The Last Airbender

David Roark says all the other critics are (mostly) wrong.

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.

23 Comments

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Marsiree reviewed…

While I understand where everyone is coming from, I don't find it hard to believe that people honestly enjoyed the movie. I saw the movie not too long ago, and as I sat through it, I kept finding myself frowning in disappointment at the deadpan delivery, and crappy writing , and then grinning with delight at the action sequences, sets, music, and , (most importantly), the sequences that were snatched directly from show. I am a fan of the show; I have seen all the episodes, as I am sure most of the people on this thread have; and I have to say, he really did try to fit as much of book one into the movie as he could. I respected this effort because after seeing previous Nickelodeon Pictures Adaptations such as: Lemony Snickets A series of Unfortunate Events, where the screenwriter inexplicably changed the ending; And The Spiderwick Chronicles, where the whole blasted storyline was destroyed for the sake of realism, I was starting to fear that Nickelodeon Pictures had no interest in being faithful to any series. So , with that being said it was nice to see someone actually try to stick to the plot of the source material. My biggest issue was that he didn't pace the movie correctly, and he didnt balance the information, everything just seemed to fly by in the film. Truthfully, aside from that, I could deal with everything else: the crappy dialogue, the overacting on the part of a few of the main characters, and even the fact the film had a multicultural cast, because I could understand why all of that was happening. For starters, M. Night Shyamalan should not have insisted on writing the script, that was a job for the creators of the series, I'm sure if they had come up with the treatment for the script lines like "I'm already scared, don't make me more scared," would have never made the film. Secondly, not all of the acting was bad; I really liked Dev Patel as Zuko, and Ringer as Aang, and even Toub as Iroh, (although he looks nothing like Iroh). The only actors that irritated me were Jackson Rathbone as Sokka, and Aasif Mandvi as Zhao, because they just seemed to miss the point completely. Finally, the multicultural cast was understandable to me, because it seemed like he was trying to make the world of Avatar, look like the real world. In the show, you have many different nations, on many different continents, and yet everyone in world seems to be either Asian or Inuit, you don't really see any other type of person and so if you don't fit into those categories, you have no one to relate to visually in the show. I know why people are upset by the casting; almost all of the reviews and comments I have read have mentioned how heartless, (and even racist), Shyamalan is for casting so many White actors. However, in all fairness, I say go back to the show, watch it one more time: Sokka, Katara, Aang, Azula, Mai, Ozai, and Ty lee, all of them are not only voiced by white actors they also have very typical American attitudes, (reference The Beach) even as they sport their Asian names. Similarly, the show often references American Culture, (like the Boulder in Book Two for example). I'm not saying this to disrespect the show; or say that the creators were in anyway wrong in their casting choice, or character portrayal; Im just saying that even the show isnt purely Asian, its not an Anime, its clearly Americanized, and for good reason. The creators Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko are American, and so they took elements from a culture that they respected and added in elements from the culture that they knew, and it worked. Shyamalan, tried to do the same thing, he tried to give each nation a visible identity, and he tried, (unsuccessfully) to give certain characters, like Sokka and Zhao, more depth, I just wish he had realized that they were already pretty complex and didnt need be fixed. Finally, I have to say that the movie looked amazing, I was so worried that the bending was going to look clumsy, but they actually seemed to put a lot of time into it and really made it look cool. I hope that no one takes my long-winded rant the wrong way, this is not meant to disrespect what anyone else has said. Also, I am not trying to proclaim that I loved this movie, I too was disappointed, because I saw all of the potential that Last Airbender had to be a great adaptation, before it fell short. However, I didnt hate it either, I walked into the theater after reading 10+ reviews that all said the movie was the most horrible film in creation, and found myself at the end of it being slightly relieved. It wasnt wonderful but it wasnt as bad as people were making it out to be either, all the pieces are there, but they just werent put together correctly. I also hope that the film is successful enough to green light the sequel, because with better writing and a little redirection, maybe the franchise can be salvaged, and something interesting can come out of this mess. Ok, I'm done now :)

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Wcfer reviewed…

I loved the movie. I loved the actors. I loved the action and the special effects. Ang rules!

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Jorg reviewed…

I loved the cartoon as well, and though you may say I have an awful taste in media...I totally hated the pinkie nicey ending. The movie worked for me because it actually made such a pinkie nicey ending believable, not all the lion turtles of the king are gonna make me believe that BS when Aang has done the things he has done and let's Sokka do all the things that he does in the ending, so the movie actually explained both actions full circle more better than a cartoon which had 60 episodes to develop.

That alone shall count as a worthy feat. The problem with the movie is if you love blindly the cartoon you will say it does not comes close...and certainly it lacks most of my favorite characters from water. yet if you do not see the series you are going to give a damn about it. So it works only with those who saw the series did not loved it or no longer do (Like me) which is cool because those are mostly kids.

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hu reviewed…

ARE YOU HIGH? THIS MOVIE SUCKS!!!

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TheAverageGuyTAG reviewed…

"
With that being enough to justify success, Shyamalan ultimately wins us over through his movies heart and spirituality."

NO HE DOESN'T. NOT AT ALL. WHAT MOVIE WERE YOU WATCHING?

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