The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender

Film review by: Witney Seibold

 

This things I liked about M. Night Shyamalan‘s “The Last Airbender:” The characters with magical powers must use a combination of tai chi and American sign language to invoke their abilities, which is an interesting way to visualize magic. Too often, magic powers are just someone flicking a wrist, and throwing a fireball. This movie has kids practically dancing to summon a water tentacle.

I liked the look of the film. The color-coded costumes kept a lot of story clear, and the misty locations, despite being films mostly in close-ups, are kind of atmospheric.

It’s a long-held conceit of action films that, if a hero is surrounded, the baddies will be sure to attack our hero not all at once, but one at a time, allowing our hero to dispatch them safely. “The Last Airbender” slows this process down even further, making sure everyone has recovered before the next baddie charges in to be dispatched. I actually liked this dynamic. I’m sure if ever I was in a many-on-one fight with a superpowered child I would likely wait for my turn as well.

There was a giant floating bison monster in this film that roared like Chewbacca from “Star Wars.” Its appearances were amusing.

Things I disliked about “The Last Airbender:” sadly most everything else. This is one of those action films that is constructed in such a way that we feel like we’re missing parts of the story. Shyamalan has scripted his film with all of those dull, heavy platitudes that kill any adventure film. The characters all speak of grand prophecies and epic wars with ancient kingdoms and magical spirits and all that jazz, and we feel like we’re being told of a movie that’s happening just off screen. The dialogue is deathly dull, contains no moments of wit or humor or awareness, opting instead for seeming to be part of a grand supersrtucture; an all-too-common death knell for modern fantasy films.

The dialogue isn’t helped by the acting. The actors are not untalented, but they were surely directed poorly. They pronounce all the dialogue with a flat, plodding manner that makes us sure they they feel things are Important-with-a-capital-“I,” and assures that the audience will not find any of this the least bit interesting. By the time the big fight start up at the film’s climax (and films of this sort always seem to have a big fight), we may know what’s going on in the story, and we may be able to tell which Benders are Bending against which other Benders, but it’ll be hard to really care.

Shyamalan is a director known for scaling back the pacing of his films, and making ordinary, everyday events seem portentous and terrifying. This works in films like “Signs” and “Unbreakable,” and “The Sixth Sense,” and, even, to a degree, “The Happening,” but can kill his other material, like in “The Village,” the ludicrous “Lady in the Water,” and now “The Last Airbender.”

 

The story: It is the distant future, or perhaps a parallel world. The planet is divided by four vast elemental tribes. A pair of children named Kattara and Sokka (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) have discovered in the ice of their southern home village a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), who, they suspect, may be the last airbender. Benders, you see, are people who can magically manipulate a specific element, and Aang is possibly the boy who will serve as the world’s Avatar, kind of a combination of the Dalai Lama and the Messiah, who will be able to bend all four elements. As soon as he shows up, though, Aang is apprehended by the dreaded Fire Nation, who cruise the world in gigantic fearsome steamships. The Fire Nation has killed off all airbenders, and imprisoned most other benders for fear of being overthrown. They set out to return Aang to the leader of the Fire Nation (Cliff Curtis). Kattara and Sokka set off in pursuit. Why do they do this? “He’s our responsibility” is all we’re given by way of explanation. Aang is set free, and the three kids must travel to the north pole to meet up with an army of waterbenders for a final showdown with the Fir Nation.

There’s also a subplot involving the disgraced son of the Fire Nation Lord (Dev Patel), and a hurried romance between Sokka and a white-haired beauty (Seychelle Gabriel).

I have seen a few episodes of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the cartoon show on which this film is based, but I am not of the rabid fanbase that so loves the show. I’m not going to spend time listing the ways the film deviates from the source material; that’s the job of the fans and the fanboys. I will say that what I saw of the show was witter, clearer, and better written that what I saw in the film version. I will also state that a fantasy premise that stretches over several seasons of TV cannot be condensed into a two hour film. I will also say that some opportunities were surely lost when adapting this material.

I will not comment on the odd race flipping in this film either, other than to say that it seems… odd. The cartoon notoriously featured Tibetan, Chinese and Inuit characters. The film features white kids and Indians. While this does nothing to enhance or tear down the material, it does seem strange of Shyamalan to racially code his film in such a fashion. Perhaps he just wanted to work with some dignified Indian actors, a rarity in most mainstream Hollywood films.

Many have been lashing out in extreme ire against “The Last Airbender.” I can’t say that it moved me to passionate hatred, but I clearly don’t think it was all that enjoyable either. I will merely say that I was mildly entertained at times, but overall disappointed by a thudding, forgettable, non-descript fantasy action film.

A note: do not see the 3-D version.

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Published in: on July 2, 2010 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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