The Last Airbender (2010)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone
Reviewing adaptations is often difficult because there’s always that inevitable tension between the product and the original. Rabid fans are almost impossible to avoid whenever an adaptation is released in cinemas, glaring at the screen with their overly critical eyes, source material reviewed the night before, ready to heroically and intelligently point out why changing the colour of the main character’s hair is literally the worst thing ever. How cutting that one scene of that one character making his bed renders the story unintelligible. How the Scouring of the Shire is actually really super important (it’s not). It’s not like I’m not guilty of this: the Harry Potter franchise is rather difficult for me to watch, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that a lot of my complaints are totally superficial. I want to lay out my potential bias here because I love the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show. It’s entertaining, funny, clever, meaningful, earnest, beautiful and just generally a great story. So seeing it adapted to the big screen puts me in a difficult situation in which I have to consciously recognise my attachment to the source material, shelve that attachment, and approach the adaptation on its own terms – so that I don’t call it terrible from the outset simply because that one character I like isn’t in it.
Luckily, it manages to be terrible all on its own!
For those who don’t know, the original series Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a fictional world in which people can manipulate (‘bend’) the elements (Water, Air, Earth and Fire), where balance and peace is maintained by the Avatar, the only person who can bend every element. And yes, every possible joke about ‘benders’ has already been made a million times before, so grow up you sniggering, childish half-wits. The story follows Aang (the eponymous ‘airbender’), a young, carefree Avatar who wakes from cryogenic sleep to find his entire culture annihilated and tasked with the responsibility of ending a World War started by the ruthless Fire Nation…which makes more sense when you watch it, I promise. The Last Airbender is an adaptation of the first and coincidentally weakest season – the season where the show was finding its feet; where it chose to focus on singular character stories rather than a single propulsive narrative arc – culminating in a climax which works nicely as its own story but not as the conclusion to an entire season. So naturally adapting it to the big screen – into one, cohesive story – is a difficult task. One at which M. Night Shyamalan fails miserably.
He’s decided to craft the plot true to the peripatetic nature of Aang’s journey in the series, while also having no idea how to turn said journey into something coherent and investing. The story is largely episodic in nature, with no overarching narrative to follow apart from a ham-fisted character arc about Aang accepting his responsibility or some shit, which is both clumsy and lazy in its execution. There’s no understanding of narrative momentum or cause and effect. The script has all the pacing of fresh road kill; our heroes move from place to place for no reason other than the script demands it, with each scene strung together with expository narration delivered with all the cadence and rhythm of a history textbook being cut in half with a chainsaw. Character goes here. Character describes their journey there. Character does something. Character goes somewhere else. Repeat… This is literally how the entire films plays out. Shyamalan has elected to ignore the ‘character drives plot’ approach to storytelling, instead choosing to go for the ‘I’m going to rub my dick on the keyboard and see what shows up on screen’ school of thought. It would be fine if each individual ‘episode’ was interesting, or added anything of meaning to the plot/characters – except they don’t. You could literally cut any scene apart from the climax and there would be no tangible difference. In fact, fuck it – cut the climax. In fact, fuck it – cut the entire film. Every five minutes I was tempted to pause the film and leave to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry or getting lobotomised.
Speaking of surgically removing all human characteristics – the characters. To draw parallels between the heroes of this film and blocks of wood would be inaccurate – after all, I’ve seen some mighty fascinating blocks of wood in my time. The performances in this film approach Twilight levels of rigidity. People speak like they’re reading lines off a teleprompter… No, that’s not right – they read lines as though they are teleprompters, which is an apt comparison because this film is so damn mechanical. I’m actually willing to forgive the performances, because there was really nothing the actors could do with this script. The vast majority of the main characters in this film have no true motivations, goals, fears, desires, wants, needs – in essence, nothing which would help them connect with the audience in any way, shape or form. They don’t even have any surface charm to them – no humour or likeability. Even people like Shaun Toub and Dev Patel – who have proven that they are good actors – come across as lifeless and dull. Half of the dialogue is bland, meaningless exposition, designed to explain the lore to newcomers (instead of conveying the information dramatically and trusting your audience to figure it out on their own) out of some misplaced sense of obligation, not because it serves an overall purpose. The film is crammed with so much explanation and information I felt like there would be a test once the credits started rolling. Maybe Shyamalan fed the Wikipedia page for the original series through a random-word generator and slapped ‘Final Draft’ and his name on the front. And then shat on it.
Well, at least the film is visually interesting… oh hang on, that’s the lobotomy talking. The cinematography ranges from serviceable to lazy – for example, multiple shots are composed with the camera jammed in an actor’s face as though Shyamalan is afraid we’ll want to know how many eyelashes they have; other shots – typically fight scenes – are composed of long, uninterrupted takes all for the sake of ‘suspense’ or ‘tension’, which only work if what’s going on screen is interesting or meaningful, which is pretty much the opposite of what’s going on here (well, they can work for a host of other reasons, but let’s not go into that right now – point is, they don’t work here). In fact, the action scenes in general are just terrible. Shyamalan has made the baffling decision to have benders do intricate little dances before each strike (no, NO JOKES), instead of simply having the elements move in tandem with the combatants, which results in several occasions where one person will be jumping about and waving their arms around to build up their attack, while their opponent will literally just stand there waiting to be attacked. Like, they’ll stand there and act menacing and bare their teeth while a twelve-year-old with a stick spends at least five whole seconds dancing around to build up his attack. In an interview Shyamalan once called this film a ‘martial arts movie’, which I find hilarious because it would put this stilted, boring nonsense in the same ballpark as films like The Raid and Drunken Master.
As you can probably tell, this film frustrates me.
It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be; most of the response from people who haven’t seen the show has been to the effect of ‘Eh. That was bad. Time to move on with my life.’ It doesn’t seem to provoke the same vitriol as, say, the latest Transformers outing. Fans of the show however have had a slightly more… aggressive response. Myself included. I have tried to shelve my bias as much as possible, but I simply can’t help it. And in my defence, this isn’t just a matter of tangible details (e.g. the name pronunciations, the firebending, the lack of Spirit World) – it’s the fact that Shyamalan has taken every single aspect of the original show which connected with people – the depth of character, the meaningful storytelling, the humour, the energy, the fun, the philosophy – and either handled it in completely the wrong way or thrown it out of the window entirely. It’s as if you ask your neighbour to look after your dog while you go away from the weekend, and when you get back you find out your neighbour has killed, disembowelled and skinned your dog, and has proceeded to hang it up in his living room under the guise of ‘art’. Fuck you, M. Night Shyamalan, that’s not art, that’s my dog!
So, to conclude, this film is a terrible mess that will either piss you off or bore you silly. Give it a miss.