(Author’s Note: shameless plug! A few friends and I are writing for a cooking blog at http://kitchenburn.blogspot.com/ . Check it out for some hilarity)
Before heading out to the midnight premiere, my friend Leland emailed out a warning about the movie: 10% fresh on rottentomatoes.com . Admittedly, the fresh rating is often somewhat harsh, though having watched the movie, I’m still surprised: that means there was even 1 in 10 critics who liked the movie.
“The Last Airbender” is based off of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a Nickelodeon cartoon show that ran for 3 seasons. Set in a world based on a blend of traditional East Asian mythology, “benders” manipulate the four elements (earth, air, wind, and fire) to battle using martial arts and magic. In the movie, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the Water Nation find Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen under the ocean. Soon, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), exiled from the Fire Nation, finds them on his quest to find and capture the Avatar, the one being who can use all 4 elements and threatens the tyranny of the Fire Nation, to restore his honor. Soon, Aang, Katara, and Sokka are on a quest to go north so that Aang can learn water bending.
Usually I take the 2nd paragraph to give a plot synopsis for context: explanations make more sense when the central idea is in place. This particular synopsis, however, I feel gives a much different context. The movie suffers from what I call the “Wolfram MathWorld” effect: the content only makes sense if you already understand it in advance, making it very close to useless. Fans will see parts of familiar episodes along the way, yet without the actual story of the episode, the events end up being meaningless. Newcomers will be blown through a series of apparently trivial events, often briefly explained in advance by a voiceover that makes you wonder why the scene would ever need to be shown.
Don’t worry, though, as none of the scenes last very long anyways, which also helps to quickly move on from gaping plot holes. Although the TV show was best-known for its goofy and clever dialogue, a large portion of the script is just exposition, often in scenes less than 5 lines long. The quick cuts never truly develop the characters, and instead of enjoying the subtleties of Katara’s overbearing nature and Sokka’s jester-like insight, you instead get the sense that they’re both far braver than intelligent and only along for the ride.
It’s hard to know how good the acting is working with such poor dialogue, but the actors seemed to generally miss the spirit of their characters. Patel as Zuko ends up being angry instead of conflicted, and Ringer ends up swinging wildly between being childish and outraged instead of refreshingly naive. The use of close-ups, however, never truly show any emotion from the characters and instead have that campy sort of suspense from Captain Kirk. A ton of over-the-shoulder camerawork with the speaking character also makes me believe that none of the dialogue was delivered believably.
Even beyond plot and characters, one might hopefully find entertainment in the visuals and action: in a world of elements flying wild and martial arts experts sparring, there are many opportunities to distract from the more purely cinematic qualities of the movie, yet even these disappoint. 3D effects were used minimally, and the style of bending never gave rise to a furious melee. Instead of tentacles of water flailing about to ward off flamethrowers, you’re instead treated to a few dance moves as the elements are invoked, leading to a slow and somewhat predictable attack and parry.
Often, the most successful movies today have something for everyone, whether that’s mixing adult humor in dialogue with cute animals or mixing a romantic sub-plot into a war scene. A step below that is the movie that narrowly targets a single demographic, whether a romantic comedy or a stoner film. And below that is “The Last Airbender,” which manages to do wrong by any potential moviegoer. For newcomers, I’m so sorry you sat through it. For the fans of the show, I implore you: remain in blissful ignorance of how M. Night Shyamalan could have completely misunderstood what made the show good.