NOTE: This review had to be pared down severely for length constraints and leaves out a LOT of things wrong with this film. I may blog about them over on my personal blog soon.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel
Rated: PG for fantasy action violence.
As my regular readers know, the last couple of weeks have not been good ones for me and the movies. I saw a couple fairly dreadful films. However, I’m inclined to be a lot more charitable to them now that I’ve seen “The Last Airbender,” a film which fails both as an adaptation (as I anticipated) and (which was a suprise) as a special-effects-laden martial arts epic.
The story has been pared down from the first season of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” by M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed. One has to wonder why the studio gave him that much control, considering that his last five films (which he also wrote and directed) have been flops. Given the simple nature of cartoon storytelling, adapting it for the big screen should be straightforward: trim out the episodes that have little to do with the major plotline, and remake the rest in live action.
The setting is a fantasy world based on Asian cultures, with four nations affiliated with the elements of Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Some people in each nation have the ability to control (“bend”) their native element. Only the Avatar has the ability to control all four. A hundred years ago, the Fire Nation made a bid to conquer the world, and the Avatar vanished. His new incarnation has been found: a twelve-year-old Airbender named Aang. The two Water Tribe teens who find him accompany him on his quest to master the other elements so he can stop the Fire Lord’s armies and return peace to the world.
Sure, I told myself, Shyamalan cast white actors for the good guys and dark-skinned actors as the villainous Fire Nation, but surely he’ll get some of the story right! Sadly, he doesn’t seem to have actually watched the show. The film feels like he read the Wikipedia page about the first season and went from there. He hits the major plot points, but leaves out the details that make the events important and engaging — as well as many of the details that help the story make sense. If you haven’t seen the cartoon, you’re likely to be pretty confused.
The characters all have interesting backstories, but instead of using flashbacks or letting the characters drop bits of information during conversations, he has people sit around and talk. And talk. And talk. And repeat themselves later. He does the same with what little character development there is: we’re told in voiceover that it happens, but we don’t see it. Apparently Shyamalan missed the day in filmmaker school where they went over the concept of “show, don’t tell.”
The acting is wooden, but in a CGI-driven film that’s to be expected. The one pleasant exception is Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh, the Fire Lord’s brother. In spite of looking nothing like his character in the cartoon and being hampered by the dreadful script, Toub captures Iroh’s personality and makes him seem real. Unfortunately, the other performances aren’t as good. Noah Ringer’s performance as Aang consists almost entirely of martial arts katas and looking like someone kicked his favorite puppy. As Katara and Sokka, Aang’s companions, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are borderline painful.
Worse, the fighting isn’t even well done. The action was the one redeeming quality I was hoping for in “The Last Airbender,” but it was not to be. Firstly, the motions for Bending are dissociated from the results. Instead of fighters who use their native elements as extensions of their bodies, you get people who seem to fight through interpretive dance with random bits of their element flying around. Secondly, all the fights are in slow motion, but choreographed so badly it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Finally, the most spectacular part of the final battle (a giant, Godzilla-like creature formed out of water and powered by the Avatar) is gone, replaced with an anticlimactic show of power which doesn’t actually do anything.
I knew I probably wasn’t going to like “The Last Airbender,” but I went into it expecting to enjoy some aspects. Unfortunately, the only pieces that were unqualified successes were the costuming and other visuals. As bizarrely terrible as the fight scenes are, the effects used for bending are mostly well done. The various cities look great, and the costumes are straight out of the cartoon. But that’s it. Everything else is terrible. “The Last Airbender” manages to fail both as an adaptation and as a movie, and it desperately needs to be Shyamalan’s last film.