The Last Airbender
By david roark
July 2, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan is unjustly criticized. Just google his name, and you will find a whole slew of nasty articles complaining about his films always having plot twists or commenting on the demise of his career. It’s become a fad to discredit and make fun of the filmmaker. But the truth is, his few missteps are far outweighed by a mostly accomplished canon that, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t even rely on the Hitchcockian aspect of surprise to attain strength and brilliance. While I won’t defend The Happening or particular elements of Lady in the Water, like Shyamalan’s inclusion of himself as a martyr, I would argue that because of our mindless mockery we’ve abandoned and forgotten one of the most innovative and spiritual minds in Hollywood. And if The Last Airbender doesn’t prove that, then I don’t know what will.
Shyamalan’s film, an adaptation of the Nickelodeon anime series Avatar, takes us to an unknown world composed of four nations: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. For the last 100 years, the Fire Nation has waged war upon all the others, unleashing limitless destruction. With no hope in sight, along comes Aang (Noah Ringer), a 12-year-old monk with an arrow tattooed across the middle of his head. Discovered in a block of ice by a waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), Aang realizes that not only has he been frozen for a century, but that he is the reincarnated Avatar, the only savior who can bring balance to the world and stop the Fire Nation.
Accompanied by Katara and Sokka, Aang sets off on a journey to prepare himself for the task—that he previously ran away from—because as the Avatar, he has the power to manipulate elements from each nation (at this point, he can only bend air). After several stops, some unexpected, the three friends find their way to the Northern Water Nation. There, Aang learns how to bend water, and Sokka falls in love with the kingdom’s princess (Seychelle Gabriel), all while anticipating an attack from the Fire Nation and Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the former heir of the throne who was forsaken by his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and ordered to capture the Avatar. And this leads to an epic battle near the film’s end.
Unfortunately, though, the story isn’t as cohesive as I’ve made it sound; it suffers from a lack of focus, as it sits still through the first half and picks up in the latter, taking us to what is easily Airbender’s greatest flaw: the script. Shyamalan, who has never been a strong screenwriter, does a poor job of developing the characters early on and doesn’t spend enough time on the backstory. Though I disagree with other critics who claim it doesn’t make sense, the complex tale could have been told more directly. That said, the finale—and segments leading up to it—makes up for misdirection and lost time, helping you forget the sluggish past.
But the same can’t be said for the dialogue: it’s pretty awful from start to finish, as a waterbending expert tells Aang, “Let your mind flow like water.” Dialogue has always been a struggle for Shyamalan, especially in recent works. Just think about lines from Lady in the Water or the awkward whispering he loves to employ. As shoddy as it may be, though, it’s unfair to harp on such a flaw for too long because—as I’ve read so many times before—a good critic must keep in mind the genre and intended audience. This action-adventure fantasy was made for children. So to put that into perspective: The same problem occurs throughout literary masterpieces such as Rowling’s early Harry Potter books, as well as Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
And at times, this script makes the acting appear more unaccomplished than it really is. But don’t be fooled. With no previous training as an actor, Ringer, who landed the lead role because of his martial arts expertise, executes a strong performance as the averse yet calm Avatar. If dubious early on, his feat becomes realized in his character’s expression in a powerful scene near the film’s end, while the enchanting, commanding score of composer James Newton Howard builds steadily behind him. Patel, the hero of Slumdog Millionaire, comes full circle playing Zuko, the roundest character of Airbender, accomplishing a fuller persona than that of Jamal in Boyle’s film. A few of the villains, however, don’t provide the same believability as the leads, particularly Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show, who is unintentionally hysterical.
The impressive cast is also pivotal in achieving stunning visuals that make Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 look like juvenile filmmaking. As Ringer leads the way with his polished moves, the action sequences that take countless cinematic risks are spectacular. Shyamalan found a fresh way to put visual aspects of the original series, like the bending itself, on the big screen. Watching the characters battle is like nothing you’ve seen in real-time action before; it’s wholly innovative. Adding to that action is the ornate setting, which, itself, is captivating. Shyamalan and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie have created an exotic fantasy world in the spirit of George Lucas.
With that being enough to justify success, Shyamalan ultimately wins us over through his movie’s heart and spirituality. In a realm so profound, so loaded with mythology, Aang, who is unmistakably like Christ, teaches us more truths than a dozen other Hollywood flicks combined. And that’s what makes Shyamalan a great filmmaker; he creates with purpose and passion, always telling us there’s something bigger in life, something beyond the natural. Sure, he still hasn’t mastered the craft of screenwriting. Sure, his movies are far from flawless. But like greats such as Scorsese or Spielberg, Shyamalan makes movies that matter—that have meaning, always encompassing an autobiographical facet. Airbender isn’t his own narrative, but all throughout, you can hear Shyamalan’s voice.