the confines of a movie theater. This is bad filmmaking and bad storytelling. It also sounds what should be the death knell to M. Night Shyamalan's career. With The Last Airbender following up The Happening and Lady in the Water, it's astonishing to think that any studio would entrust this man with another project.

The story, which Shyamalan based on an animated Nickelodeon TV show, tells of a world where four tribes exist, each representing an element (air, water, earth, fire). Within the tribes are "benders" - wizard-like individuals who can manipulate the tribe's element. And, somewhere in the world is the "Avatar," a person who can control all four - but he has been missing for 100 years. As The Last Airbender begins, he is missing no longer. Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), members of the Water tribe, discover the boy Aang (Noah Ringer) buried under the ice while on an expedition. Not knowing that he is the Avatar, they bring him home, but before they can arrange to return him to his people, they are attacked by warriors of the Fire tribe led by the rebel Prince Zuko (Dev Patel). Zuko divines Aang's identity and takes him prisoner, but a boy of Aang's powers is unlikely to remain captive for long. Soon, he is free, and the chase is on, with Zuko trying to recapture Aang before Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) claims the prize for his Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis). Meanwhile, Aang, aided by Katara and Sokka, heads to the lands of the Earth tribe and the Northern Water tribe in an attempt to awaken some of his latent powers.

The Last Airbender feels like throwback to the pre-Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter era when fantasy was a joke (the bastard son of science fiction) and when movies like Willow dotted the landscape and set unwatchably low expectations for the genre. The film is a compilation of bad fantasy clichés that are inelegantly stitched together. To keep the length to about 90 minutes, sequences deserving of exploration (such as a major battle) are rushed and the movie ends half-finished, leaving the door open for further chapters. (Please…no!) This is probably the worst high-profile fantasy movie since Eragon.

It's hard to express how off-putting Shyamalan's script is. The movie is filled with awkward exposition - scenes in which characters state things for no reason other than to inform the audience of some piece of background. A romance develops out of nowhere for characters we don't care about. A lot of things, such as Aang's ability to drop into a trance and speak with a dragon spirit, are poorly motivated and reek of deus ex machina. The narrative is not inherently juvenile but the way in which Shyamalan has developed it is. This is not a "family film" - a production aimed at kids but with elements designed to entertain adults. This is for children only - those undiscriminating enough not to notice or care about how poorly assembled the movie is.

Visually, The Last Airbender is a disaster, and a good portion of the problem is (yet again) the 3D. The post-production conversion is at least as bad as what was done to Clash of the Titans, if not worse. The entire film has a fuzzy, out-of-focus appearance. (I rubbed my eyes once and checked the lens of my glasses for spots.) It's murky and washed out - even the snow scenes, where there should have been an abundance of light, are dull. I can't speak for how The Last Airbender might look in 2D, where the images should be crisp and bright, but the 3D presentation falls below the bar for what is acceptable. Theaters should pay viewers a surcharge to agree to see this sort of subpar material.

The only word I can use to describe the acting is embarrassing. Did Shyamalan do his casting at junior high theatrical productions? With all the child actors available to him, couldn't he have chosen performers who could display emotions with conviction and recite their lines without sounding like they were reading from a teleprompter? Even the adults aren't impressive, with the exception being Dev Patel (the hero of Slumdog Millionaire), who apparently didn't get the memo that he was supposed to be hammy and over-the-top.

Some pundits had voiced the opinion that the route back to relevance for Shyamalan might come through adapting someone else's material. The Last Airbender argues strongly against that line of thought; this trumps anything he has previously achieved in terms of mind boggling awfulness. There are times when one wonders whether he is channeling Ed Wood. Fundamental flaws infect nearly every aspect of the production; it's an insult to viewers, especially those who are fans of the television source material, to charge money for something so substandard that if it was a building, it would be condemned. In some ways, the 3D problems are a red herring. With apologies to William Shakespeare: shit, by another other name, would smell as rank.

Last Airbender, The (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-01
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1