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July 8, 2010


Movie Review – The Last Airbender (2010)


The Last Airbender (2010)

Someone stop that man before he writes again.

By now it’s common knowledge that the reviews for The Last Airbender have been abysmal. It has joined a select, unlucky group: movies that fall victim to a perfect storm of critical revulsion, displaced anger, and story of the day media attention. It is in fact, a very bad film, but it is not an extraordinarily bad film.

Hollywood turns out plenty of equally bad and worse movies every year. This particular bad movie has parts that are actually quite good, like the action choreography, special effects, and music, and parts that are perfectly acceptable, like the costumes.

Notably, what those parts have in common is that writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan had relatively little to do with them. The film is poorly directed, and the script is appalling.

The Last Airbender is adapted from a popular, anime-influenced American cartoon series. It is possible to glimpse the appeal of the underlying material, and to envision an adaptation- with a wholly different script and largely different cast- that would be well worth seeing.

The setting is a world where the population is divided into four tribes. Each tribe is identified with one of the four elements, and select people within each tribe possess spiritual powers that enable them to manipulate their tribe’s element.

“Bending” is terrific to watch in each of its four manifestations, and supplies nearly every worth-watching moment in the film. The fantasy-action sequences where no one is talking and the choreography, special effects, and music control suggest what the film might have been with someone else at the helm, or at least at the keyboard.

The title refers to the boy hero of the story, who is both the sole surviving member of the Air tribe (causing much angst) and the current reincarnation of “the Avatar.” A being set apart from others (also causing much angst), the Avatar holds mastery over all four elements and is destined to bring peace to a land riven by the Fire tribe’s war of conquest.

Or a destiny along some such lines- the film is fuzzy on this point. The fuzziness is partly a deliberate strategy of withholding crucial information for the further films in the series (set up by this film’s open ending, although now unlikely to materialize), and partly one instance of the script’s chronic lack of clarity and focus.

The script fails miserably in every aspect: story construction; characterization; dialogue. The dialogue is simply atrocious. The dialogue is 10,000 B.C. level bad. To say that the dialogue was written by someone with a tin ear is to insult people with tin ears. The dialogue is cringe-inducing.

Watching, and more particularly listening to this film, inspires profound pity for the actors. The young actors are crushed by the inane dialogue and pathetic characterization. As if the script was not enough of a burden, it is obvious that they did not receive the direction they needed. The more experienced adult actors playing Fire tribe big-shots manage to hold onto their dignity, but only Shaun Toub (as Iroh) manages the impressive feat of occasionally and momentarily overcoming the fathomless dreadfulness of the writing.

The underlying simple-minded philosophy of technology-is-evil is, like every other consequential aspect of the film, treated perfunctorily. It is too lame even to inspire annoyance.

Describing the horror that is this script is a true test of the critic’s inner thesaurus.

1 star


10,000 B.C. is an example of a movie that is actually worse than The Last Airbender. The Forbidden Kingdom and The Fall are fantasy films both children and adults can enjoy.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nir Shalev
    Jul 8 2010

    Wow, you went easy on this one. Kudos!

  2. Helen
    Jul 8 2010

    Did I dislike this, Leap Year, or Percy Jackson more? It’s a tough call. And that’s just this year. That’s why I say Last Airbender isn’t extraordinarily bad (more’s the pity!).

  3. Nir Shalev
    Jul 9 2010

    I’d recently watched Percy Jackson and no matter how bad it was I don’t think it would come close to being The Last Airbender bad. But I’m never going to watch it so I’ll never know. 0_<

  4. miriam
    Jul 10 2010

    What is it with directors trying to be writers too? Luc Besson and Robert Rodriguez are two more who would do much better to confine themselves to the director’s role. It’s the glamour job after all and heaven knows there are plenty of writers who would be grateful for the work.

    The movie has made money despite the storm of criticism and contempt, or I should say has sold tickets. The sequel may very well be made – it’s no more improbable than that Shymalan keeps getting hired.

  5. Nir Shalev
    Jul 10 2010

    Shyamalan got lucky with “The Sixth Sense” and it turned out to actually be a good movie. “Unbreakable” is great too, and I can watch it many more times than “The Sixth Sense” and I’d greatly enjoyed “Signs”. He’d written all three and they worked because they were original and fresh. Afterwards, he’d struck out three times in a row, making three of the worst movies of all time, keeping in mind that he’d written every movie he directed. His seventh film is his opus and paradoxically, one more solid nail in the coffin.

    In defense of Rodriguez, he wrote, directed, and produced “El Mariachi” (which an awesome film), “Desperado” (which is good, too), “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (in which only the last 15 minutes are good), “From Dusk Till Dawn” (which was written by his buddy Tarantino and is an amazing film), “The Faculty” (which had its moments), “Sin City” (which is astoundingly fantastic) and “Planet Terror” (one of the best zombie/grindhouse movies in decades). The kids movies in between don’t really exist because of how terrible they are; the stories had originated from his kids, cousins, and nieces and so they’re easily ignored.
    And Besson wrote and directed “Leon: the Professional” and “The Fifth Element” so these writer/directors were all great in their prime. Except that Rodriguez keeps making awesome movies.

    They’re more hit than miss but Miriam, you’re absolutely right about Shyamalan.

  6. miriam
    Jul 10 2010

    Rodriguez has done some great work but his movies succeed despite the script for the most part. I like the first two and I like the first of the Spy Kids films but he has no writer’s credit ( IMDB) for The Faculty (definitely fun) or for Sin City (as you say, fantastic).

    I am surprised to learn from IMDb that Besson is primarily a writer, with four times the credits than as a director. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his movies but I’ve gotten tired of the sameness of the female character he puts in them. Mostly I’ve liked his movies for the lead performances. He must be doing something right to attract the likes of Jean Reno, Liam Neeson, Jet Li, Bruce Willis, et al.

    On a side note, I use Desperado as a favorite example of a movie that’s great in the theater but just ok on a small screen. Did you see this in a theater to make the comparison?

  7. Helen
    Jul 10 2010

    Besson is doing a good thing in mentoring younger directors, but he needs to start mentoring some younger scriptwriters as well. It’s not just the female characters that suffer from sameness in his films. He’s been re-working the same script since The Fifth Element. I’ve enjoyed many of his films (notably La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element), but I wish he’d take a try at directing someone else’s script instead of the other way around.

  8. Nir Shalev
    Jul 11 2010

    I hadn’t seen Desperado in theatres when it came out. Not because I was only 13 years old (I’d snuck in many times and many others times I didn’t even need to) but because I didn’t know directors and such, and what movies to follow. It wasn’t a huge film at the time either, as far as I can remember and so I saw what movies had commercials playing on TV, over and over.

    I’d already known that Besson is a writer much more than he is a film director and it’s came to the fact that when watching movies like The Transporter and Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed) I’d sit there and say, “Yup. This was definitely written by Luc Besson”.

    @Helen, I hear yah and agree!