The Last Airbender (2010)

(c) Paramount Pictures

After The Happening made everyone scratch their heads, a school of thought developed that suggested it was time for Shyamalan to take a break from creating his own films and direct someone else’s material.  It’s easy to see why Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender attracted his attention.  Epic fantasy shares traits with haunted ghost stories and heroic virtue; the choice seemed like a step in the right direction.  Yet Shyamalan’s strange deterioration only continued, and a rich template for a potential epic trilogy became an empty, misguided mess.

Four nations govern the world—Water, Earth, Fire and Air.  In each live people called “benders,” warriors with the ability to manipulate the element of their homeland.  The avatar was the master of all four elements, the guardian of peace and balance.  When the Fire Nation began an assault on the other nations, however, the avatar disappeared.

One hundred years later, two teenage kids from the Southern Water Tribe—Sokka and Katara, brother and sister—discover a boy trapped in an iceberg.  His name is Aang, and he possesses extraordinary power.  The siblings soon discover that he is the new avatar.  Aang is only a child, however, and he has a lot of growing up to do.  Together, they set out to help Aang fulfill his destiny: to defeat the Fire Nation and restore peace to the world.

The series, which lasted three years, crafted each character and every layer of their interconnecting conflicts with a level of sophistication that elevated it high above a typical children’s cartoon.  The film’s similarities unfortunately end with the names.  Despite the built-in accommodations, Shyamalan fumbles every piece of magic that made the series so rewarding.

Omer Mozzafar, who teaches at the Univeristy of Chicago, wrote an excellent open letter to Shyamalan, which can still be found on the Chicago Sun-Times blog (courtesy of Roger Ebert).  In it, Mozzafar asserts that, as Shyamalan’s films have progressed, the mythology has grown to form the plots rather than inform them.  Airbender, then, represents a polar shift away from The Sixth Sense, devoid of warmth or character, choked to death by its own emptiness.

The problem isn’t in the transition between mediums.  Sure, moving a story from television to film has its challenges.  Joss Whedon sums it up best: television shows are about questions, films are about answers.  A television show can take its time, much like a novel, to unfold its secrets and develop its world.  A film doesn’t have that luxury, and Shyamalan apparently never considered Whedon’s insights.  Airbender, the film, never produces any answers, and it fails to even ask a question.  It’s a collection of uninspired set pieces that uses its characters for nothing more than window dressing.  Every one of the series’ aspects that lend themselves to Shyamalan’s strengths end up forgotten or ignored.

Shyamalan likes stories about broken families facing extraordinary situations, and Airbender appealed to that trend.  The importance of family created the bulk of the series’ emotional spine.  Sokka and Katara come from a broken home; their father left to fight in the war, and while he was away, their mother was killed in a Fire Nation attack.  Aang is essentially an orphan.  The trio’s primary antagonist—Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation—longs for his father’s acceptance, and suffers under the burden of his abuse.  How they each eventually help each other to heal contributed to the series’ success.

The vibrant characters of the series appear in the film as mere shadows of themselves.  Small moments rub up against what might have been.  Early on, Aang visits the temple where he was first trained only to learn that not only has he been gone for more than 100 years, but all his friends and mentors were killed while he was away.  The Fire Nation, knowing the avatar’s next incarnation would come from the realm of the Airbenders, wiped out the entire race.  Aang is the last of his kind.  As he looks over the bones of the people he once called his family, his guilt and his fury erupt into an astonishing display of his power.  For one tiny moment, the film realizes one of the series’ most potent scenes.  And as soon as it’s over, the magic evaporates—for both Aang, and the audience.

Katara receives the most irreverent treatment in the transition.  The series paints her as a brave, confident heroine while the film holds her back from ever reaching her potential.  Her fight with Zuko near the film’s climax collapses under the incomplete development of her character.  In the series, Katara had to prove herself to a chauvinist mentor before she could train to fight.  By the time she faced Zuko, it was clear she was outmatched, but we knew she had an iron will would make her difficult to defeat.  The film, on the other hand, omits her struggle, and refuses to fill the hole with any kind of worthy substitute.  When the time comes for her to defend herself against Zuko, she’s easily overpowered.  The lack of attention to this moment robs her decision to protect Aang of its maternal power.  We never get to see her fight the smaller battles that give her the right to fight this one.

Sokka’s love story subplot suffers from the same weak exposition and execution.  We’re told, actually told in a voice over, that he falls in love with a princess, and boom, next scene, everyone behaves as though this were true.  All the moments are there—the yearning looks, the passionate kiss—and none of them matter.  Instead, the impulsive, sarcastic boy who wants to be a man never undergoes the trials that make him a man.  The series could get away with low-balling Sokka’s tragic love story, it’s aimed at twelve-year-olds.  A film should try harder.

Airbender tries to squeeze far too much into 103 minutes.  Paramount, which distributed the film, apparently wanted to cash in on the trendy success of 3D and asked Shyamalan to cut 30 minutes from the movie in order to convert the film in time to meet its release date.  Because of the shorter running time, the movie always feels like it’s running to catch up with itself.

Turn off the sound, and everything looks amazing.  CGI has typically had a difficult time rendering fire or water, but the effects achieve a level of realism that delivers believable magic.  Shyamalan has said before that he prefers practical effects over CGI, but here, he has surrounded himself with enough talent to make it a non-issue.  All those wonderful aesthetics add lots of color, but very little life.  Like Lady in the Water, Airbender suffers from a deplorable lack of visual punch.  Shyamalan stages and shoots most of the action like an old-school kung-fu flick, meaning it’s clean, it’s clear, and we’ve seen it all before.  Nothing inspires the level of wonder a story like this requires.

In an era of remakes and reinvention, Airbender had more potential than most as a modern myth ripe to make the leap from one medium to another.  Were it made earlier in his career—between Unbreakable and Signs, perhaps—things might have turned out quite differently.  Instead, Airbender closes the lid on Shyamalan’s early promise, and his established abilities.

We patiently hope that the lid may open again someday.

Noah Ringer (Aang)
Dev Patel (Zuko)
Nicola Peltz (Katara)
Jackson Rathbone (Sokka)

Written for the Screen and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

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