Saturday, July 28, 2018

Second Look - The Last Airbender

Note: This review contains spoilers for both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Last Airbender.

Thinking back on my original review of The Last Airbender by M. Night Shyamalan, I realized that it was a bit immature and didn’t really go into that much detail about the movie. In light of this, I have decided to re-watch the movie in order to give it a more proper review, this time after having actually watched the entirety of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon on which it is based, as well as Book One of its sequel series, The Legend of Korra.

The four elements (Water, Earth, Fire, Air) lived in harmony, until everything changed when the Fire Nation began to seize control over the other Nations. Years later in the Southern Water Tribe, a Waterbender (one who can control water) named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) happen upon a boy who was frozen underwater for over 100 years. This young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), turns out to be the last of the Airbenders (ones who can control air) as well as the long-disappeared Avatar, the only one who can control all four elements and who is destined to bring balance to the world. While Aang seeks to master the other elements in the cycle, starting with Waterbending, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) from the Fire Nation seeks the Avatar for himself to regain his honor.

Aang (Noah Ringer), both the Avatar and the last surviving Airbender.

The general story of the movie covers the events of Book One of the source cartoon. In theory. On its own, the movie has sort of an odd pacing, often feeling like a lot is happening and at the same time not, causing it to at times come off as slow and boring. Sometimes scene transitions seem non-existent, filled in occasionally by narration, though it’s to the point where it may as well have made liberal use of a “Scene Missing” title card as a placeholder. Further exacerbating this is events being brought up that either weren’t shown on-screen or just come out of nowhere, as well as things just simply being explained very poorly. At one point on their travels (the reason for which goes unexplained until after they’re already at an Earth Tribe village), Aang mentions seeing maps that we’re only told Sokka has and a raid on a Great Library is only spoken of and never shown. At another point there’s suddenly talk of a Moon Spirit that only gets explained later, as if you’re supposed to already know what it is.

As an adaptation, the movie feels like what happens if you press “Play All” on the Book One DVD and then just skip random episodes for no discernable reason. Many of the aforementioned scene transitions feel like important events or even entire episode plots were skipped, leaving some plot holes and abrupt time jumps. Some plot holes are introduced by events that were either added for the movie or were altered from their original context. For example, the movie introduces an Avatar Test that allowed the Fire Nation to figure out Aang was the Avatar by having him bend the other elements, yet he later says he can only Airbend, leaving one to wonder how he was able to pass the test in the first place.

Zuko (Dev Patel, left) and Iroh (Shaun Toub, right) giving Aang the
(unnecessary) Avatar Test.

One scene taken from the cartoon has a group of captured Earthbenders (ones who can control earth) unable to Earthbend, leaving Aang to raise their spirits again to fight back against the present members of the Fire Nation. The problem with this scene is that, whereas the Earthbenders were captured on a metal ship in the cartoon (as Metalbending, an extension of Earthbending, wasn’t discovered yet), they are instead captured on land (aka Earth) in the movie, making it seem as though Aang is instead calling them out for being idiots (not to mention the infamous “pebble dance”, more on that later).

There’s also an alteration in how Firebending (controlling fire) works. In the original cartoon, Firebenders are able to create and control fire out of thin air, or even simply channel heat through their hands. In this movie, Firebending instead requires fire to be already present, with General Iroh’s (Shaun Toub) ability to create fire treated as a major plot twist. Not only does this make the Fire Nation seem like much less of a threat than they were in the source material, it also creates another small plot hole since Zuko is at one point seen being able to channel heat into his hands to break through ice.

Casting choices aside, the acting in the movie leaves something to be desired. Either through inexperience or poor direction, the acting comes off more often than not as being somewhat stilted or wooden, leading to the idea that the movie is just going through the motions in regards to the original story. Many scenes in the movie lend to this idea as well, such as a bit from the show where Aang is captured by the Fire Nation and then rescued, as though the movie felt like it “had to” be in there as opposed to making it feel more like part of the story.

The special effects also leave something to be desired, as though the effects themselves wanted to get things over with. The Fire- and Waterbending effects are somewhat decent, though the Earthbending was a bit disappointing. While the Earth Tribe is able to perform moves displayed in the show, the most impressive effect is making a temporary wall of earth while a very laughable sequence is the aforementioned “pebble dance” bit; the fact that a wall takes only one Earthbender to create while a small rock requires at least six to manipulate seems to make the Earthbenders look as weak as, if not weaker, than the Firebenders in the movie. I can’t say much about the Airbending, since the usage is rather minimal, though the effects seen were at least okay.

Did this really need six people?

An issue commonly brought up in regards to this film, which I will cover for completeness, is the many changes in pronouncing character names compared to the cartoon. While some (ex. Katara, Zuko) get to keep their names intact, many others get their names pronounced differently than how fans of the series would expect. This includes Aang (rhymes with “gang”) becoming “Ong”, Sokka (“Sock-uh”) said as “Soh-kah”, Iroh (“Eye-roh”) being read as “Ee-roh” and, perhaps most gratingly, the word “Avatar” being pronounced inconsistently; half the time it’s said as “Ahvatar” for some reason. Another like alteration is Sokka’s characterization, losing his ability to make wisecracks in translation. I will also say that, while many things from the movie look somewhat screen-accurate to the cartoon, with some occasional liberties taken to make it more cinematic (ex. Aang’s Air Nomad tattoos go from simple arrows to more intricate designs), the characters often do not fully resemble their TV show counterparts in terms of costume design; for some this also includes skin tones, which is all I will say about that.

As a movie, The Last Airbender is not that great. As an adaptation of a highly-regarded Nickelodeon cartoon, it’s even worse. Adaptation gripes aside, it’s easy to see why this movie bombed M. Night Shyamalan’s career, though his ultimate comeback would come with the movie Split (2016), to seemingly make a full recovery with the upcoming Glass (the long-awaited sequel to Unbreakable). To summarize (quoting Avatar: The Last Airbender S3E17 “The Ember Island Players”):

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!

I would not recommend this movie to Avatar/Korra fans, nor even to M. Night Shyamalan fans, unless they really feel the need to experience it for themselves. Otherwise, if you’re not familiar with the source material, just watch the cartoon instead.

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