REVIEW: A Few Nifty Visuals Can't Rescue Exhausting Last Airbender

Movieline Score: 6
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The Last Airbender is, as M. Night Shyamalan movies go, pretty straightforward. It's also, refreshingly, not as completely idiotic as most of his movies are. No aliens in stretchy unitards who can be vanquished by -- surprise! -- plain old tap water; no meek, modest 19th-century communities who are -- surprise! -- really just weirdo cults being kept away from 21st-century life. The Last Airbender, based on a popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, is a fantasy-adventure aimed primarily at kids, set in a world where four tribal nations -- Air, Water, Earth and Fire -- just can't get along, because a revered being known as the Avatar has skipped out on them some 100 years ago. Taking advantage of this international instability, the people of the Fire Nation have decided to bully the other guys into submission and thus take over the world. Oh where, oh where, could the Avatar be?

As it turns out, he's been hiding in sort of time warp, and two Water Nation kids, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who plays Jasper in the Twilight movies), serendipitously bring him back into the world. He's a very worried-looking, very bald little kid named Aang (Noah Ringer); his anxiety-filled brow is decorated with a mysterious tattoo motif. Aang isn't just the Avatar; he's also the last airbender -- in other words, he's able to bend the air to his will, and although there used to be lots of Air Nation people who could do this sort of thing, the Fire Nation has done away with them all. Soon the Fire Nation will turn its aggression on the waterbenders (who can make water do bendy things; Katara is a waterbender) and the earthbenders (who are good at moving rocks around via telepathy).

The Fire Nation people need to capture Aang, lest he restore harmony to the world and squelch their superpower ambitions. And if, beyond that, you can follow the plot of The Last Airbender, you're surely capable of bending some pretty heavy-duty baloney into submission yourself. Like so many movies these days, The Last Airbender relies largely on exposition: Characters are always making forthright declarations like "The Fire Nation is here, and they've brought their machines!" or "We must travel to the Northern Earth Kingdom!" Which is probably a good thing -- otherwise characters would be popping up willy-nilly in various confusing locations, although they do plenty of that anyway.

Because of all that narrative hippity-hopping (Shyamalan himself wrote the script), The Last Airbender is exhausting to watch. What's more, the movie is being shown in 3D in select theaters, and although some of the picture's visual touches are quite lovely -- there's a kingdom built entirely of ice, and some nifty effects in which globes of water are made to float in the air -- they don't seem to be particularly enhanced by the technology (though those special glasses will, of course, add some padding to the ticket price).

It's clear that Shyamalan's ambition is to create a grand fantasy epic; at times the picture's production design has an almost Middle Earth-y look. (The cinematographer here is Andrew Lesnie, who also shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) But oddly enough -- or perhaps not oddly at all -- the most impressive and entertaining aspects of the picture have less to do with spectacular effects than with human skill. The movie's young star, Ringer, is a Taekwondo champ, and it's fun to watch his hands slice through the air ever so gracefully, or execute kicks and jumps and pirouettes that defy gravity. So many action movies these days are devoid of real human action. At least Shyamalan understands that watching the human body move is one of the pleasures of moviegoing.

Of course, because this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the stink of pretension is high: There's no doubt that these warring, troubled tribes are supposed to be metaphorical, revealing big truths about the messed-up world we actually live in. But some of the actors rise above the sillier-than-silly dialog: Aasif Mandvi (who played Mr. Aziz in Spider-Man 2, but who was even more wonderful in a smallish role in David Koepp's superb romantic comedy Ghost Town) plays an amoral military commander; he walks a fine line between sending up the movie's kiddie hokum and treating the material as seriously as if it were Shakespeare. And Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire, shows up as the unfortunately named Prince Zuko. (Would you want to play a character whose name sounds like a sugar substitute?)

Still, The Last Airbender, for all its Shyamalan-style grandiosity, is completely harmless and inoffensive, and at the very least, Shyamalan appears to be having a little fun here. The movie's finale comes not as a big surprise but as a turn we're completely ready for. There's something to be said for giving the audience what it needs, instead of what you think it wants.



Comments

  • DarkKnightShyamalan says:

    OK, Movieline, it's time to come out and admit you hired Stephanie Zacharek as a prank on the readers. I admire your commitment to the bit -- it's downright Baron Cohen-esque -- but enough's enough.

  • George says:

    I agree. I think it's easy to forget how much work gets put into making movies. If it doesn't turn out great that's unfortunate, but I commend filmmaker's who follow their heart and their own ideas. I think it's pointless to do a straight retread. To sight an example, Transformers, not my cup of tea at all but at least Bay had no problem putting his stamp on it. Lots of people liked it, lots of people hated it. I didn't really like it but thought that there was a lot to appreciate visually. They really take the time to make the effects look genuine and there's something to be said for that. To me there are 2 types of people: people who create, and people who destroy. I'm happy to see that Night continues to do his own thing despite the punishment he takes from critics.

  • Guanxi says:

    The actual genders and races of what the elements represent are in Rodney St.Michael's book, Sync My World: Thief's Honor GA SK. (myconnected.webs.com)
    Air = Yellow "race" = male = scholars
    Water = Small Browns = female = shaman
    Earth = Blacks = lesbian = social ubuntu business class
    Fire = Whites = gay = military, militant business class
    Ether or Metal = Big Browns = bisexual = working class, bi-military
    (females & bis go together like Katara & Sokka or brown females and males)
    Therefore Aang should be Chinese.
    Katara should be a Malay like a Filipina.
    The Earth Kingdom should be African.
    Zuko should be White like Hitler, Alexander the Gay or Gen. Arthur McArthur.
    The Fire Nation's army should be like the fiery Sacred Band of Thebes (an ancient elite gay army that Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell troops would be envious of) or the Sturmabteilung, the much-feared homosexual stormtroopers of Hitler.
    And the Slumdog Millionaire (casted as Zuko) should be Sokka.
    This film is just as messed up as the movie Angels and Demons. The branding of the priests were incorrect.
    But anyway, from the guy who gave you the Sixth Sense, which did not portray childhood schizophrenia accurately or anywhere near the real world, what do you expect?
    Bisexuals love horror and terror. They also scam people, just like the Wizard of Oz. The old Oz film which is also about the Elements is understandably all-white because they were ignorant back then. People have higher standards now, and realism is a must.
    But M.Night, the Wizard of South Asia also has lessons for everyone after conning them:
    1) Clearly, when people don't play roles that fit them, everything is messed up. (e.g. "male" clergy in what should be a female realm, forbidding gays in the military which is their territory)
    2) Whites are not fit to play the leading roles of Air and Water in the world scene. Leave that to the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia).
    3) Arabs are not necessarily the greatest evil in the world. Occasionally, they float like Ether to the ranks of Water. It is fiery whites that fit the role of Lucifer or Satan.
    4) By acquiring objective reviews from leading critics, they have agreed themselves that these are all factual objective realities.
    Thus, the Wizard, even if he is a con man, is also an accidental pseudo teacher. Partly, it's called sunyata or "emptiness."

  • badjoojoo says:

    The Last Airbender is just The Last Straw. The protests aren't just about this one movie. This movie is just the latest in a long, consistent pattern of behavior in Hollywood casting offices. Hollywood seems to go out of its way to NOT cast Asian actors even in roles written for Asian characters (Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu have never been played by Asian actors in their long histories. John Wayne, Jack Palance, Omar Shariff and soon Mickey Rourke will play Genghis Khan.) White actors get to play roles specifically written for Asians but never the other way around. I'll buy all that "colorblind" rhetoric when Chow Yun Fat plays Alexander the Great, or Jet Li plays Napoleon (not holding my breath). Otherwise, its just business as usual at the bigoted Hollywood casting couch.

  • Scott Shimp says:

    my little brother and all his nerdy friends saw the midnight showing. they watch the cartoon. these are not people w/ refined tastes for cinema. they decided it was the WORST MOVIE EVER. people were yelling, laughing hysterically, and throwing popcorn at the screen when the credits rolled.
    .
    Stephanie I think you've failed to adequately warn people off of this. I suspect that working from movieline now you are under pressure to stop ripping on all the big budget pop action flicks and I understand that, but this was probably too generous.

  • Trace says:

    "these are not people w/ refined tastes for cinema. they decided it was the WORST MOVIE EVER"
    And yet you took THEIR side over an actual critic's?
    "people were yelling, laughing hysterically, and throwing popcorn at the screen when the credits rolled."
    This is supposed to be evidence of a terrible movie? Do you know how often stuff like that happens on opening weekend and in kid's movies in general? It happens all the time.
    People threw popcorn at the screen when I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox as well. Must be a terrible movie. Worst ever perhaps.

  • Trace says:

    It's not popular to like M. Night Shamylan, whether you're a professional critic or a common moviegoer. But I don't care. The Last Airbender was a perfectly adequete film, and M Night did well with what he had. It's a movie that must be viewed twice, because with all the narration and expositional dialogue, it's clear that M. is working for a very different tone, not your typical visceral or bombastic action-movie tone. It's the same reason people didn't like The Village; it's a character study, not a horror movie. But people wouldn't view it as anything other than a horror movie.
    He kept the good actors on screen as long as he could (hence why there are so many Fire Nation scenes), and kept the mediocre ones to the side (which is sad only if you like Aang's friends). No one says any character's name enough for any alleged mispronuciations to matter. And it certainly wasn't "exhausting". The A-Team is far more exhausting and far more creatively bankrupt. The kid who plays Aang was good, and the Fire Nation actors were good as well. CGI was great, action sequences were great. I was pretty pleased with it overall.

  • Annie says:

    "It's a movie that must be viewed twice, because with all the narration and expositional dialogue, it's clear that M. is working for a very different tone, not your typical visceral or bombastic action-movie tone."
    This is actually a large part of why the film was horrible and boring. So much of this film was made up of characters suddenly stopping what they were doing to unnaturally go into long diatribes informing each other about events they all already know are happening/have happened (which completely destroys the credibility of the world itself as a world that the characters actually inhabit), to enlighten the audience about events that never happen on screen. Writing your entire movie in exposition and voice-overs make you feel completely uninvested in the characters and the world, and, quite frankly, it breaks the number one cardinal rule of film-making: show don't tell.
    "He kept the good actors on screen as long as he could (hence why there are so many Fire Nation scenes), and kept the mediocre ones to the side (which is sad only if you like Aang's friends). "
    That's a horrible justification. Why were mediocre actors even cast in the first place? This movie should have had good actors in ALL the roles, especially with the kind of budget this movie was allotted. And if M. Night had had any respect for the original source material, none of those characters would have been boring or unlikeable because the original cartoon had them all fully crafted and multi-dimensional, unlike M. Night's completely bland and unrelatable characters.

  • Trace says:

    "So much of this film was made up of characters suddenly stopping what they were doing to unnaturally go into long diatribes informing each other about events they all already know are happening/have happened (which completely destroys the credibility of the world itself as a world that the characters actually inhabit), to enlighten the audience about events that never happen on screen. "
    You must have seen a different movie. Most of what was explained either already happened (in which case explanations were brief, within 10 seconds), or hadn't happened yet (in which case explanations were only slightly longer). And they never had to suddenly stop doing ANYTHING. They never stopped a battle scene to explain how all the Airbenders were vanquished or stopped a chase scene to explain how Katara and Sokka's parents disappeared. They touched briefly on Aang's adventures liberating the Earth villages because the story doesn't revolve around them.
    "Writing your entire movie in exposition and voice-overs make you feel completely uninvested in the characters and the world, and, quite frankly, it breaks the number one cardinal rule of film-making: show don't tell."
    The only event M. didn't show was Katara and Sokka's parents being dragged away. Otherwise, nothing is told that isn't shown (or that needs to be shown). As far as voice-overs go, the characters doing the voice-overs were by far the least interesting. You're not SUPPOSED to be too heavily invested in Katara and Sokka. That's not the interesting story here.
    And how else are people supposed to follow it? How are we supposed to know that Prince Zuko has parental issues unless he explains it to us? How are we supposed to know that Aang has trouble dealing with his responsibility as the Avatar unless he explains it to us?
    "That's a horrible justification. Why were mediocre actors even cast in the first place? This movie should have had good actors in ALL the roles, especially with the kind of budget this movie was allotted."
    That is such wishful thinking. It's a Nickelodean movie. You're not getting peak talent in a Nickelodean movie, even at that price. You're getting actors past their prime (like Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy) or you're getting up-and-comers who have something to prove (like most of the Airbender cast). Unless your name is Soderberg, you can't just pull great actors out of your ass. That so many performances in this movie worked is astounding. Dev Patel was perhaps a given, but who knew that a guy from the Daily Show could do menacing? Who knew that Noah Ringer could balance the angst and the lighthearted-ness without being goofy (which seems to be what most of these fanbois want)?
    The only mediocre performances came from Zokka and Katara, and once again, they're not all that interesting. Sure, we could waste hours and hours trying to shove unnecessary backstory into them and try to force chemistry between them and Aang, but what would be the point? They're just there for Aang to talk to until Prince Zuko inevitably joins their side. The interesting stories are with the Fire Nation and Aang, so the only ones who need fleshing out would be the ones whose stories really matter. Aang and the Fire Nation people are sufficiently fleshed out for an introductory movie. And really, that's all that needs to be fleshed out.
    "And if M. Night had had any respect for the original source material, none of those characters would have been boring or unlikeable because the original cartoon had them all fully crafted and multi-dimensional, unlike M. Night's completely bland and unrelatable characters."
    Like I said before, it's easy to "flesh out" characters when you've got hours and hours and hours to play with, but ultimately, it would just be filler. And for those who want a more playful tone like the series, Aang is a 12-year-old kid who A) has to deal with the grief of the destruction of his people, B) the inability to be particularly close to anyone thanks to his Avatar duties, and C) the Fire Nation invading the rest of the world. There's no room for the kind of comedy found in the cartoon series. M. is bringing out the subtext of such a situation, not burying it under slapstick (another thing which is easier to do in a cartoon than in real life). And who was bland besides Aang's sidekick buddies? No one. Certainly not Dev Patel's Prince Zuko. Not his uncle. Or anybody from the Fire Nation, for that matter.

  • Annie says:

    "You must have seen a different movie. Most of what was explained either already happened (in which case explanations were brief, within 10 seconds), or hadn't happened yet (in which case explanations were only slightly longer)."
    Perhaps we did see different movies because to me, it felt like an hour and a half of characters just dumping out facts in endless, awkward exposition. When characters start explanations to each other with lines like, "as you know.." (and multiple times at that), you know something is wrong with the storytelling.
    As MaryAnn Johanson of flickfilosopher.com so aptly puts it, "Here, it’s just people in vaguely exotic costumes telling one another about “the spirits” in the same way that we don’t ever walk up to random strangers and say, “As you know, Bob, Jesus died on the cross for our sins and for our free-market capitalism, and the nation of Whateveristan brings war upon us because of that.” These characters don’t live in their world -- perhaps because their world isn’t in the least bit real."
    "As far as voice-overs go, the characters doing the voice-overs were by far the least interesting. You're not SUPPOSED to be too heavily invested in Katara and Sokka. That's not the interesting story here."
    I agree with you that Katara and Sokka may not have been the central focus of Book 1, but I greatly disagree with the statement that you aren't supposed to be heavily invested in them. Just as much as Aang's development was a focus of Book 1 in the TV series, so was the development of the trio's friendship and trust in one another. You felt invested in them because they were friends, they were characters with personality, and they each contributed to the team in their own way. In the movie both Sokka and Katara just feel like they are tagging along so they can occasionally say or do something with the sole purpose of moving the plot forward.
    "And how else are people supposed to follow it? How are we supposed to know that Prince Zuko has parental issues unless he explains it to us? How are we supposed to know that Aang has trouble dealing with his responsibility as the Avatar unless he explains it to us?"
    There's such a thing called "subtlety". The audience should be able to read it from their actions, expressions, reactions, dialogues, etc., as they were able to do so through the animated series.
    Again, show and not tell.
    "That is such wishful thinking. It's a Nickelodean movie. You're not getting peak talent in a Nickelodean movie, even at that price. You're getting actors past their prime (like Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy) or you're getting up-and-comers who have something to prove (like most of the Airbender cast)."
    Peak talent =/= big names in high demand. You can get great actors and create a great character even if that actor is completely unknown. For example, look at Brandon Soo Hoo. He is a child actor who's first big speaking role was in the movie Tropic Thunder. Before that movie, I doubt anyone had even heard of him, but he still put on a great, comical performance that really helped solidify the movie.
    I agree that going with "up-and-comers who have something to prove" was a good choice for the child actors in this movie, but at least from their performances, I don't believe they were the best actors for the job and found almost all of them (with the except of Dev Patel) to be awkward and unbelievable in their action.
    (Although to be fair, that might not be entirely the actors' fault, as the direction of the acting is reliant on the instructions the director gives. So I do believe that M. Night must take a large part of the blame, as well.)
    "The only mediocre performances came from Zokka and Katara, and once again, they're not all that interesting. Sure, we could waste hours and hours trying to shove unnecessary backstory into them and try to force chemistry between them and Aang, but what would be the point? They're just there for Aang to talk to until Prince Zuko inevitably joins their side."
    Both Sokka and Katara were incredibly well-developed, fleshed-out, and interesting characters in the cartoon, and it didn't take endless backstory to do it. They were great characters in the television series simply because they actually HAD characterization and personality. A good test of characterization is if you can describe the character without talking about their background history, role in the story, or appearance. I can tell you that Sokka from the television series was funny, witty, a good leader, and a great strategist that is essential to his team. Katara is a strong female character that is always trying to push herself to new limits, and its with that determination that she proves that women can be great water bender warriors as well. From the movie, however, nothing about their personalities speak out and all I know about these two characters is that they are the Avatar's companions, they lost their parents, and Katara can waterbend. You are right when you describe them as uninteresting and characters you don't care about. But that's not who they were in the television series.
    "The interesting stories are with the Fire Nation and Aang, so the only ones who need fleshing out would be the ones whose stories really matter. Aang and the Fire Nation people are sufficiently fleshed out for an introductory movie. And really, that's all that needs to be fleshed out."
    I don't believe this at all. If the only characters in a story that had to be fleshed out were the central figures, why include side characters at all? Why not just have Aang be alone as he fights the Fire Nation? That kind of reasoning create supporting characters for the sole purpose of moving the plot along instead of actually trying to give them characterization and a reason to care about them. I believe you can have fleshed out and relatable, non-central-focus characters in a movie. Look at Toy Story 3, and all the different toys with distinct personalities that weren't Woody and Buzz. Look at Lord of the Rings and a lot of the members of the fellowship, like Aragorn and Boromir. Even in the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia and Han Solo were only side characters but they were interesting and engaged the audience. There are countless examples of supporting roles that have had fleshed out and developed characters because that it the proper way to tell an engaging story.
    "Like I said before, it's easy to "flesh out" characters when you've got hours and hours and hours to play with, but ultimately, it would just be filler."
    No, fleshing out characters doesn't need hours and hours of backstory, you just need to actually give them a personality instead of using them purely as plot-propelling vehicles.
    "And for those who want a more playful tone like the series, Aang is a 12-year-old kid who A) has to deal with the grief of the destruction of his people, B) the inability to be particularly close to anyone thanks to his Avatar duties, and C) the Fire Nation invading the rest of the world. There's no room for the kind of comedy found in the cartoon series. M. is bringing out the subtext of such a situation, not burying it under slapstick (another thing which is easier to do in a cartoon than in real life)."
    I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you on this. I believe one of the main reasons the show was so vibrant in color and had the humor and characterization it did was to show that, DESPITE the grim reality of the war and the huge amount of responsibility suddenly placed on Aang's shoulders, Aang and his friends still had that magical sense of optimism and confidence that might be special to younger kids, an optimism that I believe gave them the courage to face the challenges in front of them. Yes, Aang suddenly had to deal with a lot of pressure and responsibility, but in the end he was still a playful 12 year old boy with an innate sense of hope and optimism that helped inspire the people around him.
    The humor also helped show that the world was still turning even though the war was going on, and that life still went on for people of all the nations. The humor made the people in the show more relatable, showing that they were multi-faceted and had the range of emotions that real people have. When something bad happens in your life, you don't suddenly turn grim and somber all day every day; you can still smile at other aspects of your life, things your family or friends say to you, the strength you get from the people around you. Which is what the humor in the original series helped achieve. Hence the humor wasn't all cheap, "slapstick" humor, a lot of the humor from the show simply came from the Aang Gaang just being kids that you could relate to, having fun and bantering with each other, showing that they had the emotions of real people when they could draw humor from the moment and their daily life despite the constant looming of the war in the background.
    Also, I don't see where you get the idea that Aang has an "inability to be particularly close to anyone thanks to his Avatar duties"? Throughout the series he meets plenty of people that he becomes close to. At the very basic level, he has a group of friends and teammates that travel the world with him trying to stop the Fire Lord. One of the themes of the show has been that Aang needs his friends as much as they need him, and as the show progresses they quickly become like a family.
    "And who was bland besides Aang's sidekick buddies? No one. Certainly not Dev Patel's Prince Zuko. Not his uncle. Or anybody from the Fire Nation, for that matter."
    I agree that Dev Patel and Shaun Toub both did a good job as Zuko and Iroh, but they were the only two actors that did anything for me at all. I found every single other character to be bland and undeveloped, including Aang.

  • Annie says:

    Could you further elaborate on this? I can't think of a single example where an ethnic character represented by a white actor has still retained his ethnicity. I don't believe this is something that translates to live action so if you are talking about within the movie the white actors still being "Asian" characters, I wholeheartedly disagree, but within the realm of voice acting (such as the original TV series), I would agree with this statement.

  • Billy says:

    When something is awesome, its just accepted as that. No justification is required and consensus is usually quickly derived from a varied audience.
    Just the fact that the ones that think the movie was good are spending so much time defending their beliefs goes to show that, at the very least, the movie is definitely not on the level of awesome. And that's sad, as the television show definitely was.
    It's too bad that over the years, with all the criticism and expectation, M Night has developed such a strong need to prove himself and his work is suffering as a result. Its become more about 'telling ~his~ story' than it is about 'telling a good story' and if you lose that, then you lose focus on what's important as a director.
    Going back to watching the TV series. Ember Island Players here I come.

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