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Review: The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender (2010)

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Premise: An adaptation of the animated television show. The film is set in a fantasy world where the people of the world are divided into tribes of fire, earth, air, and water and special members of the tribes can telepathically control their respective element. The arrival of a boy who can manipulate all four elements inspires hope to the earth, air, and water tribes who have been ruled by the cruel fire tribe.

What Works: The climax of The Last Airbender has some impressive visuals and for a moment it embodies the potential that the rest of the film fails to capture.

What Doesn’t: The Last Airbender is a poorly conceived, incompetently written, and sloppily made film. From the beginning, the filmmakers demonstrate no grasp of how to tell a story and the film confuses what information to handle in exposition, what to dramatize, and how to integrate the two elements. Throughout the story, The Last Airbender periodically stops dead to lay out exposition through awful dialogue but even with all of the talking no one really says anything and the audience has no idea where the story is going or why. The film then picks up with action scenes that are supposed to inspire awe or excitement, but the action is terribly staged and filmed. There are a lot of panning shots that are so quick that they blur the action and misdirect the audience’s attention.  The acting in The Last Airbender is terrible all around, although it is hard to tell if it is the fault of the actors or if their performances are sabotaged by a bad script. There is a lot of miscasting here, such as The Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi enlisted to play the lead villain and Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel cast in a complex and morally ambiguous role as the estranged son of the leader of the fire tribe. Other characters walk in and out of the story without introduction or consequence. A good example that encapsulates The Last Airbender’s problems is the love story between Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). The film tells us with voiceover that they are in love but after that never gives the characters anything to do to express their feelings for each other. And when The Last Airbender finally gets to its climax it expects the audience to feel something for these two characters and their sacrifice, but without any build up between the introduction and the crisis, the characters are as unfamiliar as the extras fighting the background and the lover’s story, motives, and drama are similarly insignificant.

Bottom Line: It is hard to believe that after decades of good examples like Star Wars, Superman: The Movie, Blade Runner, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, and Avatar that a major studio production could so mishandle a fantasy piece like this. But The Last Airbender crashes its way through precedent to a distinguished place between The Golden Compass and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen among the worst big budget fantasy films ever made.

Episode: #297 (July 18, 2010)