Movie Review – The Last Airbender (2010)
by HELEN GEIB
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.