The thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that he is a great director. Though his end results are wildly inconsistent, he's fully capable of being "on" when you least expect. He'll give you Unbreakable one day, then After Earth the next. Not everything from Shyamalan lands, but he is fascinating even in his biggest disasters. Except one.
Enter the 2010 fantasy film The Last Airbender, a movie that occupies the most bottom-rung in the Shyamalan ladder. Perhaps the biggest of all Shyamalan trainwrecks, the movie didn't just disappoint general moviegoers hoping for a new Harry Potter. It nearly destroyed a fandom that I saw spiral in real time. Released when I had just graduated high school, I went to house parties where Avatar obsessives drunkenly argued over fan theories ahead of the movie. I'd see the same people at the next party a week later. They didn't want to talk about Avatar again.
Miraculously, the fan community for the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender survived, becoming more prominent in 2020 in the show's return to Netflix. Because the algorithms do what they do, you might've seen Shyamalan's film pop up. I'm here to tell you that yes, The Last Airbender is the movie you need to see before it leaves Netflix on October 7. But in the fun, boo-and-heckle way, and not because there's anything redeeming ten years later.
That it's biggest legacy is the slang "Racebending," meaning to white-wash ethnic minority characters, is telling of all the ways Last Airbender squandered what could have been a generation's biggest film franchise.
You probably already know the story, but for those who don't: The Last Airbender is an adaptation of the same Nickelodeon cartoon your friends can't stop talking about. (Due to James Cameron, the movie couldn't use the word "Avatar" in its title less than a year after Cameron's own Avatar made billions at the box office. Even funnier is that both Cameron and the Nickelodeon show used the same papyrus font as their logos.)
Set in a medieval fantasy world where the elements air, fire, water, and earth are manipulated ("bended") with martial arts, teenage siblings Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) discover Aang (Noah Ringer), a 10-year-old monk frozen in ice for hundreds of years. Upon learning he is the "Avatar" (a once-in-a-generation master of all four elements), the three embark on a quest for Aang to master all the elements in order to stop the evil Fire Nation from taking over the world. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), son of the fearsome Fire Lord Ozai, pursues the Avatar as he transforms from antagonist to anti-hero.
The Nickelodeon series deservedly earns praise today as an exemplar of long-form storytelling. Though aimed at children, the show confidently explored complex subjects like racism, colonialism, totalitarianism, inequalities relating to class and gender, and unending warfare. (It was no mistake the show premiered in 2005, as the ceaseless War on Terror raged on.) Its mythology is also beautifully imagined, making use of Asian and indigenous-inspired folklore rarely seen in western media. Even still, the magic of Avatar is that it never forgets it's about children. Even in the face of doom, they'll still slide down mountains and swim with seals because it's fun.
Unfortunately, the movie is nothing like the show. While on the surface it's a beat-for-beat retread of the first season (plus the show's Season 3 redemption of Zuko smushed in) the movie lacks the smart plotting that gave the original thematic weight. Its pacing is all over the place, with a bizarre emphasis on inconsequential moments (weird moment: The camera lingering on children hanging onto Appa, the air bison) and just breezing past what should be important. Aang is captured twice within twenty onscreen minutes. The Last Airbender, with a budget of $150 million, feels auto-edited in Windows Movie Maker.
With most movies, you can forgive wooden performances and lackluster CGI — of which Airbender has in spades — so long as the movie itself holds together. The original Star Wars is full of stilted acting and awful dialogue, but its airtight structure and plentiful whiz-bang action make it a worthy classic 40 years later. Its smart world-building has also provided filmmakers and writers blueprints for good fantasy storytelling for decades. You can trace the Cantina of Tattooine directly to the Continental in John Wick.
The Last Airbender has all the same problems Star Wars had, and none of the solutions. Shyamalan, an otherwise phenomenal visual storyteller who can conjure tension in his frames, feels absent behind the camera. This world of his where martial arts control the elements is emotionally colorless and cold. This is a movie where Shyamalan was fully allowed to have anime-inspired rock walls and fireballs with his cinematic kung fu. Instead, he brazenly opts for the dullest choreography ever put to screen.
The Last Airbender is worth watching now in 2020 just to see how much a movie gets fundamental things wrong. Structure, plotting, pacing, characterization — it's almost impressive to see a single movie fumble this hard. (It doesn't even get the pronunciation of "Aang" right!) It's a film chock full of characters that we know are dimensional and complex — all thanks to a kids cartoon — yet this wildly expensive movie is totally incapable of understanding what made it so special in the first place.
The Last Airbender is streaming on Netflix now until October 7.