I spent a good portion of Monday in a heated discussion about joining a group of friends to watch The Last Airbender. Having already sat through the film one time too many I was doing a good job of refusing . . . and then I must have had a temporary break with reality because somehow I spent that evening in what we all affectionately refer to as a Theater!1 Since I’m a giver, I figure I’ll share my pain via a review.
Let’s set the record straight: this is a terrible movie. If you’re a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender you are likely to be reduced to tears at some point during the two hour run. And if you aren’t a fan of ATLA, I suggest you do everything in your power to erase any knowledge you have gained of this film. Instead devote that brainpower to familiarizing yourself with the cartoon series because it’s several kinds of awesome.
So what makes this such a terrible film exactly? Well, the most prominent issues seem to stem from Shyamalan’s desire to make the film more realistic than the animated source material. The most obnoxious of these changes is that the pronunciation of most character names are different. This is first noticed during the narrated scroll not thirty seconds into the movie and is ever present throughout the entire run. Whether or not this change is actually a more correct form of Asian language translation is moot — and in at least one instance the change is incorrect — because as far as I’m concerned the source material is what set the standard and those are the names I associate with the characters. This new pronunciation just seems odd and wrong and every time I would hear someone’s name it was a jarring experience that took me completely out of the story.
Other elements that I associate with the cartoon are missing or changed with about the same success. The nations lack their defining differences in style of dress, though the costumes were nicely made. Also the visual cue of the distinct colors was neglected, but probably it would have just been done badly anyway so I might be splitting hairs. And really any of these alterations could be forgiven if the actors were capable of bringing the characters to life.
I admit it, this was not a well written script. I honestly think Shyamalan should have let his daughter write the screenplay. Or he should be blaming her for the atrocity it was. I don’t know. But it’s undeniably some pretty lackluster writing. So, the actors didn’t really have a lot to work with. Of course, one of the major debates about this film was the casting. Rather than look for ethnic actors to fill the roles of the racially diverse world of ATLA the filmmakers defended their predominately white casting choices by stating they were the best ones to fill those roles. Based on the high caliber of acting that was displayed in this film, I can only assume that every other actor in the whole of the world got lost on their way the casting calls. Really, it’s that bad.
Ignoring the acting and the writing, I still found the characterization to be very odd. No one relates to their cartoon counterpart in any significant way. If the names had actually been changed — and not just pronounced weirdly — I could have spent time playing a guessing game with some debatable accuracy and that would have been five minutes of entertainment otherwise absent!
The film completely breaks down for me when it comes to the action scenes. The animated series is very noteworthy for its unique style and choreography — and as good as those are I think they’ve only gotten better with the sequel The Legend of Korra, by the way. So, Shyamalan decided to not hire the martial artist who designed the movements for the elemental bending. Instead, everyone just kind of flails around . . . and then randomly some special effect happens like a boulder slowly floating by or a ball of water forms in the air. There’s no connection between the movements and the elemental effect and so it quite literally plays on screen as if the two are basically independent of one another and just coincidentally happen around the same time. Which is even more baffling because apparently just being in close proximity to an element you have affinity for will cause some reaction. (A bit of mythology that is unique to this film and not at all present in the cartoon.) Moreover, the action scenes are completely the opposite of dynamic. There’s no peril or excitement and most of the time the characters seemed to be fighting in the most random and illogical way possible.
Of course, that almost makes sense from a characterization standpoint because pretty much everything else they are doing seems random and illogical. For example, Aang is being hunted by the Fire Nation and yet a montage sequence shows Team Avatar hanging posters throughout their travels announcing his return. There’s some vague exposition given over this, but it’s shoehorned in, as is most all of the exposition that is info-dumped throughout the two hours. There’s an obscene amount of talking about nothing in this film. None of which is clarifying information if you aren’t already familiar with the source material — and if you are it’s still incredibly boring and confusing. And this is only compounded by how the movie itself is edited together; scenes don’t flow together and often it feels like there’s huge chunks that were taken out that really needed to be there.
The fact is this movie has so much wrong with it and is truly so bad that writing about it is actively depressing me to the point I’ve literally run out of drive to keep typing. Coming from me, that really is saying something.
- “Theater!” refers to watching a movie or TV show or whatever simultaneously with others across the Internet. It started in 2002 with me and Ian and a shared love for several of the same animated shows. By the time we’d worked our way through Batman: The Animated Series and the other related DCAU shows that had aired to that point we had coined the phrase. I think it was Ian who first used the word, but I was the one who specified the exclamation point’s necessity lest we confuse it with an actual building or something. ↩