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The Last Airbender (2010)—Does This Even Need a Title?

The Last Airbender movie poster

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most popular animated TV Shows of all time, full of complex and dynamic characters, a treasure trove of life lessons and just beautifully animated worlds and fight choreography. After the show came to an end, many still craved for the world of Avatar to continue. This spawned a series of comics, a spin-off offshoot show (The Legend of Korra) and unfortunately, this live action abomination. What would be arguably M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest directorial failure, it’s time to look back at….The Last Airbender.

In the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka discover a boy and flying bison in an iceberg. Upon breaking out, they find out the boy’s name is Aang and he is not only an air bender, but also the Avatar, master of all four elements. Soon, a Fire Nation warship arrives, carrying banished Prince Zuko and former General Iroh who search for the Avatar. After escaping the two, Aang, Katara and Sokka disembark on a journey for Aang to learn the other three elements and to stop the imperialistic war conducted by the Fire Nation, all while being pursued by a vengeful Zuko.

Ok, so what you read is the plot summarized in a clear and concise manner. What I had to sit through was the complete opposite of that. There is way too much exposition dumping, with an overly long opening title crawl being narrated by Katara telling us what the show tells us in its intro but in a needlessly longer manner. It just feels like someone writing for the sake of reaching a specific word count on a school project they decided to work on the last minute. But if you think that where the exposition dumping ends, boy are you wrong. Katara proceeds to narrate the ENTIRE runtime of the movie! Even during scenes where action would be more appropriate to show the audience what’s going on is instead dedicated to her telling us what’s going on! This is a textbook mistake, Shyamalan! Ever heard of show, don’t tell?

And that leads us perfectly into the acting. The piss poor acting. You know how the show had a distinct and vibrant personality for every character and how they all learn to grow as people by the end of the show? Well, forget all of that. Because the movie ignores practically everything that involves character growth and personality. The entire cast is completely devoid of emotion, as if they’ve had a shot of Xanax and Vicodin and all feel like they’re just saying the lines given to them, not actually acting them out. But you can argue that acting goes hand in hand with writing. With that said, it should be no surprise that the writing is absolutely piss poor. One of the biggest cardinal sins of writing? The phrase “as you know”. It serves as nothing more than a filler phrase because if the audience knows something, then why are you explaining it? Zhao uses it during his spiel to Fire Lord Ozai on his plans on destroying the Northern Water Tribe along with water bending. Hell, its use is so bad that even Ozai himself tells Zhao to just make it to the end of his spiel because he was getting bored.

So ok, the writing and acting is really awful. But at least the bending and special effects are decent? Right? Right?? Wrong. I think this is by far one of the worst depictions of East Asian martial arts I’ve EVER seen in a movie. The show goes out of its way to not only depict every bending style being influenced by a real world martial art, but also show how each move can affect their respective element. The movie? It takes a whole ass kata to move one, ONE speck of an element! Just take a look at the infamous scene with the earth benders: it takes six guys to do a full Hung Gar Kung Fu kata to move one tiny rock. And that’s not even the worst part, we see (or rather hear Katara narrate) Aang struggling with water bending. Only issue is he isn’t bending anything, rather just doing Tai Chi by a river with no water. Did the special effects crew just forget to add in water? All this and I haven’t even talked about the rest of the CGI. Yeah, it’s pretty awful. Aang’s flying bison, Appa, looks like a flying monkey with horns. Are you sure they didn’t confuse him with Momo the flying lemur?

And finally to top everything off, we have one of the worst cases of white washing in modern films (I’ll cover Ghost in the Shell later). Aang, Katara and Sokka are all played by white actors while Zuko, Iroh and the entire Fire Nation is played by Indian actors. Meanwhile, the show goes out of its way to show each nation has a corresponding real geographical counterpart. The Air Nomads are based off of Tibet, the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation take bits and pieces from China and Imperial Japan and the Water Tribe is based off of the Inuit People. With that out of the way, let’s talk about how the heroes are white and the villains are people of color. It’s bad enough seeing this trope in 2010, but it’s especially troubling since M. Night Shyamalan himself is Indian. Why did he feel like the entire Fire Nation, the villains of the film had to be Indian?

It’s safe to say that The Last Airbender easily makes my top 10 worst movies I’ve ever seen list. Not only does it fail in every aspect in filmmaking (I haven’t even talked about the cinematography, lighting and poor 3D conversion), but it soils the legacy of a beloved show that not only gave us amazing character arcs, breathtaking environments and choreography, but also precious life advice that we all wish to have heard. With the new live action show on Netflix coming soon, let’s hope they learned how NOT to adapt a beloved source material. 

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