Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Looking forward to the live-action adaptation of the animated series? Prepare to be disappointed.
The Sixth Sense put M. Night Shyamalan on the map. Unbreakable was a box-office disappointment, but that may have been more the result of mis-marketing than poor filmmaking, so we’ll give him that one too. But what followed was a baker’s hat trick of cinematic flops that ranged from mediocre plots centered around “clever” plot twists (Signs, The Village, The Happening) to mastabatory self-indulgence (Lady in the Water). That’s 2 out of 6, only a 33% success rate, folks.
And yet Shyamalan was given creative control of The Last Airbender, presumably because his films inexplicably continue to make money. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which adapts the animated series that aired on Nickelodeon in the early 2000’s. Read on for a scathing, SPOILERISH review.
The film opens with an introduction to the 4 nations, each aligned with one of the 4 elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Though certain citizens of each kingdom can manipulate or “bend” their element through force of will, only the avatar has the power to bend all 4 elements. The avatar maintains the balance, preserves the peace, and serves as spiritual leader of the world by his unique ability to pass over into the spirit realm and converse with the spirits (or pseudo-deities) of their world. Yet the avatar disappeared over a century ago, and in his absence the fire nation has launched a campaign of conquest and subjugation of the other kingdoms.
We are then introduced to siblings Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Temple. Katara is the only water bender in her village. Her older brother isn’t much of a hunter. We are told this through voice-over narration, courtesy of Katara. Immediately following this proclamation, we see evidence of it, as Sokka’s tracking of a sea lion fails to lead the pair to his intended prey.
This is the first instance of what becomes a truly nausea-inducing string of expository dialogue. Again and again and again, whether by dialogue or narration we are told what is happening, or will happen, or how and why. Either Shyamalan assumed his audience has the attention span of a hyperactive Labrador retriever, or he has the storytelling ability of his presumed audience.
To wit, after Katara and Sokka discover a bald boy covered in peculiar tattoos named Aang who turns out to be the latest reincarnation of the avatar, the group decides they should venture to the Northern Water Temple, so that Aang can learn from the water-bending masters there. A short while later, we are presented with a scene in which a commander in the fire nation army informs the king that he believes the avatar’s next move is to seek training at the Northern Water Temple. Almost immediately following this we see the arrival of Aang, Katara, and Sokka at the Northern Water Temple. But the horse isn’t dead yet, and Shyamalan isn’t done. Katara’s voice comes on in another bit of narration to inform us that they had arrived at the Northern Water Temple (which we can plainly see), and that Aang began learning the ways of water bending (as we see Aang in a training montage).
Bile-rising moments like this occur throughout The Last Airbender.
As if that weren’t enough (and it most certainly was), Shyamalan’s writing directs the characters of The Last Airbender to make senseless, asinine decisions, seemingly unable to learn from past mistakes. For example, the exiled Prince Zuko, obsessed with regaining his father’s favor by capturing the avatar, actually has Aang in his clutches early on in the film. But with Aang unrestrained, and little in the way of guards to help contain him, Zuko launches into a boastful rant about returning to his father, triumphant.
Naturally Aang finds this disagreeable, and promptly (and rather easily) escapes. Near the end of the film, Zuko again captures Aang while he is meditating (more on this later). Zuko again takes no precautions to restrain Aang, leaving him in a chair to brood and vocalize complaints about how his father doesn’t love him or respect him, blah, blah, blah. Thus distracted by his own daddy issues, Aang comes out of his meditation, and promptly escapes, again.
Do I have to explain why this is so ridiculous?
But that’s not all. Soon after arriving at the Northern Water Temple, Aang and his companions warn that the fire nation is surely on their way, and everyone is in danger. We then see a conference of the princess of the Northern Water Temple and her advisors where they spell out necessary preparations for the coming battle.
These include extinguishing as many fires in the city as possible when the alarm sounds, and assigning a guard to safeguard the princess, a duty that Sokka eagerly volunteers for and is granted (even though he is likely the least qualified man for the job). That’s about it.
And even though the fire nation goes to war in a fleet of slow-moving, coal-burning battleships, which should be easily spotted by scouts miles from shore with several days warning, the fire nation surprises the people of the Northern Water Temple.
Let me say that again. Even though they know the fire nation is coming, they’re still caught off guard.
And Aang, who has had days to weeks to prepare for the invasion, decides – in the midst of all the chaos of the attack when he is needed the most – that he needs to find somewhere quiet to meditate to talk with the spirits for advice on how to defeat the fire nation. Gee, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have done that BEFORE the fire nation actually showed up and began raping and pillaging?
Of course, I’ve said little to nothing about the fight scenes and special effects. Both are certainly impressive, and you might wonder why I’ve given them so little attention. Maybe I’m in the minority, but without a well-written story populated with well-developed characters, all those flashy special effects are wasted in the effort to make a good movie.
I guess that makes it 2 out of 7 for Mr. Shyamalan.