M. Night Shyamalan, the new “Weak Sauce”
I have now seen The Last Airbender.
If you had walked up to me yesterday and said “Geoff, who’s the worst director in Hollywood?” I would have said Paul “Weak Sauce” Anderson. If you were to walk up to me today and ask me that same question, I’d have to answer M. Night Shyamalan.
The Last Airbender is a movie without a plot. It is a movie without characters. It is a movie without a soul. Given the quality of the source material, there is truly no excuse for this. Especially when one considers this is not an adaptation of a book, but of a television series. It’s a much simpler task to adapt a work made for television to film, they’re speaking almost exactly the same language. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take this one step at a time.
This movie is one of the most exceptionally flawed pieces of film making I have ever witnessed. To keep this review from meandering into rant territory I need to break it down into sections. First:
1.) The Plot.
The Last Airbender has a plot the same way that water has a flavour. Although that analogy is truly unfair to water. M. Night has boiled down the first season of Avatar to its most basic elements, and then he kept simmering until he wound up with even less. At barely 90 minutes in length (we’ll ignore the credits as part of the run time) The Last Airbender moves briskly from point to point. This can be a good thing, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Shakespeare once said, but that is not the case in this instance. The movie plays like a bullet point list, with any explanation of significance relegated to awkward voice overs. “Show, don’t tell” is one of the guiding principles of film making. M. Night seems to have made this movie in contempt and open defiance to this notion. The only reason I was able to make sense of this film is because I am very familiar with the source material and was able to fill in the blanks in the narrative myself.
I went to this film with 4 other people, 3 of which were fans of the series, the 4th had never seen nor heard of the show before. The children (ages 4 and 11) both disliked the film. The 4 year old thought it was boring and “too long”. This same 4 year old has happily sat through much longer films in the theatre, even a back to back screening of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, so this is not the complaint of a young child with a limited attention span. Mom was more forgiving of the film than myself, though her feelings on the movie seem to be drifting more towards dislike as time passes and it settles in. Her husband was lost, and it’s no wonder. I felt bad for him as this disaster of a film unfolded before us, as there was no chance he was going to have the faintest idea what was going on or why he should care at all.
The movie opens with a very brief and poorly written explanation of the world we are about to enter and how it works. We then find ourselves with Sokka and Katara. This would be the point where a competent film maker would have spent time introducing us to these characters, building our investment in them and displaying their affection for and relationship to each other. Not here though, there’s no time for that. Sokka and Katara find Aang and in the very next scene we’re back at the village as the fire nation arrives to take him. No real explanation as to why, nor to why Katara feels the need to rescue him.
This movie makes no effort to develop its characters, or even imbue them with personality. The actors’ sole purpose in this film is to walk in front of the camera and deliver whatever piece of expository dialogue is necessary to move the film to the next bullet point on the list. Gone is Sokka’s brand of humour, gone is Katara’s need to be the mom as she attempts to fill the shoes of her own deceased mother, gone is Aang’s crush on Katara, his joy in life and desire to have fun and play games.
The majority of the events in the movie are told to us through voice over, we never see them. As such there is never an opportunity for a relationship to develop between our main characters. You never believe that these kids have even the slightest interest in each other. They’re not friends, they’re props.
3.) The Acting.
It’s hard to fault the acting in this film as the actors are given very little to do. Most of the dialogue is delivered in voice over. The kids are all fine, but with no moments to interact with each other the opportunities for performance are limited. There’s no embarrassing acting here, there is only an embarrassing lack of anything for these actors to do.
4.) The Changes.
This adaptation strays from its source material somewhat, and never to the benefit of the story. The Fire Lord is featured prominently throughout the film. For those of you unfamiliar with Avatar, allow me this analogy: It’s like inserting multiple scenes with Emperor Palpatine into Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. Part of the menace of the fire lord in the series was how mysterious he was. This film was meant to be the first of a trilogy, but M. Night has neutered that menace by introducing us to the fire lord right away, and horribly miscasting the fire lord to boot.
The main characters names are inexplicably mispronounced through the entirety of the film: Aang is pronounced Ong, Avatar pronounced Awvatar. Sokka is pronounced Soh Ka, etc, etc. I can’t even begin to imagine why. The Avatar is helped in the spirit world not by Roku, the previous Avatar in the cycle, but by a spirit dragon. This dragon informs Aang that the Avatar is never to hurt anyone, which is in direct contradiction with the entire series. In the series Aang struggles with this very issue because, raised as a monk, he was taught to value all life, but the role of the Avatar demanded of him that he stop the fire nation and it’s power mad leader, which necessitates the use of force and in all likelihood, the death of the fire lord. Changing this aspect of the story would have major effects on the rest of the trilogy. Thankfully, it’s unlikely to be an issue given the critical reaction to the film.
Another bizarre change was the notion that Aang ran away because he was told the Avatar couldn’t lead a normal life nor have a family, which is blatantly untrue. In the series Aang runs away because he over hears some of the head monks planning to send him away from his mentor, Monk Gyatso, to train in a different air temple. Aang is scared of the responsibility of being the Avatar and scared of how it’s changing the way people treat him. Aang was told he was the Avatar much earlier than he should have been because of worries about the mobilization of the fire nation. In actual fact, the previous Avatar had a wife and a long, happy life. M. Night clearly has other things in mind for his version of the story.
The bending in the film also differs greatly from how it was portrayed in the series. Aang practically has to go through an entire dance number just to create a gust of wind. Bending in the series is much more economical in its movements. The result on film is that there are extended scenes where we get to watch the characters bending nothing, they’re just doing Tai Chi moves. Where was the special effects department? It’s really no very interesting or dramatic to watch these people that are supposed to be able to manipulate and control their respective elements not doing so. Also, there’s this odd insistence that Fire Benders require pre-existing fire in order to bend. That was never the case in the series. Why M. Night felt the need to make this change is anybody’s guess.
The finale of the film also deviates pretty dramatically from the series. What’s really bizarre is that the final battle at the end of season one is a huge spectacle, the final battle in the movie is… well, nothing really. It’s odd that the live action film would be outdone by an animated series. Usually it goes the other way.
5.) The Rest.
Now let’s address some points of a more random nature. First let’s talk about the “racism” in the casting that had been causing such a stir before the film’s release. Katara and Sokka are truly white as the driven snow, as is their Grandmother. The odd thing is, they appear to be the only white people of the Southern Water tribe. I find that worse than merely changing the ethnicity of the entire nation to be honest. Of all the potential companions Aang could have picked up, he just happens to get the only Caucasians, what luck.
The Fire Nation is all Indian, which seems a little silly to me, but at least M. Night is committed to it. It’s not just Prince Zukko and Uncle Iroh, all the Fire Nation is Indian, so at least there’s continuity. The Earth Kingdom faired the best, with a cast of entirely Asian actors in the roles.
The Air Nomads are pretty odd though. It feels like they took the allegations of racism and got scared, and so they made the Air Nomads a hodge podge of every ethnicity. It would be like going to China and finding an even ratio of Whites, Hispanics, Blacks, Indians and Chinese. Not truly realistic.
6.) Final Thoughts.
Watching The Last Airbender made me very sad. I longed for scenes where our main characters interacted with each other. There are literally no scenes of Aang, Katara and Sokka even talking to each other. I wanted to feel their connection. I wanted to see how Katara and Sokka became Aang’s new family. I wanted scenes which chronicled their journey. I wanted scenes that revealed who Prince Zuko was and why he was so driven to capture the Avatar. I wanted scenes that delved into Uncle Iroh and his role in Zuko’s life. I received none of these things.
This is a new low for M. Night Shyamalan. With this film slips away the last lingering threads of his credibility and bankability. Any enduring good will from his previous successes will be washed away by The Last Airbender.
Seek out the original series. Avatar: The Last Airbender is worth your time.