‘Winner of five Razzie Awards (including the big ‘Worst Picture’, ‘Worst Director’ and ‘Worst Screenplay’ awards), The Last Airbender is a terrible adaptation’
Success or Failure: M. Night Shyamalan
The Last Airbender, 2010
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis
Based on the successful anime show Avatar (and I’d like to preface this review by stating that I haven’t seen any episodes of Avatar, although I did some minor research after finishing watching The Last Airbender), M. Night Shyamalan was tasked with creating a live-action version of the show. Aang (Noah Ringer), the titular last surviving air bender, wakes up after 100 years of being frozen and reveals he is the Avatar (one capable of bending all four elements, rather than the usual one), but he is soon sought after by the fire benders as they want to rid the world of him so they can carry on their dominion over the other elements. Joined with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), they try to teach Aang the other elements (he can only bend air at the moment) while defending off the incoming attack.
There are many moments where whitewashing (casting white actors in roles typically created for foreigners) is blown up. The casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, for example, was, to me, over exaggerated as it was an American adaptation (if Japan adapted a Superman film for their country I’d expect their Superman to be played by a Japanese actor), but in The Last Airbender it really got to me. In the anime the villains are portrayed by white characters with the heroes being non-white, however the film has, for some reason, flipped this on its head by casting the heroes as all white while the villains are non-white. I’m not accusing Shyamalan of deliberate racism (he himself is of Indian descent), but it is so frustrating to see. Had they of casted the heroes as white then fair enough, but to flip-reverse the ethnicities so that the white characters are the heroes rather than the villains is the biggest example of whitewashing to me.
Turning the focus to the film itself (rather than the casting) and it should be noted that this film is bad. A winner of five Razzie Awards (including the big ‘Worst Picture’, ‘Worst Director’ and ‘Worst Screenplay’ awards), The Last Airbender is a terrible adaptation of what I hear is a very entertaining anime show. We are introduced initially to Katara and Sokka, who are brother and sister, as Katara is trying to bend water (before comedically dropping the water on Sokka’s head). They soon discover the frozen Aang and take him back to their village. After Aang is captured by the fire benders, though, Katara feels they should abandon their home to protect him because they ‘found him’, which makes Aang sound like a dog and doesn’t exactly show their friendship which they have in the anime. They also go back to see Aang’s village to discover everyone has been murdered while he was frozen, and it seems like Shyamalan has missed such a golden opportunity to make this film better. Firstly, introduce us to Aang 100 years ago when he discovers he is the Avatar and show him running away and some of the interactions he has with the monks, then have him frozen and have the fire benders destroy the village and then introduce him to Katara and have them form a friendship. This also helps us feel sympathy for Aang when he discovers his former home has been destroyed as we have some connection to the now-deceased residents. It feels like a much more natural way of telling the story yet the way we are given makes it all seem almost careless. Why do we care about Aang and Katara? Why do we care that Aang ran away and his home was destroyed? Why do we care that his friend died in that fight?
There are many more examples of poor, poor writing throughout the film: firstly, the way the big villain, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), is presented is appalling; he just seems like a normal man whereas the show kept his appearance hidden to savour the moment when they finally reveal him to the audience. Copy that, Shyamalan. Secondly, the love story between Sokka and Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) is horrendous. They meet, look at each other, a narration tells us they fell in love instantly and then they’re in love. We next see them interacting as she reveals why her hair is white and then she sacrifices herself to save the people of her tribe which upsets Sokka . . . but their lack of chemistry and build-up means we just don’t care about his pain. Thirdly, fire. What are the three most obvious ways to put out fire? Blowing it out (similar to the wind which can be created by air benders), throwing water on it (a tactic which can be used by the water benders) or possible grounding it under earth (funny enough the earth benders can do that), yet the fire benders never have any worries about their fire being put out by three factions who all have the ability to put out fire. Fourthly, why is the earth benders prison on land? In the anime it’s at sea so the earth benders cannot use their abilities yet in the anime they’re surrounded by earth. And then when they’re told by Aang to fight back there’s like six people doing the dance they need to do to bend ground and what do they get as a result? A rock is thrown at a guard. They take about a minute to conjure up the ability to throw this rock when they could have just as easily picked it up and physically thrown it and save themselves some time. Nothing in this film makes sense. Also, fifthly, why is the battle against the water benders at the home of the water benders . . . a prison full of water. Water defeats fire. Why do you think firefighters use water to put out burning buildings or that water is used in some fire extinguishers? Because water beats fire. The whole building is surrounded by water and everyone inside can bend water so why is it so easy for the fire benders to just stroll through and kill everyone. Also, where is the fire they are using in the battles? They mention before the fire benders arrive that they plan to get rid of everything that has fire in it to drown out the fire benders’ abilities yet they still nearly win.
I’m sorry I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent with this review, but this film is just awful. Visually I suppose it looks alright and the soundtrack is pretty good, and some of the acting isn’t terrible as well as the story between Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) and Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) is easily the best part of the film, but that doesn’t help it at all. Fully deserving its Worst Picture Razzie win.
Personal: * Acting: * * Writing: * Presentation: * *