There is a pretty good movie hiding within M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender – really, there is. It’s not the disaster you’ve probably heard it to be at least. It has affecting little moments, wonderful moments. At those times, it’s nearly great.
One does have to overlook – or endure – some sizable problems though. This is one of those movies that calls for a set of scales. Place the good stuff on one side and the laughable on the other and see which way the thing tilts.
For those who don’t know, The Last Airbender is based on the Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender about a boy named Aang, the reluctant One. He’s “The Avatar,” one capable of controlling all of the elements — air, water, earth, and fire — and bringing peace to the planet.
Not desiring a monkish life, he fled before his training got beyond air bending. He now, with the help of a band of companions, must overcome his reluctance and complete his training before the evil Fire Nation reduces the world to cinder.
The series spreads leisurely over three seasons totaling about 24 hours with each centering on a different phase of Aang’s training. This movie encompasses only the first season, Water. Only time will tell if we’ll ever see Earth and Fire. It looks unlikely.
“What about those scales?” Here goes. Bad stuff first.
Every time a character, any character, opens his or her mouth, your mouth will drop open as well, in disbelief. This must be the worst, most exposition-laden dialog I’ve ever heard. It tumbles from tongues and lands with a thud.
The actors literally look embarrassed to be speaking these lines. They appear to be seeing them for the first time ever, reading them from a seemingly endless teleprompter. I haven’t seen actors appear so uncomfortable since Dune.
Actually, Dune is an apt comparison. Like that movie, The Last Airbender tries to cram a lot of elaborate world-building into a tiny space. It proves that trying to force eight well-crafted hours into 90 minutes is a perilous project.
Because of this, the movie’s pacing is relentlessly exhausting. It spends so much time racing from one story point to the next that it seldom has a chance to settle in and savor the moment.
Action is a good thing, but recall any exciting movie you’ve loved and it’s the moments to catch your breath and perhaps have a quick laugh that you most fondly remember. The Last Airbender doesn’t find enough time for these necessary pleasures.
I’d like to see a “director’s cut” some day. I think an extra hour or so would make a big difference. The movie is always visually beautiful (I recommend seeing it in 2-D) and when it occasionally slows down and savors the moment it is actually quite stunning.
When we see flashbacks to Aang’s early training, it evokes similar scenes from many a great martial arts epic. When the camera gracefully tracks around Aang and his companion Katara as they practice martial arts or when the camera pulls back to allow us a glimpse of the lovingly detailed world Shyamalan has created, I felt love for the movie.
And there are scenes in a cave involving Yin/Yang Koi fish so perfectly fitting of the movie’s and series’ particular brand of pop-mythologizing that the scale ended up favoring the good, for me at least.
Yes, the movie is a mess. But how many messes can you recall wanting to be longer messes? That certainly counts for something.Powered by Sidelines