If The Happening was the moment people started to suspect M. Night Shyamalan was starting to lose his pedigree, The Last Airbender was the moment he became a gag. So, my history with Avatar: The Last Airbender… there isn’t much. I never got into the show and I was pressured by friends so much to at least check it out. So, I caved in to the peer pressure one day and watched a few episodes. While I may not be qualified as a fanboy to critique The Last Airbender, I do know an unfaithful adaptation when I see one and when I watched The Last Airbender after hearing how awful it was.
You know when you have little to no knowledge of the original source material for a film adaptation, but you know in your gut the film doesn’t feel like it’s faithfully following it? That’s the consistent feeling you get watching this film, and from a filmmaking observation, it lacks imagination for a franchise that takes every opportunity to be imaginative.
The Last Airbender takes us to a world where certain people can bend the elements of either Water, Earth, Fire and Air to their will. We learn that the Fire Nation has declared war on the other three nations and is oppressing their people. Water benders Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) buried in the ice. It is revealed that Aang is The Avatar, someone who is able to bend all four elements and he goes on a quest to rediscover his power and put an end to the Fire Nation’s reign of tyranny.
I would imagine that considering the show features the ability of bending the elements to your will, you can do some pretty interesting things with it, I can already picture the possibilities that verge on the epic. With a $150 million budget, I guess that Shyamalan would at the time have been foaming in the mouth, thinking about what to do with this element bending power, it’s practically gift-wrapped for him to unleash his creativity. What happens is that the nicely, wrapped gift gets stamped on and gives way to some truly uninspiring sequences. It takes 6 people in the film, to move a boulder (not even a large boulder) and launch it at a fire bender. It almost as if undertaking this project, Shyamalan developed some sort of instantaneous creative block.
The film’s central characters are all child actors, and I don’t want to be overly harsh on them because I understand that they’re still learning the ropes and all that. However, with that being said, these performances are very wooden, and the dialogue delivery is just poor, there is nothing that remotely reflects the emotion of a particular scene. I’ll even say that most of the adult performances are better, they’re not as wooden as the child actors but that is just experience at hand there. Dev Patel plays Prince Zuko, a disgraced prince of the Fire nation and, in the context that he had come fresh from a marvelous feature film debut in Slumdog Millionaire, it just goes to show that actors can’t rely on natural ability.
Looking back at the dialogue and really paying attention to it, there is a stampede of exposition in the way of progression. Every line of dialogue is either explaining the workings of the world or explaining a character’s motivations. This information dump is the exact reason why in film school the first lesson you are taught is show don’t tell, it just taking the lazy path because the filmmakers themselves probably don’t have a clue as to the world of The Last Airbender. In fact, that is this film in a nutshell, just something that isn’t anywhere near being like the tv show, but it’s dressed up to be like it. Something I can say the same about many other adaptations.
Can these factors be forgiven? Possibly not, but what is certain to be unforgettable is how debunked some of the logic of the film is. Changing something from the original source material is an inevitability in adaptations and I think all of us who love seeing our favourite franchises being brought to the big screen understand that somethings that work on TV don’t work in film. However, when these changes are a step back from the original, audiences pick up on that and question how sensible a change it is. For instance, there is a scene in which Aang and the other characters are captured by the Fire nation and sent to a prison for earth benders. I learned that in the show, the prison is a metal ship, and because it was metal is made earth bending redundant so that the earth benders inside couldn’t escape. In the film, the prison is in what appears to be a quarry. A quarry…with earth benders… who ok this!?
If fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are waiting for any sign of hope, that tap might have just run out as apparently the original creators, who were tied to the upcoming Netflix live-action adaptation, have just pulled out. Only time can tell if this was a correct decision but for the fans who are still waiting for something faithful are going to have to wait a little longer. Because fan or no fan, who would want to come back to this travesty? I believe Mark Kermode commented on film adaptations saying why would you want to adapt something that is considered perfect? Surely a more creative and better route is to take a property that wasn’t good to begin with and build it from the ground up again. With this The Last Airbender, I believe in what he said more than ever, it best we just leave this series alone and let it continue to be incredible for so many.