The Last Airbender (2010) Movie Review

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M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action “The Last Airbender” is the first part of a proposed trilogy, and is it ever obvious. As a result, there is no real conclusion, just a series of set-ups for something grander in the horizon. If, that is, the film proves profitable enough to warrant a sequel or two. Mind you, while this is a very real problem with the film, it’s not the only problem. If you did not know that Shyamalan had been slaving on the project for the last two years, you would be hard-pressed to guess that he not only wrote but also directed the film. This does not feel like a film from the same man who gave us “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. Then again, considering his more recent outputs, the egocentric “Lady in the Water” and the unintentionally hilarious “The Happening”, maybe “Airbender” won’t be that hard to associate with Shyamalan after all…

“The Last Airbender”, based on the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (the “Avatar” part was excised as not to confuse it with James Cameron’s film, though considering the titanic (get it?) box office of Cameron’s “Avatar”, that might not have been a wise move), comes with heavy baggage. The animated series is essentially a children’s action-adventure show with children heroes. Shyamalan has translated the original source as best he can, with newcomer Noah Ringer standing in for Aang, the franchise’s young hero. Aang is the latest in a long line of mythical Avatars, essentially the fictional land’s Beat Cop. When the film’s four individual nations – Earth, Water, Fire, and the Air Nomads – get a little too big for their britches, it’s the Avatar’s job to summon all the four elements at his disposal through the art of “bending” and whup some ass, thus maintaining “balance”.

Alas, it’s been 100 years since the last Avatar disappeared, and in that time the Fire Nation, led by the bellicose and (not so much) father of the year candidate Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) have been terrorizing its neighbors. The Fire Nation, whose soldiers have the ability to bend fire – that is, control fire through, for lack of a better word, kung fu – have razed the land with their “machines”, a source of much derision among the other Nations. In the naturalistic, fantasy world of “The Last Airbender”, everyone lives in harmony with nature, so the Fire Nation’s clunky war machines are seen as instruments of brute, ugly violence and insults against the nature that everyone cherishes so much. It’s all very obvious and “sledgehammer to the face”, yet something else the film’s script has in common with Cameron’s film.

Into this world arrives young Aang, who is found frozen in ice by siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz, also our narrator) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), members of the over-powered and subjugated Southern Water Tribe. Aang doesn’t know it yet, but he soon discovers that he’s been frozen in ice for the last 100 years, and his presence has alerted young Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), who has been scouring the land all these years in search of the Avatar in order to find redemption and somehow get back into the good graces of dear old dad. Zuko is assisted by his kindly uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), but is resisted by douchey Fire Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who spends the entire movie being evil and, well, more evil. If it isn’t obvious by now, subtlety is not exactly the strong point of “The Last Airbender”, and I’m afraid that’s just one of many issues the film can’t conquer.

It’s not so much that “The Last Airbender” is a bad movie, it’s just that … well, it just kind of exists for the sake of existing. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I had a hard time trying to decide if the film is bad, or if it is just mediocre. One thing I can safely say with 100% certainty is that the film is never outstanding. Not once in the entire two hours. It’s as if M. Night Shyamalan spent so much time with the little things – getting all the details of the water city stronghold just right, the nooks and crannies of the Fire Nation ships, the colorful outfits of the various tribes — that he forgot to make the film good. Oh sure, the sets are huge and the CGI is always outstanding, and all the “bending” effects are seamlessly integrated into the scenes with the live characters, but … well, what else is there? Not much, I’m afraid.

I’m reminded of George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels. All three films were marvels of CG technology, and you absolutely knew, without a doubt, that Lucas wrote those films specifically so he could show off the newfangled technology he had come up with since “Return of the Jedi”, and not necessarily to tell a coherent, interesting, or even believable story. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not demanding that “Star Wars” be believable. Likewise, I don’t care if “The Last Airbender’s” world is believable. There are guys using kung fu to throw fire, water, and dirt at each other? That sounds cool, I can dig it. Unfortunately, watching “The Last Airbender” I couldn’t shake the notion that this is what Shyamalan’s career should have started out with before he eventually matured into the man who gave us “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. In fact, he seems to be regressing as an effective storyteller, which is something he should be very worried about.

“The Last Airbender” is led by young Noah Ringer, a novice actor who was doing martial arts showcases in tournaments one day and fronting a big-budget Summer Event studio film the next. It’s one hell of an impossible situation for the kid (what was he supposed to do, turn it down?), and the young man gives it his all, but he’s no Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment. Then again, I’m sure those two couldn’t throw down like Ringer, so that’s one thing he has over them. This is actually one of the few areas in the film where Shyamalan does well – he smartly keeps Ringer from having to shoulder the entire film, and has surrounded him with a large cast to share the workload. Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone have almost as much screentime as Ringer, and half of the film is devoted to the life and times of Dev Patel’s Zuko. It’s curious, but the film feels like two different movies – the tortured, adult story of Zuko’s quest, and the whimsical adventures of Aang, Katara, and Sokka.

“The Last Airbender” is not a terrible film, but it is a film that makes you wish Shyamalan had done more with the opportunity (not to mention the budget he had been given). And while it would have pissed off the diehard fans, it might have been wiser to cast an older Aang and made the film more than just a series of bloodless, mostly consequence-free CG combat. Despite the film’s talk of war and conquest, it’s never more than child’s play (the movie is rated PG), which seems justifiable given the film’s original source material. The big leap in faith here is that Shyamalan expects to be able to make parts two and three, and has given us a film that is only one-third of the whole story. The problem is that it feels very much like an incomplete movie, which might not have been such a bad thing if audiences are only asked to pay one-third of the ticket price to see it. Alas, that is not the case.

M. Night Shyamalan (director) / M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
CAST: Noah Ringer … Aang
Dev Patel … Prince Zuko
Nicola Peltz … Katara
Jackson Rathbone … Sokka
Shaun Toub … Uncle Iroh
Aasif Mandvi … Commander Zhao
Cliff Curtis … Fire Lord Ozai
Seychelle Gabriel … Princess Yue


Buy The Last Airbender on DVD

Author: Nix

Editor/Writer at BeyondHollywood.com. Likes: long walks on the beach and Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic movies. Dislikes: 3D, shaky cam, and shaky cam in 3D. Got a site issue? Wanna submit Movie/TV news? Or to email me in regards to anything on the site, you can do so at nix (at) beyondhollywood.com.
  • jas

    so I watched every episode of the anime. Excited to watch the movie I
    went to the midnight viewing and walked out disappointed. Aang
    pronunciation was changed, he didn't have the fun joking attitude the
    character had in the cartoon.

    The largest distraction was the fire nation characters, LEAVING RACE
    OUT OF IT, why didn't he cast people that looked like the characters?
    if you could find an indian person that looks like Zuko
    congratulations, but please don't make new characters and keep the
    title. Its an insult to those who watched the anime and more
    importantly those who made the anime.

    Zuko was hilariously harmless!! he looked like a complete joke. IN
    the cartoon he was fearless, ruthless and strong. However, the person
    playing it looked like a highschool kid dressing up for Halloween.
    Similarly the fire lord was ridiculous, how can that person play the
    most diabolical character in the cartoon? Also he didn't have long
    hair, wasn't MMA stature and is face looked nothing like the anime
    character (the look of a trained assassin). Instead, the fire lord
    looked like my physics professor, lol, at least he had some
    character.

    It is obvious that NIght didn't watch the anime or just doesn't care
    about keeping the characters the same. The plot, the relationships
    and persona of the characters (how they act and how they look) is
    what made the anime soo popular!

    This movie was a disappointment for all of those who watched the
    anime, if you don't follow the characters, why keep the name? MONEY!
    MOney! MONEY!

    oh the 3d was so underdeveloped it seemed like an after thought for
    the producer

    Overall the movie did not live up to the hype like many of those who
    tried to make an anime or book into a movie. IT would be interesting
    if they asked David Yates (director of the last three harry potter
    movies),to make the next books im sure he wouldn't mess up the plot
    or the characters and their development. The Harry potter movies that
    he made were extremely fantastic and it followed the feel of the
    books.

  • tinysky

    I have been a fan of this show since the beginning so when I heard about this movie over a year ago i was so excited and like a lot of people counted down the days. After seeing it tonight I was just so disappointed by the whole thing. I think I spent most of my time telling my husband things the didn't happen that were in the movie. They didn't even say Aang's name right or half the other characters and huge parts in the storyline were completely cut out, like at the end where Aang is fighting in the avatar state and he doesn't even turn into the spirit fish to destroy the fire nation ships. Needless to say if M.N.S doesn't get his story straight I will not being seeing part 2.

  • Tammysally

    I've watched the cartoon version with my daughter from the beginning. I have never enjoyed a cartoon like this one, its awesome. The ending, Sozin's coment 4 was just plain bad ass. I was literally moved by the end and I love the whole thing and I'm 40 years old and not really a cartoon fan. Then I saw the trailer and it made me so excited about the movie that I could barely stand to wait for it to come out.

    Then, I went to the movie last night. What a disappointment, terrible. And I didn't mind the story changes, and I was willing to put up with the bad acting even. But the screenplay is what kills it. The dialog is aweful. When Aang first addresses the Earth bending village to try and get them to fight, its not the new actor Noah Ringer who stinks it up as much as simply bad writing. Shamalama ding dong, or whatever the guys name is should have had someone else write it. There was no flow, unintended awkward silences and failed attempts at comedy. Another mistake was how young the cast was. I know these characters in the cartoon are 12 but espcially Katara, and eventually Azula need to have the presence and power and command in their voice that only someone fully past puberty can exibit. If I can't talk you out of seeing this movie, I know that you probably won't see the sequel if they even make one. The chick who plays Azula was so bad…..so so bad and she only has one line at the end which is executed in this tiny voice? Azula is a bad ass, and this chick plays her like a valley girl on crack. The next movie is going to suck worse, IF they make it, which they wont. I could go on for days about how much this movie sucked. I wanted to like it so much. The trailer was awesome. Speaking of, the music in the trailer is totally different from the movie where it is almost non-existant at times even silent when there should be music. I am just shocked at just how bad it was, sincerely. Ok, I'm going to try and stop writing about it, you get the picture. Unbelievable.

  • G8er3d05

    Dito!!!! There was so much irrelevance in the movie and too many important stories omitted from the cartoon series. The relationships and development of the characters were poorly depicted. The plot never thickened and unveiled itself as it should have. For example, I was outraged when Katara, Soka, and Aang had to spell out that they should go from town to town and save those people while on a mission to find all the bending masters. Really, was dialogue really necessary for that? It was too serious & I only saw Soka smile once, but this movie is PG? Shyamalan wasn't rushed, he had the PERFECT script from the cartoon and hacked it into a million pieces just so he could put his spin on things. I guess it shows all of us that it's hard to alter perfection. I'm a huge fan of the series, watch it every night before I go to bed for a whole year now, and to experience this kind of disappointment is hard and came with a price tag: $50. I want my happiness and my $ back Shyamalan!

  • Charles

    This movie sucked! I am disgusted by this movie; I am a fan. This blew it for me…Spielberg, someone, please…save this film!!!!

  • Waterbenderblue

    You have obiviously never gotten into the show my brother went and saw it last night we are so angry that they pronounced names wrong they called aang-ong, sakka-suka Zuko's scar is not NEARLY as noticable as it is suppose to be and it doesnt look lieka fireball which is HUGLY SIGNIFICANT because he got it from his father from challenging him to and agni-ki. Kitara's hair is drffrent so is Zuko's and Sakka's. Uncle Iro LOOKS NOTHING LIKE THE ORIGINAL. General Zhao Dies and he is suppose to be in book 2!!!! this movie is a disaster WE all were fooled and we should have known because Even Nickelodeon didnt put their name on the movie. and it WAS THEIR SHOW!!! M.Night also changed rules of the benders for example fire benders need a pre existing fire in order to bend???? wtf is with that the fire benders draw their power from the sun….so the fact that he changed that rule completely ruins the last book 2nd book when they attack the fire nation during the eclipse…cuz they have no power….make sense???? the characters persnoallities are diffrent to .Sokka was suppose to be the comic relief….what happened there? Momo and appa? you never see the save for 30-40 secs of movie time??? Aang is NOT driven by revenge he doesnt believe in killing..unless necessarily…where are the Kiyoshi warriors?!?!?!? Suki??? M Night ruined this movie im sooo angry.no one is expecting it to be exactly like the show because it would be a 10 hour movie but come on this is sooo sad….i hope he doesnt waste money making anymore…

    • Madison Stepp

      yeah what the hell happened to suki she was supposed to be in the movie. those of us who watched the whole water season on netflix are just like what the fuck. i watched countless cast videos on youtube and they all said suki was going to be in it but when i go to see the movie no fucking suki. if you remember in season 2 suki pretty much saves appa. and there’s another thing appa wasn’t a big part. and my theater only showed it in 3d witch is totaly not worth it there was hardly any 3D in it witch is gay.

    • Tiger01

      general zhao isn’t in book 2 smart, he died just like he did in the siege of the north. watch it again and ull c.

    • Tiger01

      general zhao isn’t in book 2 smart, he died just like he did in the siege of the north. watch it again and ull c.

  • waterbenderblue

    PS the actors are all hindu or some crap and they are suppose to be Chinese Japanese..Hence the writting in the tv show on the paper…..

    • Kainoareloza

      it pisses me off. the air nomads should be like shaolin monks. earthebenders should be like viet and mong peeps, fire nation like Korean and Chinese, water tribe eskimos or filipinos

      • Munch921

        I guess he wanted to be more authentic with the names, but if he wanted to be authentic, he should have had more authentic characters.

  • Waterbenderblue

    or jerry bruckheimer(pirates of the carribean)

  • Triesbeck

    I agree with you except for one thing. Zhao did die, his part in book two was a flash back. however, Aang killed him, NOT random waterbenders. I believe that if you have seen the entire show, you would not like it, but if not, i can see where it could be enjoyable. i actually wouldn't mind seeing a sequal, but it definately wasn't what i expected.

    • Kainoareloza

      Zhao died because of la the ocean spirit. not no random waterbenders.

  • Somebody

    I was a little excited to see this movie and me and my brother and nephew saw it. We laughed at there names, laughed wierd characters, and towards the end It faded to black We started laughing Its over! lol XD (Directed by M. Knight Sham… WHAT?!? I was very dissapointed If they make it into 3 movies and then they cram all the episodes into 5 minutes??? Terrible movie, I will want to see the others but it SUCKED.