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THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010
Movie Review


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THE LAST AIRBENDER 2010 MOVIETHE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010
Movie Reviews

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Randall Duk Kim, Jessica Andres, Seychelle Gabriel
Review by Joshua Starnes

SYNOPSIS:

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The story follows the adventures of Aang, a young successor to a long line of Avatars, who must put his childhood ways aside and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations.

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REVIEW:

M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") is a remarkably frustrating director. He has obvious cinematic gifts and real talent for tension, both dramatic and physical, and natural ability in developing a strong, memorable scene. He's been let down by his ability to take those often interesting and intriguing individual pieces and put them together into some sort of whole.

His success with "The Sixth Sense" seemed to doom him to a cycle of self one-upsmanship which eventually devolved into self-parody. With the big screen adaptation of "The Last Airbender" he has chance to get out of his rut, approaching a new milieu he's never attempted before. The result, everyone seems to hope, is either some new form of effects blockbuster with a storytelling emphasis and style which has never been attempted, or a dramatic implosion as Shyamalan's slow-burn leanings run headlong into the wall of action movie expectations. It can only be one or the other though, right? Yin or Yang?

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Unfortunately (depending on your point of view) the actual result is neither. Shyamalan's "Airbender" is such a relentlessly mediocre piece of imitation entertainment that it could have been made by any Hollywood hack who ever had access to a decent effects studio.

Based on the first season of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon, Shyamalan has taken it onto himself to take a hefty amount of material and whittle all of it down to just an hour and 45 minutes of running time. That's a heavy lift under the best of circumstances but the world of "Airbender" requires a fair amount of explanation to the uninitiated, leaving little space for things like characterization or plot.

There are people in the world, you see, who have the aptitude to manipulate to 'bend' one of the four classical elements: earth, fire, air, or water. Once each generation one person is born who can bend all four elements, an Avatar who can keep the competing elements and their tribes of manipulators in peace and balance. Unfortunately the current generation's Avatar is missing and has been for a century, providing the aggressive Fire Nation the opening it needs to conquer the world, one tribe at a time.

This kind of fantasy is really hard to pull off on screen, and in a brief amount of time, because of the information dump required to give it all meaning. It has its own history and lexicon and all of it needs to be given context to the viewer to understand why what the characters say and do is important to them without having people start telling each other things they already know.

The plot itself lends Shyamalan the perfect opportunity for this in the form of Aang (Noah Ringer) the titular Airbender and a kind of miniature kung fu Buddha. Encased in an underwater glacier for 100 years, he has no knowledge of what's happened to the world and is just asking to have it all explained to him and us. He is supposed to be our stand-in of sorts, through which our point of view is poured into the world (and vice versa).

Instead he makes statements without context or meaning which are accepted at face value by his rescuers a young Waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka ("Twilight's" Jackson Rathbone) who respond with equally intense, meaningless statements all without ever bothering to explain to each other why they should listen to one another. That's a big problem in a film heavy with jargon about bending and moon spirits it seems to just assume the audience will understand.

If the performances were stronger, the movie might be able to sell some of the more mystical sentiments as having real meaning through their delivery alone. But for some reason Shyamalan has filled his film with young, inexperienced actors and the skill he's shown in the past for handling them seems to have deserted him. Ringer, the actor (appearing in his first role ever) who must support the film seems lost. Instead of making the words he says seem like they are what he actually thinks and how he is reacting to thing that are real, he sounds like he's just trying to say things the way someone else wants it to sound. It tears you out of the film every time he opens his mouth.

It doesn't help that most of what he or anyone else has to say is a torrent of exposition as the plot skips a long at an extremely brisk pace, slowing only on the occasion of an action sequence.

No sooner is Aang pulled from the ice than he is discovered by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) the exiled son of the Fire Nation's leader (Cliff Curtis) who has been tasked with capturing the Avatar if he ever wants to return home again. After realizing that Aang is the missing Avatar everyone's been looking for, Katara and Sokka decide to take him north to find someone to teach him the ways of Waterbending, as he will need to know how to manipulate all of the elements in order to truly become the Avatar.

Actually it's not until the Fire Nation appears that "Airbender" starts to generate any real interest, as it contains most of the really interesting character interaction, despite the fact Patel delivers most of his dialog in an angry shout. Zuko is followed in his banishment by his faithful general Iroh (Shaun Toub) as they race to capture Aang before the Fire Nation's chief warlord Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) does. Iroh is an interesting and intriguing father figure for Zuko, trying to nudge him on the path to spiritual and personal enlightenment and give up on worldly pursuits, while Zhao embodies mankind's desire to control the world which often outstrips its common sense. Unfortunately he gets stuck with a lot of its goofier impulses, as he spends much of his time talking about sacred scrolls and how the moon spirit increases a Waterbender's power.

And that can be squarely laid at Shyamalan's feet. He's been too faithful to the source material to master it and given himself so little time to develop the world for the unfamiliar that "Last Airbender" ends up being often impenetrable. The amount of exposition involved means it often devolves into Telling instead of Showing.

Instead of opening with Aang's life in the temple and giving the audience a reason to care for him, it slavishly follows the overall plot of the cartoon, leaving him Aang at a remove from the viewer that's the death of interest. Important events, like an important raid on the Great Library which influences everything else, are mentioned but never shown despite the fact it would be a better introduction to Zhao and the Fire Nation than what we get. Instead of using the cartoon as a springboard to launch his own take on the material, Shyamalan has used it template, and he's become trapped by it.

The only time it ever brakes out of its shell are during the action sequences when Aang and his cohorts swing into kung fu and element bending action. Shyamalan's natural talents take over whenever the storytelling becomes purely visual and several of the set pieces are exquisitely stage, particularly a mile high escape attempt that sees Aang and Zuko forced to work together.

It also looks quite pretty, with some gorgeous photography from Andrew Lesnie ("The Lord of the Rings") and excellent effects work from Industrial Light & Magic. There's also some fantastic imagination at work, particularly during the final assault on the Northern Water Tribe's polar city with lizard-riding Fire Nation cavalry and soldiers who tunnel up through the ice using drilling helmets. It's ridiculous, but ridiculous in the way that fantasy is supposed to be.

But that's as far as it gets, and it is unfortunately nowhere near far enough. Bad acting, overstuffed exposition and running time far too brief for the amount of plot shoved into it reduce "The Last Airbender" into parody of a big summer film as Shyamalan manages to hit every single fantasy film pothole. Maybe a really, really good director could have taken this story and made it his, delivering what was good about it without getting weighed down by its trappings. But whatever his early promise, it's becoming apparent Shyamalan is not that guy.

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