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Consumed With Hate: The Last Airbender

⬇️  Bend Me, Break Me, Any Way You Need Me...

The Crime: The Last Airbender
The Guilty Party: M. Night Shyamalan
Overview: A beloved animated children's show is frankensteined to life as a joyless, ugly, incomprehensible wreck.

Why I Hate It...

In January of 2007, Nickelodeon announced that they would be releasing a live-action adaptation of their beloved fantasy-adventure martial-art series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was to be a trilogy of films, and those movies would be written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, a director best known for slow-burn thrillers who had never directed fantasy, martial arts, adventure, or children's movies, and whose previous three movies has been kinda bad (Signs), watchably bad (The Village), and badly unwatchable (Lady in the Water). Oddly, entrusting one of their flagship properties to Shyamalan is not the worst decision that went into this film.

The Last Airbender is a fantastic watch if you're a lover of terrible movies. It fails on basically every level. It's ugly, badly acted, incomprehensibly plotted, and bizarrely edited, but it also manages to fundamentally misunderstand everything about the property it's based on while having lines that are so laughably bad that you wonder if anyone bothered to read the script before they started shooting. And the badness is unrelenting. I was live-posting on Mastodon as I watched and I kept having to pause the movie because the awfulness was playing out faster than I could write it down. It is a cavalcade of bed-shitting. It's difficult to even know where to start an autopsy because there are so many holes in this thing.

But let's start with the script. The series was planned as a trilogy with each film covering a season of the show, condensing nearly seven hours of episodic television into a single narrative. This means that a lot would need to be truncated or excised, and there's one big problem that would need to be solved with the ending--the last three episodes of the season play out as a mini-movie and succeed in their own right, but as the climax to a larger story they're asking you to be invested in characters you've only just met. These are surmountable problems, though, that a skilled writer can work around. So how does Shyamalan handle the material? Endless, inane voiceover. Every plot point is explained, rather than demonstrated. The old maxim "show, don't tell" is a bit over-deployed these days, but if ever there were a movie that needed it, it's this one. And the actual lines being spoken are just word salad. My favorite line was this from Katara's grandmother: "I knew from the first time we discovered you were a bender that one day I would realize your destiny." The hell does that even mean?

Of course, brilliant performances can save a bad script. This movie does not have those. Now, I'm not going to be too hard on the child actors here. They were very young and I'm sure they did their best, and if the Star Wars prequels have taught us anything it's that brilliant actors can still deliver terrible performances if they're ineptly directed. But the performances across the board are particularly bad. At one end of the spectrum you have miscast actors. Aasif Mandvi is General Zhao, and while he's a hilarious comic performer, he's about as menacing as fruit compote. At the other end, you have those fundamental character misunderstandings. In the show, Aang--the titular last airbender--is a force of jubilation. He is just boundlessly joyful in the face of catastrophe, and in those rare moments when his spirit breaks, you feel that pain. In the film, Noah Ringer plays Aang as though he is constantly frightened and unflinchingly earnest. It's like they hadn't even seen the show.

And then there's the look of the film. According to legend, Shyamalan shot the opening sequences in Greenland and they were so expensive that the film had to be re-budgeted and the rest was shot almost entirely in and around Philadelphia. One of the things that got slashed was the effects budget, so there are a lot of shots that feel unfinished. There are sequences where people are clearly supposed to be bending, but there's nothing happening on the screen, so it's like watching people do tai chi. None of the effects look good, and a few of them are outright terrifying. There are some bizarre design choices as well. I've already linked to Appa's horrific face, but why does the final battle have two armies fighting at night with one dressed in black and the other in dark blue so you can't tell any of them apart? Why does Princess Yue's hair look like a penis from behind? Why, Shyamalan? Why!?

But what about the fighting? A crappy looking martial arts movie can still be entertaining if it has good martial arts. Well, sorry, but there's nothing good to report on that front either. The fighting is slow and pointless and completely unconvincing. It doesn't help that the actors are generally just doing motions in the air and then having unfinished elemental effects do the actual fighting.

But what about... Honestly, I could go on for a while. I haven't even touched on the way it's edited to feel like there are missing scenes or all of the unearned character beats or the montage that only has like four shots in it or the absolute breakneck pacing or the handful of times where the movie remembers that it's based on a cartoon and tries to be funny with truly confounding results. But I have to stop, because I want this to be a readable length. I'm going to follow this up, though, with some of my thoughts on how the adaptation could have been fixed, but that will be a separate post.

The Last Airbender is an achievement. It stands alongside Cats and Batman v. Superman as a film that is so bad it deserves to be studied, especially given the amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera. And let's be very clear about that--Shyamalan is at least capable of making good, dare I say "great" movies. He was already on a downward trajectory when he took on this project, but it's hard to overstate just how big The Sixth Sense was, and he had a bit of a career renaissance in the mid-2010s with Split and The Visit. And yet this film is hot garbage. Andrew Lesnie was a brilliant D.P., and yet this film is hideous. ILM does amazing digital work, but the effects here are horrible. Dev Patel is a great actor, but he's wasted as Zuko. This film killed not only the entire trilogy, but it may have contributed to the early death of the follow-up series The Legend of Korra, and it is a blight on the resume of everyone who touched it.

Next week we go to the realm of board gaming with the Kaiju dice-rolling misfire King of New York.

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.