Film Review – The Last Airbender

I did not have high expectations walking into The Last Airbender. I wanted to see it. I was curious to see it. But I wasn’t expecting much. Everything I’ve been hearing about the movie told me that I was right in keeping my expectations in check. Reviewers have been calling this film an absolute travesty, that it just doesn’t work in any way, either creatively or technically. A further falling from grace by M. Night Shyamalan. And I knew that all of these things were possible. Because before I’d even seen the film I knew all of the ways that this project could fall apart.

Before I go any further I should give you some background for the film. The Last Airbender is based off a popular children’s Nickelodeon show call Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The world is comprised of tribes that worship the different elements and the spirits that constitute those elements. So there are water tribes, air tribes, earth tribes and fire tribes. Each tribe has members who can manipulate or “bend” the element they associate with. The show begins with two members of the southern water tribe out hunting for food (picture eskimos living on the south pole and you’ll have a good visualization of the show’s opening). They are Katara, a 14 year old water bender, and her older brother, a young warrior named Sokka. While on the hunt they happen upon a perfect sphere of ice and what appears to be a young boy trapped inside. They crack the sphere to try and save the boy and thus they are introduced to Aang and his “pet” Appa, who resembles a giant bison with six legs who also happens to fly.

They soon learn that Aang is the reincarnation of the Avatar, an exalted person born once every life cycle who has the ability to bend all of the elements. Aang has been trapped in the ice sphere for 100 years and during that time the Fire Nation has declared war on the other nations and enslaved the greater part of humanity. It’s up to the Avatar to stop the Fire Nation and liberate the people of the world. But Aang is still young, and though he realizes his responsibility as the Avatar he doesn’t yet know how to bend any of the elements except his native element of air. And so Aang, Katara and Sokka set off around the world to find people who’ve escaped the Fire Lord’s wrath and who might teach him the other elements.

The world and the story that the creators have crafted seems simple on the surface. But “simple” is the operative word here and the ideas are explored in such a way that they spin out into something multi-faceted and rich in their execution. It’s really a disservice to label this a children’s show. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that classification except that so many people will dismiss it thinking that it’s only for children. Sure, it does have some silly humor and slapstick moments but the storytelling is anything but childish. Even the antagonist, Prince Zuko, the son of the Fire Lord, and his uncle Iroh, banished from the Fire Nation by Zuko’s father, are given a magnificent depth that has you sympathizing and rooting for them even as their mission puts them at cross purposes with our beloved heroes.

If I’ve gotten away on a tangent reviewing the show it’s only because the show deserves the praise and the attention of anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. And to also help you understand how daunting a project M. Night Shyamalan set for himself. To take on such a complex show with so much story in the space of 100 minutes is no enviable task and M. Night’s work was definitely cut out for him here.

And as easy as it would be to lay all of the film’s faults at the feet of a director who’s diminishing returns feel like a betrayal to the fans who are so in love with his earlier films, it’s too easy and it’s not where the blame truly belongs. M. Night’s direction here is actually quite good and, honestly, I wasn’t expecting that. I got off the M. Night love train a long time ago, about two thirds of the way through Signs, and every film he’s made since then has only further distanced me from a filmmaker who started out with such potential. I was fully expecting The Last Airbender to be a directorial train-wreck just like so many reviews have stated. But it’s not. The action is very well done and in most cases, M. Night plays everything in one shot, which is a breath of fresh air in this current climate of hyperactive editing and disorienting action. This film is probably his best since The Village, which wasn’t a great movie either, but looks like a classic art film compared to The Happening. The true problem here is that so much has to be crammed into this film. The story moves at such a quick pace and the scenes are so truncated that we’re never able to really invest ourselves in these characters or they’re predicament.

Don’t believe the hype. This movie isn’t that bad. It’s entertaining enough and has good action. But ultimately it’s just a missed opportunity. The source material is so good that the producers had the potential to make a series that rivaled some of the great blockbuster epics ever made. And that’s not hyperbole. The biggest travesty here is how the people involved took such a complex, epic show and somehow made it feel small and not terribly exciting in comparison. If anything the movie made me appreciate the show more. The story that DiMartino and Konietzko have crafted is more than just another children’s show. This is the stuff that fuels imaginations. They’ve tapped into something that transcends Eastern mysticism or Western beliefs or ideas restricted to location or history. They’ve tapped into a common mythology. They say that film is a universal language. And while some of that is due to the power of the image and it’s independence from language, it has much more to do with the power of story. There are mythologies that are tied to a time or a place or a rigid set of beliefs and those myths tend to fade into oblivion as time passes. And then there’s a common mythology, stories that are understood by all people, all races, always.

Avatar: The Last Airbender taps into a common mythology. But The Last Airbender’s mythology feels quaint and of it’s time. What a shame.