M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a film that amply demonstrates the adage that everyone outside of Hollywood understands: special effects do not a movie make. The brilliant effects by Industrial Light & Magic are all there is to this incoherent mess of a movie, and it’s too bad, because there could have been a visually stunning story. Unfortunately Shyamalan has demonstrated in every post-Sixth Sense film he’s made that he just isn’t a very good storyteller.
Then there’s the issue of race. I’m not concerned about issues of whether actors of the appropriate ethnicity are cast in ethnic roles (most recently this debate flared up over Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia) but The Last Airbender pushed that suspension of disbelief out the window. In the story, the world is split into four races, the four elementals of earth, wind, water and fire. The ostensible hero, Aang (Noah Ringer), is the last airbender, while the main characters are actually Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the water tribe.
The dissonance comes from the entire Northern Water Tribe living in the frozen north in an Aleutian village, dressed in Eskimo furs, but the lead actors are caucasian. It was bizarre and was never explained in the film. Were there no Asian actors available to take the brother-sister roles of Katara and Sokka?
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with the problems throughout The Last Airbender. If you can stomach an incomprehensible movie with stilted self-conscious dialog because of some cool special effects, go see it. Otherwise it’ll be on Nickelodeon soon enough, just wait and save the ticket price.
I was intrigued by the basic story of The Last Airbender anyway: The world is split into four tribes and in each tribe there are a small number of people who can control their elemental. Katara, for example, can control, or “bend” water so she can create floating balls of water in front of her, streaming columns, encasing ice, and more. The four tribes live in harmony with peace kept by the Avatar, the one person who can control the four elements. When Aang finds that’s his anointed role in life, however, he runs away and vanishes for a century, during which time the evil Fire tribe wages war on the other three tribes.
When he resurfaces in the first of many nonsensical scenes, his work is cut out for him because the Fire tribe, under the malevolent leadership of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), has banned “benders” from the other tribes and is waging a secret assault on the spirit world that helps keep things in balance. Mortals challenging the Gods? Haven’t we already seen this in a half-dozen films this year?
Noah Ringer as Aang in The Last Airbender
There are different interpretations of these four tribes and the battle they wage. Racially, the Water tribe seem to be North American, the Earth tribe seems to be Asian, the air tribe is also Asian (though it’s a bit ambiguous) and the Fire tribe is Middle Eastern. And, yes, the bad guys. There’s also the puzzle of the Fire tribe having the savvy to build giant war machines while the other tribes are peaceful agrarian societies: is The Last Airbender a veiled stab at Western Imperialism?
The Fire tribe has its own internal strife too: Lord Ozai’s son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has been banished for refusing to engage in mortal combat with his father (which, of course, makes no sense) and is traveling under a cloud of shame with his Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub). Meanwhile, back in the kingdom, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) is scheming to take over the tribe and is the focus of efforts to kill the spirits.
Aang serves as a sort of reluctant evangelist, traveling from refugee camp to refugee camp with his sidekicks Katara and Sokka, encouraging the imprisoned elemental benders to rise up against their oppressors and free themselves. How they get into these gulags is another of those great mysteries.
Buried in The Last Airbender is a thrilling hero’s journey story of a boy who is reluctant to accept his destiny, instead wanting to live out his childhood and play. But he cannot ignore the needs of the many and reluctantly accepts the mantle of responsibility. Shyamalan can’t focus on that story and it’s not even obvious who the main protagonist is in the film, something that became increasingly frustrating as it unspooled.
There are also ideas and scenes borrowed from a number of other films, notably the under-appreciated The Golden Child (with J. L. Reate in the title role) and the mess that was The Golden Compass. The former, in particular, had a far more interesting hero’s journey because it was the journey of private detective Chandler Jarrell (Eddie Murphy) that was the real focus of the movie. The exteriors of the Northern Water Tribe were startlingly reminiscent of Minas Tirith, the fortress city in Lord of the Rings, with some Shangri-La thrown in for good measure.
The Last Airbender ended with an obvious nod to a possible sequel where Aang continues to learn how to bend the different elements while the Fire tribe continues its evil machinations. After this complete mess of a film, however, I can only hope that people will watch the animated series instead and Shyamalan will find a studio that assigns him a team that helps restore his badly tarnished reputation.