Josh here. A few nights ago, I went with a few friends to the midnight premiere of The Last Airbender. After seeing it, my friend Mike offered to write a guest review of it for the site, as he was a big fan of the show, and had a strong opinion about the movie. I might review this on my own later, but for now, here’s Mike’s review of The Last Airbender.
It is difficult to pick a place to start, in looking at this film. Perhaps the best place to start is the very beginning. When I first heard that this film was being made, I was incredibly interested in finding out as much as possible. I looked up castings, trailers, and general information. And there began my mortification. The name “M. Night Shayamalan” has, in the past few years, only stirred up images of terrible movies with poor writing, poor plots, and generally poor production. So when I saw he was the one who would be directing something so distinctive and specific as the Nickelodeon hit television show, I cringed. Immediately I thought of the horror that was Eragon. And, after seeing the film, that fear was confirmed.
Before I launch with a little too much abandon into my bashing, here’s a bit of background on the story. In this world, the four elements (air, water, earth, and fire) can be manipulated through bending. Each element has a coordinating Nation, but only certain constituents of this nation can bend the elements. The peace between the Nations is kept by the Avatar, a special bender who can control all four elements. This Avatar is also the bridge between the spirit world and the real world. The plot from there is simple enough. The Avatar mysteriously disappeared 100 years ago, opening a window for the war-like Fire Nation to attack the other nations to spread their glory and influence. Knowing that the next Avatar (the Avatar works very similarly to the Dalai Lama, in the sense that he is reborn immediately after his death) would be an Airbender, the Fire Nation attacks the Air Nomads and wipes out their culture. They then proceed to attempt to dominate the remaining two Nations, the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom. Like I said, simple.
Nickelodeon made the first season about water, and so the first movie followed that pattern. Shayamalan faced the challenge of condensing 20 half-hour episodes into a feature-length film. Having seen every episode of the entire series several times, I can personally attest to the show’s great writing and diverse plot. The show itself has a huge and very loyal fanbase, and thousands of those devotees flooded into the theatre at midnight, expecting to see a movie that loyally embodies the unique details and grace that the TV show had.
In short, it did not even come close.
The Last Airbender failed on so many different levels. First, the characters. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Not a single character had any growth or even any personality in the first place. Aang, played by Noah Ringer, was bland, serious, and even his grief from the loss of his people was merely shown to the audience, without actually being there. Katara, played by Nicola Peltz, was not the capable and dramatic bender she was in the show, but rather a very desperate and cheesy dramatist. Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone, was perhaps the most ridiculous character. He did almost nothing but appear on screen. He reacted to any dialogue with what was meant to be a deeply focused face, but instead looked like a confused ape. Zuko, played by Dev Patel, and Iroh, played by Shaun Toub, were no more believable. Not a single character was given motivations, emotions, or any defining traits. Admiral Zhao, played by Aasif Mandvi, was almost a farce himself. Mandvi hilariously portrayed the main villain, with big confused eyes and corny tones underscoring the unbelievable character.
Naturally, I could never walk away from this review without saying that almost every important name was mispronounced. The TV show is the ultimate canon for the series, and so you’d think that the pronunciations of the names would be taken from there. Nope. Aang, which is supposed to sound like “Ayng”, was pronounced “Ong”. Every time his name was said onscreen, the whole theatre literally groaned from disgust. Sokka, pronounced “Socka” in the show, was “Soak-a” in the film. Iroh, a fan favorite pronounced “Eye-ro” in the show, was mispronounced as “Ee-ro”. Even the word Avatar, a word that existed before James Cameron or this series, was pronounced like “Ov-a-tar”. These silly mistakes are absolutely unforgivable.
The plot was fairly loyal to the series, and the scenes that were chosen were important enough to merit inclusion. But there was exposition out the wazoo and flashbacks that spoonfed emotions to the audience. Everything that was supposed to be conveyed was simply told to the audience. Implications were non-existent, and the movie suffered from it.
The special effects were not terrible, and, dare I say it, the 3-D was at times enjoyable. The 3-D was altogether unnecessary, as it was only used effectively for a precious few battle scenes, or as a gimmick to show off how close things on-screen can look.
The changes Shayamalan made were baffling and ultimately failed. The Firebenders needed a source from which to bend, which is not the case with the show. It made it painfully clear that the Waterbenders could simply have put out those fires and won each battle. The Spirit World was corny, and was at the same time needlessly cryptic and completely obvious. Important characters like Master Pachu and Suki were left out completely.
Sadly, it is doubtful from this failure that a sequel can rise from the ashes. Season 2 of the show was even better than season 1, and its conflict would write itself. With a new director, a better script, and better casting, the series could raise itself into a comeback sequel. Shayamalan disgraced the name of Airbender with this atrocity, and now the film is doomed to exist on the $7.99 shelf of DVDs at the gas station.