The Last Airbender Review

The first step of any fantasy story is world-building. Establish the mythology that the characters believe in and then unfold those characters accordingly and in ways that make revealing use of the world around them. While it tends to make for a slightly slower first half of a film, if done correctly the film’s climax and conclusion can pack quite a wallop and leave the door wide open for sequels. Great fantasy and science-fiction films alike rely heavily on this practice, and it would have served M. Night Shyamalan well if he’d followed it for The Last Airbender. Because believe it or not, it doesn’t matter if the film is based on a cartoon series with a loyal following; if you don’t take the time to recreate the world as richly as the original material, there’s no guarantee the fans will embrace it. The Last Airbender deserves no such acceptance. From the first few scenes it does everything wrong thanks to inept storytelling, a truly miserable cast of young actors, and a director who proves with every film that the films that put him on top were strokes of luck and not necessarily genius.

Were the film not such a miserable pile of dreck, The Last Airbender would be the first of four chapters in a story about a world divided between four nations: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. The elements form the basis for tribal divides as the people of each have the potential, although only a few manifest it, to control the element of their people. Waterbenders can control water; Firebenders control fire, and so on. Now, since the powers seem at first to be aligned in a four-way game of rock-paper-scissors where each tribe could potentially be weak to one element while holding power over another, this notion quickly falls away as the fire nation has become a military juggernaut and seeks to rule the world by conquering all the other elemental tribes. They’ve already wiped out the passive air tribe (supposedly the most powerful of all elements) and now they’re doing maintenance as they prepare for a massive military strike against a water tribe stronghold – a battle precipitated by the reappearance of the Avatar, a bender that can potentially control all four elements. Awoken just in time to be captured by the fire army, Aang the Avatar (Noah Ringer), like the Jedi prophesied to bring balance to the force, has the potential to usher in an era of peace by learning to harness the four elements and help battle the overwhelming might of the fire army. His journey sees him aided by his two discoverers from the water tribe, Katara and Sokka (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, respectively) and pursued by an exiled Fire Tribe prince (Dev Patel), whose honor can only be restored by capturing the Avatar.

Incompetence reigns supreme when it comes to the talent involved in making The Last Airbender. M. Night Shyamalan directed a film with no tact in telling a cogent story or in developing its characters in a way that makes us care about their fates at any given point. His cast of young hopefuls seems devoid of any real personality, and it feels like an echo of the lifeless performances we saw from Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels. Emotion runs on the surface level and any hope of making up for the script and director’s poor development of the characters dies as the young thespians deliver lines with all the conviction of a blank-faced table reading. It looks and sounds like they’re reading the script for the first time.

Visually the film has a few sweeping shots, but otherwise it’s a hodgepodge of below-average looking special effects as the characters cause wind, fire, water, and earth to dance in painfully outdated CGI displays. You’ve seen better special effects in films that came out two years ago and the film’s debut on Blu-ray doesn’t help its case. Sure, it might boost the sights and sounds, but those are two things the film would be better off hiding. This is the kind of film that should look fantastic in hi-def, but when crafted as poorly as The Last Airbender, it’s more likely to be an argument against hi-def than for it.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The combo pack includes the film on Blu-ray, DVD and as a digital copy along with featurettes about the making of the film, a guide to the creation of the climactic battle scene, and where the original cartoon got its start. From there you can move on to an outtake reel, deleted scenes, and, a feature I thought had been phased out completely, select scene commentaries. Either record a feature-length commentary or go home. Don’t go a quarter of the way like this. I would have been much more interested to hear Director Shyamalan explain a lot of his poor creative choices just so I could begin to fathom what he thought he was doing right.

"The Last Airbender" is on sale November 16, 2010 and is rated PG. Adventure, Fantasy. Directed by M Night Shyamalan. Written by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Noah Ringer.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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