If anything was destined to invoke the ire of critics and audiences back in 2010, it was either a misguided attempt to realise a beloved anime in live action or the latest effort from fallen twist-meister M. Night Shyamalan whose career seemed to be plumbing ever lower low points with every subsequent release. Imagine then the perfect storm of “nope” that was formed when the beleaguered director shifted gears and entered the realms of the fantasy summer blockbuster with an adaption of the Nickelodeon animated series.
Maybe everyone should have quit while they were behind when they found that they couldn’t use the show’s original title, Avatar: The Last Airbender, thanks to a certain James Cameron movie that performed rather well at the box office. Nevertheless Shyamalan forged ahead and managed to produce one of the most maligned blockbusters of recent times, but is The Last Airbender really that bad? Well, as someone who’s never seen the original show, I’m probably not the best one to judge – but is the damn thing at least watchable?
Over the past hundred years the war-like Fire Nation has been picking fights and have attempted to gain dominion over the other nations, more peaceful nations of air, water and earth that make up the rest of the world. Each nation has the power to manipulate their respective elements and are referred to as benders (not a term that translated particularly in England), but there is one who is said to be the Avatar, an air bender who has the ability to manipulate all four elements like a bartender mixing a mojito.
Wannabe water bender Katara and her dim older brother Sokka, live with the Southern Water Tribe and one day a young, bald kid named Aang and his pet flying bison are disgorged from their resting place from within an iceberg. Aang, unsurprisingly, is this generation’s Avatar, but the headstrong little slaphead never actually bothered to learn how to bend the other elements, renouncing his destiny due to its restrictive responsibilities and subsequently getting stuck in an iceberg for 100 years.
This would be a pain in the buttski at the best of times, but Zuko – disgraced prince of the Fire Nation; not John Travolta’s character from Grease – is on a mission to capture Aang and deliver him to his abusive father in order to regain face and once again join his family.
As Aang, Katara and Soto move from village to village and slowly free each one from their occupation of Fire Nation troops, Zuko finds he’s in a race against Commander Zhao, who wants to enslave the Avatar first, thus denying Zuko’s quest for forgiveness. Can Aang and his friends – ugh… you know what, I don’t really care and neither will you.
I was aware of the near universal distain that exist for this movie and while a truly impressive 3% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t something to sneeze at, I figured there was a chance that most of it was fan-related anger that I may have been immune from. Ha! So much for that idea…
I’ve never seen so much as a frame of animation of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, yet I was aware that those who loved the show, truly loved the show in a way that genuinely didn’t seem to veer into the realms of the toxic. However, their devotion to the epic storylines and three dimentional characters were repaid with a leaden, stupid – and at times – offensive adaptation that showed Shyamalan had taken to big budget, franchise filmmaker like a water balloon takes to acupuncture.
It’s tough for a Airbending newbie to pinpoint exactly where the movie aggressively screws the pooch (or flying bison if that’s your preference), but for a guy who usually has a good idea what constitutes a good story, it’s my opinion that nothing’s gone right with this abortive attempt to retell the story with actual fleshy people. The story gallops off at a speed that rushes through important points and instantly turns them into boring mush while never giving you the chance to catch up or even care and worse yet, it takes characters that fans truly love and reduces them all, bland, blank eyed – well, avatars in order to keep the unnecessarily labyrinthine plot moving as its ungainly pace. Bizarrely enough, Shyamalan gets his cast read their lines less like actual, human people (surely the point of making a sodding live-action adaptation in the bloody first place) and instead has them weirdly portray their characters like they’re reading a first pass voice-over for an animated show. Of course, this stylised intention would work if the words the poor cast were speaking wasn’t absolute drivel, but if you thought that Shyamalan’s dialogue for 2021’s Old was on the nose, the writer director surpasses himself here, insisting on having everyone say each other’s names in every goddamm sentence in the hope that you won’t forget and having them painstakingly explain their every move like they’re bender-splaining to idiots.
It’s truly stunning that the man who wrote The Sixth Sense has produced this patience straining storytelling and to endure it is at time legitimately painful, but things still may have been salvaged if the action involving the actual bending was exciting, but watching actors wave their arms about extravagantly in order to have elements weave through the air like snakes make you wonder why someone doesn’t simply run up to them while their performing their slow-moving theatrics and simply punch them in the face.
So, a waste of time all round, then and certainly the nadir of Shyamalan’s relentlessly hot and cold running quality control, it’s a timely reminder that all the talent in the world doesn’t mean dick if the man calling the shots doesn’t have a tangible connection with the source material. If one good thing came from this debacle, it’s that the planned trilogy was nixed and everyone (including us) could move on with their lives, although there’s the lingering threat of an upcoming Netflix adaption that surely couldn’t be a bad as this… could it?
A much loved animated series is fired into the trash and the hopes of fans are thrown into the air thanks to a director who simply can’t hold his water. Yeah… you know what, this movie doesn’t even warrant me trying to belabour this element gag any further – so I’ll just type earth, we’ll all get on with our day and we’ll stop getting bent out of shape.