I Watched This So You Don’t Have To — The Last Airbender

Posted: September 6, 2010 in Eric Raymer, Film, Reviews
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[Reviewed by: Eric Raymer] 

"They want you to be their avatar... We all do." 

I knew nothing about this film before seeing it. It was a Tuesday, I was bored, and honestly, it was the best thing playing at the cheap theater that I hadn’t already seen. It was this or Marmaduke – can you blame me? As I said, all I knew about The Last Airbender aside from the fact that it was universally loathed by critics was that it was based on a cartoon and that it was “from the mind of” triple-threat writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan. Oh, and there was some martial arts and magic. Honestly, how bad could it be? 

There’s a prologue at the beginning of the movie that’s read by a girl who sounds genuinely surprised at some of the things it contains. I wondered if they let her see it beforehand or if she was reading it for the first time. Anyway, when the film really opens we follow a boy and a girl around an arctic landscape for a little while before they see something strange in the ice. The boy hits the ice with a boomerang-thing and is surprised when it starts to crack. This is just the first in many incomprehensible decisions throughout the film. 

It turns out that there’s a bald kid trapped in a giant ice ball along with Falkor the luck dragon from The Neverending Story. When the two ice-kids ask him what the hell he’s doing down there, he replies that he just wandered away from home and fell into the water. They both seem to accept this as a logical explanation and then take him back to their village. Dev Patel (you know, the guy from Slumdog Millionaire) is there with some soldiers, and you can tell he’s evil because he shouts every line and looks REALLY ANGRY. He’s also after the bald kid, which is super convenient for the plot, because hey, the other kids just found him! 

What I remember from the rest of the film is as follows: 

  • The bald kid turns out to be the Avatar (pronounced AH-vatar in this movie), who is important because he can control every kind of magic in the world. Only he can’t yet, but that doesn’t matter.
  • The Fire Nation is evil because they make machines. Or do they make machines because they’re evil? In any case, they used their machines to take over the rest of the world, which consists of various ethnic minorities plus the three inexplicably white kids who are (obviously) our protagonists.
  • To do magic in this world, people have to jump and flail around in some sort of interpretive dance before anything really happens. It’s okay though, because usually the bad guys will be content to just watch until a huge blast of poorly rendered CG blows them away.
  • The kids wander around aimlessly for most of the movie and end up saving a ton of villages from the handful of Fire Nation soldiers that occupy them. The villagers can use dirt-magic, but are apparently too dumb to realize that the ground is made of dirt. The bald kid tells them that they are “powerful and amazing people” and then they chase away the Fire soldiers by hurling a couple of CG rocks at them.
  • Eventually everyone decides to travel to a city made completely of ice. For some reason they think this is the safest place to be while fighting the Fire Nation. Unsurprisingly, it’s invaded from every conceivable angle since the bad guys can just melt or drill through any wall.
  • Inside the ice palace there’s an ice princess with white hair and a really phallic hairdo. Some magic fish also live there. One of the bad guys stabs a magic fish, which turns the sky red. The princess reveals that her hair is white because the fish put magic in it and that she has to give the fish back their magic to save them. This will kill her, but she justifies it by explaining “We have to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” While this is all happening, the bald kid decides it’s a great time to meditate. He goes into a trance, and is kidnapped by Dev Patel.
  • Spoiler Alert: The day is saved when the bald kid realizes it’s okay to have emotions. This gives him maximum power and he threatens all the bad guys by summoning a huge wave. They all run away, but aren’t too worried because there’s a comet coming in a few years that will give them extra magic powers and let them defeat the good guys.

Watching this movie feels like playing a game of make-believe with a kid who won’t stop inventing rules. We’re asked to passively accept countless illogical events and are rewarded only by info-dumps that don’t explain anything relevant. This cinematic Calvinball isn’t even the worst thing about the film. What makes The Last Airbender truly bad is the pacing. There’s never any tension, we aren’t given a single reason to care about the characters, and somehow even the battle scenes are boring. Instead of scenes which will let us get to know the characters a little better, we get instant exposition via voiceover. The worst example is when the ice-boy meets the ice princess and they instantly fall in love. We know they are in love because the voiceover explains that they “quickly became very good friends.” There’s not a single scene motivating their romance – it just happens for no reason at all. 

Is there anything redeeming here? Not really. The action is occasionally interesting, but usually falls flat due to some really lazy use of CG effects or bad pacing. Every scene is taken way too seriously by the actors, none of whom seem like they could act, even with a good script at their disposal. Most kids’ films have a little bit of humor or levity, but not this one, save for some pretty hilarious bad dialogue. Even then, there’s not quite enough to justify sitting through almost two hours of it. Did Shyamalan really believe he was making an “important” film? It sure seems like it, but the only way this one will ever be taken seriously is as a textbook example of what not to do as a filmmaker. I don’t entirely regret seeing The Last Airbender, but I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else. 

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Comments
  1. Sydney Freeman says:

    Such a shame this movie sucks. The show is so much better.

  2. Kimbo says:

    If your really interested in good martail arts and magic watch the show it’s amazing. The movie is so bad it’s almost a spoof of the show. I implore you to watch the animated series and you will like, maybe even love it. Great review had me LMAO

  3. Eric says:

    Everyone I’ve talked to who watched the series really liked it. Maybe I’ll check it out sometime, although I might have to wait a while to let my memories of this one fade away.

  4. MoreKilmer says:

    Sigh. This movie is a huge stain on the show. It gave it such a bad rep, A:TLA is, IMO, the best animated show of all time and definitely up there in just plain the best TV show of all time. Fantastic story, world-building, acting, and character development. And then there is this shitty movie behind it…looming…augh. Review made me laugh, but also brought back some dark memories. Seeing that movie was a huge mistake…

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