Against my better judgment I went to see The Last Airbender. Ohmygod, that was bad. I blame the heat wave and needing to spend an afternoon in an air-conditioned theatre. Plus, let’s be honest, a sick train-wreck curiosity. I just had to see if the movie was as bad as everybody said.
I loved the original TV show. It had a great story, well-developed characters, cool mythology, amazing visuals and exciting action. This movie… has none of that. The acting is sub-par, the martial arts and special effects are just about decent, the writing is awkward and painfully expository, the characters are boring and one-dimensional, with none of the zip and fun of the TV show. Shyamalan claims to be a fan, so I hear, but nothing about this movie tells me he really respects the source material. None of what made the show really come alive was translated to the big screen.
Part of the problem, I’ll admit, is that Shyamalan decided to condense all of season one into 1 hour and 45 minutes of movie. Fair enough, I guess, though it does mean dropping a lot of excellent characters and world-building, not to mention development of the characters that remain. The Kyoshi warriors? King Bumi? the “sexyfine” Haru? Jet? Jeong Jeong? Bato? The mechanist community? Master Pakku? Avatar Roku? Fucking Koh the Face Stealer? All gone, sorry. Gone also is the chemistry between Aang and Katara, gone is Katara’s growth into Team Mom and badass waterbending fighter, gone is Iroh’s sweetness and coolness, gone is most of the world’s mythology, the Avatar’s history and their relationship with the spirit world.
What’s left? The bare bones of the first season story arc: the premiere (Aang is found and captured, escapes, and head north with Sokka and Katara, pursued by Zuko and Zhao); a bit of The Southern Air Temple, where Aang deals with the loss of all his friends and his culture; a bit of Imprisoned, which begins a fairly irrelevant subplot of the Gaang fomenting rebellion in Earth Kingdom villages; most of The Blue Spirit, where Aang is captured by Zhao and broken out by Zuko; and the finale, where the Fire Nation attacks the Northern Water Tribe city (more about that later). In between all that we get told some of Aang and Zuko’s backstories, in flashbacks and amazingly awkward exposition.
What’s also left, of course, is the magical kung fu, but that mostly falls flat. The FX are competently done, and so are the martial arts (I guess; I’m not an expert), but together they just don’t work. The connection between physical movements and elemental effects are broken because for some reason, Benders need to do various moves for a few seconds (to “warm up” their ch’i, I guess) before anything happens. These moves are usually too quick and small to really look good on screen. The end result isn’t cool, it’s not pretty, it’s just really distracting. Maybe it was a mistake to translate an animated show to live action, or maybe a better director could have made it work, I don’t know.
Shyamalan’s failure as a writer is most obvious in the climactic battle between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe: almost all of the amazingly epic scenes in the series were either left out of the movie, or simply ruined. Not just done badly: done wrong. Zhao killing the Moon Spirit, Iroh unloading a can of whoop-ass, Yue’s sacrifice, Aang saving the day, Zhao’s death, every single one of them was a middle finger aimed at the fans. I honestly can’t understand how Shyamalan could think his changes are an improvement on the series. I’ll just highlight a couple:
In the TV series, Yue’s farewell scene was touching and wonderfully done. She becomes the new Moon Spirit, ascending to a higher plane of existence, and even has time for a final ethereal kiss with Sokka. In the movie she just… dies. Her life energy flows into the Koi fish, and her body stays floating in the pool. Lame.
In the TV series, Aang merges with the Ocean Spirit to lay some righteous smackdown on the Fire Nation fleet, in an awesome spectacle that combined stunning visuals, lovely music, and epic action. In the movie, Aang was never near the spirit pool. But that’s okay, I thought, he doesn’t need the Ocean Spirit. Yeah, he’s in the Avatar State now, that’s awesome! And summoning a tidal wave, like he almost did a couple of times before. He wasn’t ready then, but “water is the element of acceptance,” so let your emotions flow, and unleash all your rage and grief at the Fire Nation fleet!
… any minute now…
No? You’re just going to… hold it there? Oh, you’re waiting for the fleet to turn and run? Huh. Okay. I was hoping for some epic kickassery, but whatever floats your boat, I guess.
The movie ends with Aang accepting his destiny and the Firelord expositing about Sozin’s comet, thus setting up the rest of the trilogy. But with the horrible reviews this movie’s getting I’d be very surprised to see the sequel. Good thing, too. The last thing I want to see is Shyamalan fucking up Toph, Azula, Zuko’s change(s) of heart, and all the shadowy, creepy plots in Ba Sing Se.
Mind you, if he does make that movie, I have a feeling I might go see it. Because I am weak that way. Though if it’s any comfort, I promise I’ll feel really bad about it.