Newbie Wednesdays – The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

M. Night and I have a long history together. The first film I saw my freshman year of college was The Sixth Sense. It terrified me. Now, with a decade of film obsession behind me, it takes a lot to creep me out that badly, and I look at The Sixth Sense as a very sad atmospheric film, still good though. His next film, Unbreakable, is still one of my favorite comic book films, in that is captures a certain idea of superheroes that I’ve never seen another film come close to. About there is where my love for the director ended. I’ve seen every film he’s made in the theater, the only other director who I have done that with is Christopher Nolan, sort of the antithesis of Shyamalan. While Nolan produces better and better films, Shyamalan only gives diminishing returns. This latest, his first foray into adapting an already established property, is an utter disaster.

If you haven’t seen the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (I’ve only seen the first five episodes) here’s the premise. In a fantasy world, the planet is ruled by the four elemental nations: Fire Nation, Air Nation, Earth Nation, and Water Nation. A hundred years before the start, the Air Nation was wiped out and the Fire Nation began its quest to spread its empire across the globe. Two Water Nation children, Katara and Sokka, discover a little boy frozen in ice. Once thawed, they learn he is Aang, the last of the airbenders and the one destined be the Avatar, meaning control over all four elements. Searching for the Avatar is Prince Zuko, the exiled son of the Fire Nation king. He sails the world, hoping to prove his might to his father by bringing him the Avatar. Zuko’s forces become aware of Aang and epic battles ensue.

The concept here is ready made for a film franchise, and it has the potential to be as popular and well loved as Harry Potter. It’s a rich, complex universe that doesn’t pander to kids. It treats them like intelligent beings who can handle more than stand alone episodes. The film however, creates a narrative mess. One of the elements of screenwriting that you’ll find is seen as a no-no is voice over exposition. Its passable at the beginning of the film, just to set up the story, but when large chunks of the movie are rushed over and explained with voice over you have a major problem. The sort of things being summed up in a sentence by Katara, the narrator, are romantic relationships, something that you have to earn from your audience, make us care that these two people get together. Not so, and Shyamalan has never been too good with romantic relationships.

This is an incredibly faithful adaptation in terms of story elements, hence the rushed exposition as Shymalan tried to condense 20 episodes of the first season into 90 minutes. Motivations are cast out the window for the sake of hitting plot points. The most glaring omission from the the series though, is the sense of humor. In the cartoon Aang is a mischievous klutz who is both the hero and the comic relief. Katara and Sokka are also not great warriors and don’t master their abilities in the series near as quickly as their movie counterparts did. To delete the humor and sense of growing into these powers sort of turns the film into something that an unfamiliar audience member won’t enjoy and neither will a die hard fan of the cartoon. There really is no audience for this type of film, and its sad because the failure of this picture probably dooms the chances of a different director coming onboard and correcting things. And once again, we have to wonder how many chances does Shyamalan get before they revoke that DGA card?

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