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The Last Airbender (2010)

A movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

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The Real Avatar

  • Dec 5, 2010
Pros: The opening element montage is directly out of the show

Cons: The humor and rounded characters were left back in the show

The Bottom Line: It's a great late-night movie after a bad day at work.

Zuko: "That... Wasn't a good play."
Aang: "I'll say."
Katara: "No kidding."
Suki: "Horrible."
Toph: "You said it."
Sokka: "But the effects were decent."
Avatar: The Last Airbender, "The Ember Island Players"

The above dialogue, from the penultimate episode of the classic Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, was already a wonderful conclusion to a very funny episode of the series. But reading it in the context of the M. Night Shyamalan movie adaptation makes it rolling-on-the-floor hilarious. Little doubt that many fans of the series who saw the movie were repeating it to themselves word for word upon walking out of the theater.

The Last Airbender is a tragedy. It displays just how close a bad movie can be to being a great movie. As a stand-alone, The Last Airbender could have worked on its own, gotten better reviews, and perhaps procured the necessary sequels. Despite the obvious cuts - Shyamalan was responsible for getting the first season of the show, a little under 20 half-hour episodes, scaled back to about 90 minutes - The Last Airbender follows the first season of Avatar quite faithfully. Some of these cuts are for the better; the anvilicious episode about the fighting tribes is thankfully absent, and Jet was given the boot as well. On the downside, we are deprived of the wonderful Suki, a one-off character from the first season who resurfaced in the second season to become a major supporting player right up until the series finale.

Those aren't the only things the movie is lacking. What helped the series work was the presence of character development, whimsy, and humor. The last two I'm open-minded enough to live without; this is, after all, the baby of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan's work is known well for being chilly and morose. Not that this is exactly a knock, because he's made some fantastic movies - I thought Unbreakable was highly underrated, and his indisputable classic, The Sixth Sense, hit me on a primal emotional level; I felt like he was telling the story of my childhood. So yeah, whimsy and humor I can go without in a silver screen adaptation. But I can't say the same for character development or depth.

The astounding depth of every character was a truly special aspect of the show. It took special pains to show its viewers of how complex people and beliefs can be. The aforementioned Jet, for example, began as a ragtag rebel who was badly wronged by the Fire Nation. His wanting to get back at them was understandable, but when he tried to take his revenge scheme to a village of innocent civilians who happened to be Fire Nation folk, he crossed the line. Katara's waterbending teacher initially refused to teach her because he was a chauvinist, but he ended up promoting her to be Aang's teacher. The show displayed supposed good guys who turned out to be bad, supposed bad guys who turned out to be good, and no matter how extreme their actions were, the characters always had understandable explanations for them.

The wonderfully vibrant world of Avatar has turned black and white for the movie. It's made into one of those fantastical classic clashes between good and evil. And as we all know, the more clear-cut the divisions between good and bad in fantasy, the worse and more ham-fisted every other aspect of the movie will be. This is where a shot of the show's wit and humor could have rescued the movie and really made something out of it. But the wit of the show is virtually nonexistent, and so what we get instead of dialogue is a 90-minute string of declarative sentences and statements:
Sokka: "Everybody can help us now!"
Iroh: "There are reasons each of us are born. We have to find those reasons."
How about this:
Yue: "We have to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs."
Then there's this:
Aang: "Earthbenders! Why are you acting this way! You are powerful and amazing people! You don't need to live like this! There is earth right beneath your feet! The ground is an extension of who you are!"
Yeah, you want to talk about terrible dialogue? We're entering George Lucas territory here. Shyamalan also appears to have taken pointers from Lucas in how to handle his actors this time out, which means the above lines are all uttered without a single shred of conviction.

Much of the character interaction in The Last Airbender feels forced, and sometimes even shoehorned in, and the dialogue just elevates that feeling. There's no real chemistry between any of the characters. Although Aang tells Zuko at one point that they could be friends, he waits until besting Zuko in bending combat to say that, and so no viewer could really get that feeling. So much about the interactions are stilted and rigid to the point where it's easy to believe the actors were all manufactured by Acme. Since the entire fantasy genre is collectively marred with horrendous dialogue, moviegoers rely on the portrayals and chemistry to engross them in the story. The original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies are two spot-on examples of how the actor dynamic can save a really bad script. Both of them got it absolutely right. The TV show also understood this. The Last Airbender makes me wonder if the studio was trying to save money by not running screen tests.

The result is that the characters in the movie, in wild contrast to their differing, growing, and rounded TV personalities, are all bland. They even all talk with the same monotonous drone. Katara, who spat some of the most humorously sarcastic and underhanded witticisms of the show with great regularity, is given a job a narration job which makes her come off as the humorless apprentice of Captain Obvious. Series complainer/clown/butt-monkey Sokka, who grows into a role as the group's idea guy, is only funny in the movie at the expense of everyone else (and in only a few instances). Iroh's great world wisdom, huge heart, and deep respect for other Tribes are buried under a steely exterior in the movie, not a dry observant humor and slight hedonism like the show. Aang got encased in ice after running away from his destiny as the Avatar because he wanted to be the kid he was. In the series, even after getting serious, he never let anyone forget he was a mischievous kid. In the movie, he's more like a depressed, angst-ridden adult in his 20's, trapped in the body of a kid. (Technically, he is, of course, 112 years old, but still...)

The Last Airbender takes place in a world where people can manipulate, or "bend," the four elements and live in nations based on those elements. It is about two kids, Katara and Sokka, who find a boy named Aang frozen in ice. Aang is the last of the Air Nomads, who were wiped out when the Fire Nation decided to take control of the whole planet. He also happens to be the next Avatar, who is responsible for keeping the world in balance by mastering all four elements. He is already a powerful airbender, but he needs to go to the three remaining tribes to master the three other elements and send the Fire people running back to their continent. The TV show ran for three seasons, with each season revolving around Aang's attempts to master a single element. The movie was clearly introduced to run the same pattern, as it, like the show's first season, is about Aang going to the northern Water Tribe to learn waterbending. They are pursued by Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, who has been banished from his country and is trying to capture the Avatar to win his honor back.

The Last Airbender is one of those rare movies in which a longer running time could have been beneficial to understanding it better. Without taking time to develop the characters, the movie almost rushes to its conclusion, which begins around the 50-minute mark, and yes I even looked that up. They reach the northern Water Tribe at that time, and it's there where the climax really begins, and the characters haven't had the time to learn or grow. (Except for Zuko, although his doing that is still pretty arguable.)

The movie almost comes off as a montage. They certainly get to some of the major points of the show, including visits to the Air Temples and the rescue of a group of imprisoned earthbenders. (The earthbender imprisonment scene is where your suspended disbelief will drop. It happened in the show too, but in the movie they were in an earth prison, literally standing on top of millions of tons of their element and just needing to hear an inspirational phrase. AANG EVEN POINTS THAT OUT. In the show, they needed inspiring also, but they were also trapped in a metal prison in the ocean, where they couldn't access any earth. Just another small detail that made the show so awesome.) In between them, Aang spends a lot of time in the spirit world. The spirit world scenes are a bit too prevalent and they really don't serve a whole lot of function.

To his credit, M. Night Shyamalan can still direct. The visual sequences in The Last Airbender are very stunning and comparable to the imaginative action scenes from the show, which is in no way a small feat. But for the most part, this seriously looks like a case of the wrong director being used for the wrong movie. Shyamalan knows how to direct actors to fit in with his movies' styles and atmospheres. We've seen it. The problem is that Shyamalan's style requires an atmosphere of mystery and emotional coldness and repression, and his story for this movie goes completely against his type. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a story largely driven by emotional attachments. It revels in joy, anger, frustration, sadness, elation, and others in very powerful ways. Shyamalan's greatest mistake is in not even trying to adapt his style to the story, but trying to make the story fit his style.

If the studio goes ahead and greenlights the planned sequels to The Last Airbender, then the next movie will revolve around Aang learning to be an earthbender. This also means that my favorite character in the entire series, Toph, will be introduced. But if Shyamalan is still attached to the project, I cringe to imagine how she might turn out.


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More The Last Airbender reviews
review by . July 02, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Indifferent Storytelling and Clumsy Direction Makes This Film Rather Dull!
I have always said that like him or not, M. Night Shymalan makes an effort to try to be original. Yes he does, but lately, it can be said that he is experiencing a sort of a creative slump, that his latest movies have become more of a miss than a hit. The last movie that I really liked from him was “Unbreakable” and that has been such a long time ago. People then began to become disappointed with Shymalan‘s “The Village” and his recent film “The Happening” …
review by . January 22, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
* out of ****     As if "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening" weren't enough to concern us of director M. Night Shyamalan's current mental state, "The Last Airbender" essentially confirms that the man we once loved has officially gone mad. This is the man's first revoltingly unwatchable feature; merged with that now complete feeling of pretentiousness that's been building up faster and faster as Shyamalan's movies have been getting lamer and lamer. I mean, at least "The Happening" …
review by . December 14, 2010
I have one word respect. None of which is in M. Night Shamalayn's The Last Airbender. Not only does it not give respect towards the original work but there is no respect between the characters in the picture. Watching Airbender made me so nauseous that I felt like throwing up my popcorn. And believe me, it's that bad.      The Last Airbender is the culmination of season 1, dubbed Book 1, of the hit nickelodeon series Avatar: the Last Airbender. Sadly because of the super …
review by . December 16, 2010
As a great fan of the original animated series, of course I had high expectations for this movie. And it was agonizing.      There are so many problems in this movie that I don't even know how to begin. Let's start with the most obvious. Oh, wait I still don't know what the most obvious is. But well, the first problem that really began to disturb me are the fights. If you've seen the original cartoon you know how awesome the fights are. They are exciting and …
review by . July 21, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
1/2 a star :
Long ago in a forgotten land there were four nations Earth, Air, Fire and Water the four fabled nations lived in peace and harmony with one another that is until the ruthless and power hungry fire nation declared war on the three other nations. Only the fabled AVATAR the master of all four elements could stop them but when he was needed the most he vanished, for a hundred years, the Fire nation ruled thinking that the only threat that had   the power to defeat them was long deceased. …
review by . July 01, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Ever since seeing "The Sixth Sense," my nature has been to resist the films of M. Night Shyamalan. I have to admit that now. I'm aware of his technical skills and his ability to build tension, and yet something within me finds his work profoundly unappealing. I go in with an open mind, but then, minute by minute, it seems as if he's purposely trying to push me away with his unreasonably slow pacing, his amateurish dialogue, his bizarre character development, his ill-fitting sense of humor, and in …
review by . July 06, 2010
The Last Airbender? Could be Possible
The Last airbender is a live action adaptation on a nickelodeon tv show Avatar: The last Airbender. Now the show was devided into three seasons and this film adaptaion was directed by the sixth sense director M. Night Shyamalan. Now i have to say i did like the movie but i can see why other people did not. For those who watched the cartoon the end of season 1 with the water nation vs the fire nation battle was one of the biggest events in the series but i thought the friendship between Sokka …
review by . July 15, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
When I first heard that this series was being made into a movie I was very excited. Then, however, I learned that M. Night Shyamalan was directing the movie...I was afraid that it would bomb because Shyamalan's latest films have not been the greatest. As soon as the first scene played in front of me, I knew that it was as bad as I expected it to be. First of all, Shyamalan change the pronunciation of many of the character's names. Watching further I found that many of the scenes were precise …
review by . August 30, 2010
If for no other reason, The Last Airbender will bomb in British cinemas for a very childish one: someone forgot to research local playground slang.    At a moment of critical plot exposition early in the film a character motions to the mysteriously tattooed child Aang, who has just demonstrated awe-inspiring mystical skills, and portentously asks an elder:"when did you realise he was a bender?"    What little spell director M. Night Shyamalan had mustered …
review by . December 01, 2010
The Last Airbender staring Dev Patel and Noah Ringer and directed by M. Night Shyamalan is an adventure film that takes place in a fantasy world. There are different tribes and each has the ability to control one of four elements: air, water, earth and fire. The "Avatar" is the one person who can control all four at the same time.       The Avatar disappeared and many believed that he was dead. When a brother and sister find a boy frozen in ice, they soon learn that …
About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston ()
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this movie


The Last Airbender is an action-adventure fantasy film released on July 2, 2010. It is a live-action film adaptation  based on the first season  of the animated television series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first of a planned trilogy, it will be produced by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. The series, influenced by Asian art, mythology and various martial arts fighting styles, was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and was adapted by M. Night Shyamalan, who will also direct and produce the film along with Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Sam Mercer and Scott Aversano. Filming began in mid-March 2009; the movie is scheduled to be released on July 2, 2010 in both traditional two-dimensional projectors, as well as in 3D.

Poster art for "The Last Airbender."

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Runtime: 103 minutes
Studio: Paramount

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"Elemental, My Dear Shyamalan"
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