Now Playing: ‘The Last Airbender’ Can Get Bent

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender,’ adapted from the sixty-odd episode Nickelodeon animated show, begins with a title card that reads “Book One: Water.” What it should really say is, “This is the First in a Potential Franchise, So Even If You’re Not Too Keen On This One, You’ll Probably Come Back for the Second or Third Go-Round, Because Our Marketing Will Be Quite Persuasive and Everything Has Sequels These Days and It’s Not Like Movie Tickets Are That Expensive.” You’ve got to give the filmmakers some credit – at least they’re very upfront about their nakedly commercial ambitions. ‘The Last Airbender’ ain’t art, nor will it ever be mistaken for such. But I’m not sure anyone was asking for art, especially if they’ve seen the trailers (which feature some mystical variation of kung fu); what they want is to be entertained. Unfortunately, ‘The Last Airbender’ fails on that front too.

If you’re like me and have only a cursory understanding of the animated television show, the movie clears things up through long, chunky sections of expositional dialogue and equally tacky voiceover narration. In the simplest terms, the movie takes place in a fantasy world where the planet is divided into geographic realms devoted to elemental substances. There are nations solely given to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. People within these nations have the uncanny ability to control said elements. For instance, one of our main characters, Katara (Nicola Peltz), can manipulate water, turning it into the fountains at the Bellagio or stringing it together in pearlish hovering beads. Katara and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) unwittingly stumble across Aang (Noah Ringer), a prophesied “Avatar,” someone who can manipulate all four elements and who will unite the elemental nations in (presumably) peace. Or, barring peace, a kick ass dance party.

Of course, nasty members of the Fire nation would not like said dance party/peaceful unification to take place. Chief among them is Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his impetuous son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel). I’m a little vague as to why they want to capture this special little kid, but they do. Badly. Which leads to all sorts of behind-the-iron-curtain hand-wringing that just feels out of place and dodgy. One of the ways in which the movie ultimately fails is its complete lack of rhythm or pacing. Not only is it weighed down by these scenes of the bad guys contemplating doom, virtually every character has a Time Out to find his or her chi. A recurring plot point in the movie has Aang zoning out so that he can commune with the spirit of a wizened dragon. Writing this stuff down makes it seem really silly, but these are actual plot points that the film treats with the utmost earnestness.

Which belies another problem: Shyamalan has lost his sense of humor. Even a movie like ‘Signs,’ which is about a man reclaiming his faith in the face of an alien invasion (heady stuff for sure), was also wickedly funny. Here, even the most absurd notions or images, like warriors riding on the backs of giant Komodo dragons, are upheld with a straight face. You want to shake him and say, “Loosen up! Your last movie was about killer houseplants!” There are plenty of opportunities for lighthearted humor, but everything is taken so damn seriously that there isn’t room for anything except matters of the gravest import. This is another reason why J.J. Abrams has taken the mantel of “The Next Spielberg” from Shyamalan’s grip: because he can provide wondrous entertainments that are also quite funny.

Now, I’m making ‘The Last Airbender’ seem really terrible. That’s because it is. I haven’t even gone into the blank slate, mostly non-professional child actors who are uniformly horrible. And I haven’t mentioned the flying, six-legged otter. Or its lame-ass cliffhanger ending that makes the twist from ‘The Village’ seem like a work of fucking genius.

There are some nice things to say about ‘The Last Airbender,’ but they’re few and far between and mostly superficial. For one, Shyamalan does this cool thing during the more intense action sequences where he’ll both slow down and zoom in on a specific piece of the action. This lets us see it better before he zooms out and resums the normal speed. It’s sort of the next level of the “speed ramping” trick that Zack Snyder has mastered. It’s also a nice, 21st century tip of the hat to the extreme zooms of old karate movies (to which this film owes a considerable debt). Similarly, the movie is very handsome looking. Costumes, sets, and atmospheric visual effects are all top notch. But it doesn’t make a bit of difference when you’re this emotionally detached from anything that’s happening on screen. It’s the antithesis of ‘Toy Story 3.’ It’s a movie that makes you feel nothing, over and over and over again.

PS – I didn’t see this thing in 3-D. If I had, I probably would have driven my car into a tree on the way back from the screening. Now that‘d be comin’ atcha!


  1. When I was a kid, my birthday (July 2nd) was a day that I looked forward to, because I knew there’d be an exciting movie out that day. Even up until, say, Armageddon. The July 2nd weekend – or July 4th weekend for folks that don’t view the world through my birthday-centric eyes – used to rule.

    Now it’s just the time to be disappointed. Two years ago I got the potentially great but ultimately awful ‘Hancock.’ This year it’s ‘Airbender,’ which I’ve been psyched for since I saw the first trailer. But after reading this, it looks like I’m in for disappointment again.

    Luckily, I haven’t seen ‘Toy Story 3’ yet, so I’ll just pretend it comes out this weekend 🙂

  2. One thing to never do is base your opinion on seeing something off someone else’s, if you are still pumped to see it, keep that attitude and go see it, changing your mind because someone said it sucks just makes you more easily disappointed….I for one am extremely pumped to see this and I cant wait

    But honestly, taking a fantasy film like this and making it serious shouldnt be a giant mark on its head, so what if the cartoon had some laughs, its a cartoon for heaven’s sake, a movie form of The Last Airbender would probably be ridiculous if it had comedy to go with all the serious FX and action, at least IMO. The show from what I’ve seen had kind of a wacky Dragon Ball Z feel to it in places and that wouldnt translate very well to the big screen.

    Regardless though if its awesome or not, its going to tank this weekend because of Twilight and another probably wont get made anyways, I cant understand why any company would have released a movie this weekend with Eclipse….dumb move and they will most likely pay for it, I for one will be giving my hard earned money to see Airbender, but I bet not a lot of other people will

  3. Well now that I’ve seen this thing at a dismal 7% on Rotten Tomatoes and almost everyone hating it, I’m not sure I’m giving it my money anymore, usually I dont worry about reviews, but when a movie goes that low and just about everyone hates it, I think thats a good call to skip paying $20 at the theater to see it, hate to say but Eclipse looks to be the better way to spend your money and as awesome as this movie looked, thats really sad….also that the critics actually liked Eclipse more is also very sad

  4. JoeRo

    It’s a shame this movie turned out so poorly, because the show is sort of good. The first season, which this movie is supposed to cover, is actually the worst the show has to offer. So if I you put a gun to my head and demanded that I find a silver lining here, this would be it. The first film entry is based on the weakest of the source material, any further entries should (in theory) be better, if only because the source material is much better. Then again, everyone involved with making this movie has spent the better part of a year fellating one another’s egos in the press and the movie is still shit. /shrug

  5. coologuy1957

    I watched the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender to prepare for this movie. The show was great – nearly flawless. The movie was garbage – 100% flawed. It is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years and it would take a miracle for M. Night to be forgiven now. How can he claim to the love the source material and then do this to it?

    via Wikipedia: “According to an interview with the co-creators in SFX magazine, Shyamalan came across Avatar when his daughter wanted to be Katara for Halloween. Intrigued, Shyamalan researched and watched the series with his family. “Watching Avatar has become a family event in my house … so we are looking forward to how the story develops in season three,” said Shyamalan. “Once I saw the amazing world that Mike and Bryan created, I knew it would make a great feature film.” He added he was attracted to the spiritual and martial arts influences on the show.”

    He has now made it so anyone who hasn’t seen the show and sees his movie will mostly likely never give it a chance…. thanks alot….

  6. Bryan

    I’m now willing to give the series a shot more than ever because all I’ve been hearing is how shit this movie is compared to ‘one of the greatest animated series of all time.’

    Thanks M. Night. You’ve potentially turned me on to something cool. Just stay away from me.

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