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Movie Review: The Last Airbender

July 1, 2010
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How the mighty have fallen.  In 1999, M. Knight Shyamalan was poised to become Hollywood’s next great director. His breakout hit The Sixth Sense energized audiences with its iconic twist and fresh premise.  Some maintain that he peaked with that first film, although he went on to make Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening.

Even though his latest movies have not fared well critically, I have held out hope that he could recapture some of the magic we saw in the early days of his career.  The Last Airbender took those hopes, smashed them to the ground, and pissed on the ashes.  I was stupefied that someone so talented had actually made such a piece of junk. I’m still reeling.

Before I go further, I would like to make it clear to fans of the series that this is a critique of the movie, not the series. I have always believed that even if a movie is based on source material, the movie should speak for itself, and be worthy of a watch based on its own merit.  A lot of people go see movies based on books, comics, and other source material, and a movie should be accessible to anyone who buys a ticket, whether they know the source material or not.

This film is a dismal failure when it comes to story telling, direction, acting, set design, and the post-production 3-D, and it cannot possibly do justice to the animated series upon it was based.  I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about it, but you won’t cull that knowledge from this movie adaptation.

Thirty minutes into the film, I had no clue what it is about. Worse still, I didn’t care to find out.  Not because I’m lazy, but because the script is so convoluted and did such a poor job of convincing me that there was anything compelling to the story.

Briefly, the story takes place in a fictional land that is divided up into air, water, earth and fire regions. Within each region, “benders” can manipulate the matter of their homeland, think of it as summoning mother nature to be at your beck and call when trouble arises.

The film begins with siblings Sokka (Jason Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) making their way across a glacial wasteland when they find a boy buried under the ice.  He ends up being Aang (Noah Ringer), a child wise beyond his years who was training to be the Avatar (a being who knows how to manipulate all four elements, and thus can reunite the four lands.) He has been encased in ice for over 100 years, while the four kingdoms await his arrival. So Sokka, Katera, and Aang set off to help Aang complete his training so he may be fully realized as an avatar.

Meanwhile, the fire-son (Dev Patel) is trying to capture Aang to bring him to his father and get into his good graces. The Fire nations are the rebellious faction, who don’t want to live by the Spirits.  They want to rule all the other kingdoms, and believe that Aang is the key to that. That’s about the best I could come up with for the murky  plot.

The acting is astonishingly bad, particularly the younger actors.  Jackson Rathbone should know better, he has been in several movies, including The Twilight series.  Here he is awful.  It sounds like he is quickly reading his lines from cue cards.  There is no inflection, it’s all monotone. It almost sounds like he was dubbed, poorly.  Nicola Peltz fares a little better, while Noah Wise just seems nervous and unnatural.  He also never feels commanding.  He is supposed to be a powerful leader, and we never get that sense.

The only bright spot with casting is Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) who is torn between loyalties to his father and wanting to be a decent guy. As for the rest of the cast, and the set pieces, come to think of it, I was constantly reminded of the 1980 Flash Gordon, which was so bad it’s good.

This is plain old bad, because there is no trace of humor or fun, the film takes itself way too seriously.  It could have benefited from some humor, which I understand is a major component of the original series.

There has been a lot of controversy regarding the casting of all white children in the primary roles, because the animated series has a definite Asian influence.  I can’t believe after all that, this is the best they came up with.  Fans deserve better.

The large scale set design never appears realistic, it looks like painted background landscape, and the scenes on the ice with the water kingdom looked like blocks of Styrofoam were used to simulate ice.  Everything in the movie looks fake, so you don’t feel like you have been pulled into this fantasy land, you feel duped.

The direction is sloppy, several shots had framing problems-heads cut off on top, or just below the chin.  It’s puzzling, these mistakes are amateurish, something learned in film class 101.

The action is anything but.  Watching countless moments of characters doing some type of tai -chi dance to summon the elements is less exciting than watching paint dry.  It is excruciatingly dull, and even though it has a relatively short  running time, it is a challenge to sit through.

Then of course, we have the money-grab post-production 3-D, which is wholly unnecessary, and pretty bad.  The first third of the film I kept seeing tracers around characters, and some people were completely blurry.  The 3-D does nothing to add to the movie, save for a bout a 10 minute battle scene at the end.  Other than that, it is just a ploy to jack up your ticket prices, and you’ll be able to see right through it.

After watching this mess, a few of my colleagues and I gathered outside to discuss the film.  Our thought was that the movie have been made on a low budget, how else to explain the way it looked?

When I went home to start researching, I was SHOCKED to find that this movie had a $150M budget, with another $130M going into the marketing.  That just makes it all the more disappointing.  How do you spend so much money and come up with this unwatchable failure of a movie?  I just feel really sorry for the fans.

There are plans for a trilogy for the film, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.  I have a feeling it is not going to fare well at the box office, particularly after word of mouth starts trickling down.  Do yourself a favor and skip the movie . You are better off watching a Sy Fy channel original movie.  At least you’ll get a few chuckles out of it.

Rating 0/5

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