M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is the most joyless experience I’ve had at the movies in some time. Not since Batman & Robin in 1997 has a director taken a great license and massacred it in such an unholy fashion. This is a movie to be regarded along with Battlefield Earth and Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark as one of the cinematic abominations of this century.
I should consider myself grateful that the screening I attended showed the film in glorious 2D as apposed to 3D. Watching a movie already so unattractive and overdone in a format as pesky as 3D would be the equivalent of pouring lemon juice on a fatal wound.
The Last Airbender is inspired by the first season of the Nickelodeon series, which has developed a vast following of not only elementary school students but older audiences as well. There was much to admire in the show, which combined a stunning anime drawing style with humor, action, and a story of friendship.
Whatever charm the animated series had though is lost in this unbearably boring live-action interpretation that provides not a single moment of wit or imagination in its whole running time.
The film takes place in a world composed of the Water Nation, Earth Nation, Fire Nation, and Air Nation. The only person with the power to exercise all four elements is the Avatar, whose purpose is to keep the peace among the nations. When the Avatar disappears, though, the Fire Nation takes over. One hundred or so years of the Fire Nation’s tyranny passes. Then one day a young waterbender named Katara, played by Nicola Peltz, and her brother Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone, discover a frozen child named Aang, played by Noah Ringer. They learn that Aang is the Avatar and is the world’s only hope to stop the Fire Nation. Shyamalan handles this exposition in such a rushed and incoherent way that you need to have seen the series to grasp any understanding of what’s going on.
The performances are uniformly awful. All of the actors utter their lines as if they never even looked at the script and are reading cue cards. Even the talented Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire comes off as flat and unintentionally laughable as Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation seeking the Avatar for redemption. The biggest disappointment of all is Ringer as Aang, whose name is mispronounced throughout the entire film. Where Aang was depicted as a jumpy and cheerful kid in the series, Shyamalan’s script reduces the character to a whiny and bland hero with no personality.
The Last Airbender is full of questionable casting. In the series all the characters appeared to be of Asian descent. Here, though, the three leads are played by white actors and the entire Fire Nation is made up of Indians. What is Shyamalan trying to say here? That his people are all ruthless dictators that want to rule the world? But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Whether there’s a message behind the casting or not, all of the actors are miscast.
Frankly I don’t see why the film needs to be in live-action. Should Hayao Miyazaki’s great Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akria be remade in live-action just because we have the technology? There are some stories born for animation and could never work in live-action. The Last Airbender is one of them. Had the film been animated maybe a bright and inventive feature could have been produced in the spirit of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or The Animatrix. In the hands of Shyamalan, though, the movie is a senseless disaster with art direction, costumes and effects so distractingly flashy that they outshine whatever little story there may be.
It might sound like I’m basing my criticism of The Last Airbender on its inaccuracy to the series. But even if the animated series never existed, this movie would still be a catastrophe. The ending sets us up for the possibility of two more sequels, which overwhelms me with despair. Where the kids of the ’70s and the ’80s got to grow up on the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, the minds of today’s youth are being corrupted by movies like The Last Airbender. With The Sixth Sense M. Night Shyamalan made one of the most fascinating and iconic motion pictures of the ’90s. With The Last Airbender, The Happening is only the second worst movie of his career.
There is one upside to my viewing experience of The Last Airbender. I’ve officially won a $5 bet that James Cameron’s Avatar would be better than this adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But that $5 and the satisfaction of being right are hardly worth the 103 minutes of my life wasted on this reprehensible mess.
0 out of 5 stars
Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past five years, reviewing movies on his website, http://www.freewebs.com/radman_ns/