A Decade Later, Let’s Itemize the Sins of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender

Movies Features Avatar the Last Airbender
A Decade Later, Let’s Itemize the Sins of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender

In the last few months, like so many other Netflix viewers, I dove head first into Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a cult series that had been on my “I really should watch this” list for years, but its limited availability always kept me from actively seeking the series out. As has been experienced by so many other shows that are beneficiaries of the so-called “Netflix bump,” though, appreciation for Avatar has subsequently exploded, and the show has consistently been in Netflix’s top 10, with an entire new audience falling in love with it along the way.

Which of course, to someone who is fascinated by bad movies, can mean only one thing: It was clearly time for me to revisit M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender adaptation from 2010. And the timing proved to be fortuitous, as we just marked the 10th anniversary of that legendarily bad film’s release. It sits second to last in our ranking of every M. Night Shyamalan film, ahead of only (of course) The Happening.

What I found was a film that was every bit as bad on a technical level as I remembered, but also so much worse as an adaptation than I ever realized. To watch the entirety of Avatar, and then move directly on to Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is like touring the Louvre and then going to a souvenir shop outside where street urchins are painting their best attempts at replicating the works of Monet and Vermeer. Suffice to say, the work of art does not translate well.

There are myriad aspects of Shyamalan’s interpretation that flat out don’t work, including some aspects of the film over which he had no real control. The post-filming conversion of The Last Airbender to 3D was one of these, and was heavily criticized at the time, being one of the most high-profile cases (along with Clash of the Titans) of more or less complete films being converted to 3D to cash in on the massive success of James Cameron’s Avatar—ironically, the reason why the word “avatar” is no longer present in the title of Shyamalan’s adaptation. The visual fidelity of the movie seemed to suffer as a result, with many scenes that look murky, dark and underlit.

But Shyamalan as director also made the choice to condense the entirety of Avatar’s first season, some 8 hours of animated material, into a surprisingly rushed film that was presumably meant to be an epic, clocking in at only 94 minutes if you subtract the lengthy end credits. The result likewise damages its pacing badly, as The Last Airbender relies both on constant narration and exposition dumps from Katara to keep the audience up to speed, and a composite character called the “Dragon Spirit” that effectively replaces every one of Aang’s teachers—most notably Avatar Roku, Fang, Koh, Jeong Jeong and Guru Pathik. The result is streamlined but chaotic, with little to no time for non-plot character interaction.

There are so many aspects of The Last Airbender one could choose to focus on in expounding upon its weakness as an adaptation, but let’s instead key in on three in particular: Shyamalan’s misunderstanding of the characters, the poorly constructed action, and the film’s persistently troubling racial presentation/whitewashing.

How The Last Airbender Fails to Understand its Characters

Although aspects like the whitewashing of its characters is often the first controversy that comes up surrounding discussion of The Last Airbender, the film’s script by Shyamalan also fails them on deeper and wider levels, beyond appearance, representation and racial heritage. Which is to say, Shyamalan just doesn’t seem to understand why someone would like most of these characters at all, or how they would be effective as heroes or villains, and they rarely remind the audience on any level of their animated counterparts.

You really can’t start anywhere else than with Aang, portrayed here by first-time actor Noah Ringer, who had a grand total of one month to prepare for filming with essentially no applicable acting experience. Ringer was a gifted young practitioner of Taekwondo, and already a fan of the Avatar animated series, who was in fact referred to by friends as “Avatar” for his choice to shave his head during competition and his physical resemblance to Aang. It was this familiarity with the character and superficial appearance/martial arts training that got Ringer an audience with Shyamalan, who was quickly impressed. And indeed, you can see why, on paper, someone might have thought that this choice would work out, but one would have hoped that a quick glance at the dailies after the first few days of shooting would have made it clear that Ringer was in far over his head.

It’s a casting choice that simply doesn’t work, especially given that the inexperienced Ringer is expected to carry the film as title character and lead protagonist. He often looks lost and uncomfortable, hardly the fault of a 12-year-old taekwondo student who had been handed the lead role of a would-be summer blockbuster, seemingly out of thin air. His face rests with a blank, emotionless look that is bereft of any spark or vitality, and more than anything it demonstrates that Shyamalan had his priorities badly out of order when it came to casting. This was a part that called for an immensely charismatic, often hyperactive personality, rambunctious and full of vigor, but it ended up in the hands of a sullen-looking young man who happened to be proficient in martial arts. In a film that was always going to rely heavily on CGI, Aang’s ability to perform real-life kicks should have been the least of their concerns.

last-airbender-aang-inset.jpgThis look, plastered on Aang’s face for 80% of this film, is not an expression you’ll see in a single frame of the animated series.

It’s certainly not just Aang, though, as almost all the characters have their legs cut out from under them. In some cases, it’s because the film has almost entirely excised the show’s sense of humor, which transforms Sokka in particular from a loveable doofus and quip machine with a gift for tactics into a joyless automaton. The villains, meanwhile, are really no better, and it’s hard not to laugh at Cliff Curtis as Firelord Ozai, who feels more like an unintimidating, pompous aristocrat than a world-threatening, psychopathic dictator. It’s extremely hard to imagine how this version of Ozai would have been able to carry the burden of “Big Bad”/Phoenix King in the third film of what was meant to be a trilogy—he comes off as effette and incompetent rather than sadistic and calculating.

The only character to feel anywhere close to accurate is Dev Patel’s Prince Zuko, whose deadly serious nature actually makes sense—the animated series eventually derives a lot of humor from the fact that Zuko is unrealistically humorless by nature. But even Patel later admitted that he was ashamed of the film, feeling “completely overwhelmed by the experience.” Watching his own work, he described it as “I saw a stranger on the screen that I couldn’t relate to.”

The Uninspired Bending of The Last Airbender

If there was one great selling point to making a live-action feature film from Avatar: The Last Airbender, it was the promise of seeing the powers of air, water, earth and firebending come to life on the big screen. What a shame, then, that The Last Airbender bungles those action scenes so badly, failing even to convey the joy one would expect to feel in manipulating the elements.

Some of the blame here will inherently belong to the aforementioned, post-filming conversion to 3D, which took whatever Shyamalan was already working with and undoubtedly made it look even worse. But The Last Airbender’s action issues go far beyond merely a dim, unattractive picture. These sequences are just poorly staged in general, feeling uniquely underwhelming for action setpieces that should have reflected a $150 million budget, by far the biggest in Shyamalan’s career. It feels like the director had no idea how that money should be spent, and the action ends up looking both haphazard and small in scale and impact. Nowhere is that better captured than in the “Earthbenders revolt” clip below, which features not only some atrocious acting from our leads, but the sight of half a dozen earthbenders dancing and stomping to produce … a 10 pound hovering rock. All of the film’s fights are like this, featuring blasts of fire, rock and water that travel slower than if most of us were throwing them by hand. On the most basic level, the film fails to make bending itself look effective or awe-inspiring.

Not helping matters is the fact that the mechanics of bending in this movie simply can’t avoid looking silly in practice, especially with so little in terms of payoff. There’s simply not a hint of grace to any of the bending movements—they’re endlessly convoluted gestures that go on far too long before something unimpressive happens. There’s something about it that evokes low-rent videogame adaptations like Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and that’s really not a comparison you want for your $150 million CGI spectacular.

These action scenes are even more difficult to appreciate after watching the entirety of the animated series, which features genuinely impressive feats of bending in every episode, and incredibly intricate and beautifully choreographed fight scenes, especially as the seasons progress. A director like Shyamalan, whose films before this point had always been based on character and suspense rather than action, stood no chance of replicating that level of energy.

The Entire Racial Presentation

And of course, we have to talk about the elephant in the room—all that whitewashing. The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender is unmistakably interpreted as an Asiatic one, with cultures that broadly reflect various real-world influences. The Water Tribe has an unmissable Inuit appearance to their clothing and artifacts, while Aang’s own Air Nomads seem to have been a culture heavily inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks. The Earth and Fire kingdoms are a bit harder to parse, but they clearly draw inspiration in various areas from ancient Chinese, Korean and Japanese culture. The Fire Nation in particular reflects a Japanese styling in its honor-based military caste and fashions.

Not that you’d know any of this, looking at Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, of course. He immediately dispenses with the show’s ethnic depiction of both the Water Tribe and Air Nomads, casting white actors in all the major protagonist roles, such as Aang, Katara, Sokka and Master Pakku. Grilled at the time of release about why the film wasn’t more diverse in the casting of its leads, Shyamalan repeatedly deferred or defended aspects of the casting, pointing to the film’s other pan-Asian actors, who make up small roles among the earthbenders, and the majority of the firebenders.

That of course raises the sticky situation of which parts did get cast with brown-skinned actors, which largely boils down to “all the bad guys.” The casting here seems to suggest that Shyamalan—himself of Indian descent—seemed to think that anyone brown was acceptable for any Fire Nation role in particular, which leads to a confusing array of backgrounds for characters who are all supposed to be blood relatives of vaguely Japanese descent. Look no further than the Firelord’s clan, which consists of someone of indigenous Maori descent (Cliff Curtis) as the head of a family with an Indian son (Dev Patel), an Iranian brother (Shaun Toub) and a daughter of Mexican and Indian descent (Summer Bishil). The unspoken implication seems to be that anyone brown is equally likely to be a villain in this world—something that wouldn’t have been an issue if Water Tribe characters like Sokka and Katara were played by ethnically accurate actors. Instead, the choice to whitewash the protagonist roles causes it to boil down once again to a “light vs. dark” duality of good vs. evil, like so much other Western fiction. Those with light skin are inevitably heroes. Those with darker skin are nefarious.

last-airbender-antagonists.jpgThe film’s antagonists are invariably darker in skin tone.

This seeming lack of concern or thought for the issues of race and representation is all the more confusing, given some of the changes that Shyamalan did find worth his time in scripting The Last Airbender. The pronunciations in particular are all different from the animated series across the board; something that annoyed fans on an inherent level when they heard Aang pronounced as “Ahn-guh” or “Ungh.” The pronunciation of Sokka likewise goes from “sah-kah” to “soh-ka,” and even “avatar” becomes “ah-vuhtar.” Shyamalan described these changes as being more authentic to how the names would actually be pronounced in Asian cultures—a rather incredible thing to value, while simultaneously not caring that white actors are replacing Asian ones in almost all the major roles. It does boggle the mind to think that he somehow thought pronunciations were a higher priority than representation.

Only a decade later, The Last Airbender feels hopelessly outdated in every measure one could use to gauge such a thing. It’s regressive in terms of diversity in a story that should have been used as a launching pad for young Asian stars, instead opting for performers who can’t even handle the material in front of them. It manages to be both convoluted and rushed, with a narrative that condenses 8 hours of animation into what feels like 94 minutes of straight voiceover. Its action scenes feel like the work of a director who had no concept of how to stage them, and even when the film is in motion, it’s unbearably dull to look at. There’s nothing it does particularly well, aside from some decent set design … most of which is difficult to see or appreciate. It absolutely does not feel like a film with a $150 million budget.

It does raise the question: Will Netflix’s upcoming live-action series remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender be any better? At the very least, it seems safe to say that it couldn’t be any worse.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.

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