The Last Airbender (2010) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Cliff Curtis
By Alan Bacchus
The unanimous critical speedbagging of this film astounds me. It stands at 6% on Rotten Tomato Meter, out of 162 reviews. It’s really not that bad. Of course, it’s not great either, and I can’t help but defend a film I’m completely indifferent about only because I seem to be the only one who doesn’t think it’s the worst film of the year.
Reading some of the high profile reviews, three factors not related to the actual storytelling/filmmaking involved seemed to be the main stumbling blocks. 1) The retrofitting 3D onto what was shot as a 2D picture. 2) The recasting of some of the roles, originally written as Asian, for white actors 3) comparing the filmed version to the original TV series.
I personally think 3D is BS and no one should have reviewed the 3D version of this film. In fact, I’m surprised the producers even allowed a 3D press screening. As the track record of retrofitted 3D films go, they instantly shot themselves in the foot. And as for points 2 and 3, I’m surprised critics had even heard of the original source material, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, let alone watched it, or knew it well enough to make such detailed analysis between the two. Maybe I’m the nave?
This is probably a reviewer’s faux pas, but what the hell, this seems like a special case. Two of the more obtuse reactions I have contentions with included:
“Its special effects are atrocious.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not sure what the big screen 3D version looked like, but ILM's work on the film was the best thing going for it, quite strong and dramatic. The bending sequences, water, fire, air and earth admirably exercised some restraint and kept the motion and design of this fancy-schmancy weaponry as realistic as possible.
“Poorly staged and edited action sequences” – Lou Lemenick, New York Post. If anything, I’m confident to say his action scenes were quite marvellously staged, showing grace and showmanship with this type of fantasy action stuff. Take extra special care to notice the fact that there's very little editing at all in these scenes. Most of the major set pieces are directed in long one or two shot takes, in some breathtaking wideangle shots. This admirably harkens back to the old Fred Astaire demands of showing his dancing sequences in a full shot, with minimal editing. Same with much of the best Asian kung fu films.
But we shouldn’t lean so heavily on these headscratcher reactions, because really The Last Airbender sits right next to the glut of failed post-Potter/LOTR kids’ fantasy series starters, ‘The Golden Compass”, “Bridge to Terebithia”, “Stardust”, “The Seeker”, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” etc. Airbender suffers most from the near incomprehensibly plotting, which reminds me of the effect of watching David Lynch’s Dune for the first time (before father time and the other films of Lynch’s career allowed us to appreciate it on different level). Not five minutes goes by before we’re completely lost in this new world. Nothing ever really sinks in, we never find the drama in their quest, and thus we're never really sure what our heroes need, want or desire.
Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Jackson Rathbone are all passable bodies saying passable fantasy dialogue. That said, the poor young actor, Noah Ringer, has some great tai chi and Shaolin moves, but should never have been allowed to open his mouth.
So have some pity on The Last Airbender, and unlike the words of James Berardinelli this is not the ‘death knell of his (Shyamalan's) career’. When great filmmakers fail, they fail badly. This is a bad failure, but I’ll still go and see his next picture.
PS Apologies to all critics I’ve quoted in my review
“The Last Airbender” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment