Comic Book Movies 101: The Last Airbender

To say I was dragged kicking and screaming to see The Last Airbender would be an overstatement.  Whilst it wasn’t my choice to see the film, I went in with an open mind, hoping that M Night Shyamalan would prove the detractors wrong and produce an entertaining Summer blockbuster.  After all, Shyamalan was responsible for The Sixth Sense, and the more underappreciated Unbreakable and Signs, so despite the panned The Lady in the Water and the turgid The Happening he is capable of making quality films.  Sadly, it was less than ten minutes in that I realised that this was going to be no comeback.

A lot of people have described The Last Airbender as a mess, which isn’t quite fair.  A room with a few toys and books scattered haphazardly around is a mess. The Last Airbender is more of a 2-mile wide landfill site that even the seagulls think has gone to pot.

So where did it all go wrong? Perhaps looking at the Razzies might provide some indication.  It picked up nine nominations and five awards (if we can call them that), including Worst Picture.  It’s almost impressive.

The acting received four nods, with only Jackson Rathbone actually receiving the dubious honour.  In truth, though, it probably should have gone to Dev Patel.  Zuko’s backstory has such potential for depth and shading; we should never really be sure whether to sympathise with his character, or to fear him.  Instead, Patel portrays this conflict by SHOUTING A LOT during his introduction, and sounding more like a stroppy teenager than a Blue Spirit.  Aasif Mandvi fares little better in the role of Zhao, though since I was more familiar with his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart I found him so hopelessly miscast that it feels somewhat cruel to blame him.

Really, though, hiring actors unsuited to their roles was not the worst decision the casting directors made.  Quite rightly, much was made of the time of the decision to cast White American actors in what were Asian-American and Native American roles in the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show.  Presumably, all the Asian-American actors in Hollywood were busy dealing with the copious parts that they famously receive!  

Perhaps it was this completely misjudged change to the source material that earned it a nomination for Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel (yes, I am taking these awards seriously here).  If nothing else, the actors seem quite staggeringly out-of-place.  The leads’ accents and emotionless delivery make the film feel like a version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, remade for the Disney Channel.  That there is a noticeably higher percentage of non-white actors playing the villainous members of the Fire Nation only serves to emphasise this problem.

One thing that you would probably be spared, should you, for whatever reason, wish to watch this film today, is the film’s award-winning Worst Eye-Gouging Mis-Use of 3D.  As the recent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has shown, even a year later and with a great deal more time, effort and money, retro-fitting a film into 3D is not the most perfect of processes.  The film’s more brightly lit sections fare the best, but the scenes in which Aang talks to the spirit dragon are dimmed to the point that it became impossible to see.  Walking out of the cinema, I could genuinely not have described the appearance of this vision, despite the not-inconsiderable amount of screen time that it got.  And, of course, it’s always worth pointing out at these points that to suffer through this, you have to pay more for the ticket.

And then we come to M Night Syamalan himself, the Worst Director and writer of the Worst Screenplay of 2010.  Ultimately, responsibility for the film rests at his feet, and yet, for such an established director, this feels amateurish, like a pantomime, only without its knowingness.  Take, for instance, the scene in which Aang almost escapes from Zuko by standing a few feet from him and following his movements around.  All it needs is a little comedy dialogue:

Zuko: “OK, boys and girls, where is the Avatar?”

Audience: “He’s behind you!”

In fact, Aang being captured and then escaping from Zuko or the Fire Nation makes up far too much of the film’s running time.  How on earth are we supposed to find the film’s villains a credible threat when they are so singularly incapable of incarcerating a small boy?  What little threat they did pose is ruined when they declare that killing the boy would just cause him to be reborn elsewhere.  Given all this, perhaps it’s little surprise that the film’s dramatic high-point must therefore be a man stabbing a fish in a bag.

In fact, there’s really very little that Shyamalan gets right, and it feels like he credits the audience with no intelligence at all.  For example, he shows us the central characters arriving at the Northern Water Tribe and presenting themselves before the court, whilst at the same time the narration simply describes what we can see on the screen.  It’s simply lazy script writing that assumes the audience has to have everything spelled out for them in the most basic terms.

And yet…

There is definitely something of a guilty pleasure about a film that’s this awful in every way.  As I said at the beginning, it was less than ten minutes in that I realised this was not going to be Citizen Kane.  Specifically, it was Zuko’s line “Bring me ALL your elderly” (stressed so oddly by Dev Patel).  But at the same time as I realised what a shoddy film this was going to be, I started to laugh, and continued throughout the rest of the film.  ALL their elderly? Would this provoke heated arguments from people in their sixties claiming they were still in their first flush of youth? Does the Water Tribe have a retirement age, perhaps?  The film is full of moments that are inadvertently hilarious, from Aang’s insistence that his friends are just hiding despite having trodden on one of their femurs, to Zhao’s oddly unthreatening threats towards Iroh. And I haven’t even mentioned the unfortunate other meaning the word “bender” picked up when it reached this side of the Atlantic.

The film does have some redeeming qualities – the score is excellent, and there’s an environmental message with the polluting Fire Nation that actually isn’t too overt.  Sadly, however, there’s very little that’s worthy of merit, and whilst it may be fun to mock, there’s little doubting that The Last Airbender deserved all the Razzies it won.

Chris Meredith

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