My notes on The Last Airbender (2010)At some point in the production of this fantasy epic, someone must have mentioned that lines like ‘there are some powerful benders in the Northern water tribes’ would get laughs in the United Kingdom. By then it was too late, especially since the film – derived from an American cartoon series which mimics Eastern franchises like the Dragonball series – had lost its original title to James Cameron (the source is called Avatar: The Last Airbender), which might explain why it vindictively lifts one of its major, climactic images (towering walls of telekinetically-controlled water) from The Abyss. This is the first M. Night Shyamalan film adapted from someone else’s material – unless you take The Village as a remake of Teenage Cave Man – and comes at a tricky patch in his career when the goodwill generated by a few hits has dissipated and he’s gone from being overrated to underrated. Like most MNS films, this is informed by some sort of spiritual, mystic journey – here, literalised in a kiddie kung fu premise.
In a fantasy world, humanity is divided into four tribes according to the Western elements (if this were a proper Japanese or Chinese martial arts epic, wood would be on the list too) and the Avatar, an eternally-reborn guru messiah who is supposed to keep the peace, has been absent for a hundred years, during which the Fire Nation, who have steampunk dreadnought ships and caterpillar-track tanks, have wiped out the Air People (among whom the latest incarnation of the avatar was supposed to be found) and are bullying the Water and Earth folks. Among the tribes are ‘benders’, who have magic powers over their elements which can be channeled by peculiar arse-stuck out disco tai chi moves (the real reason for this is that it means non-contact, ie: kid-friendly, kung fu). Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), Caucasian Eskimos who sound Californian, discover Aang (Noah Ringer), a bald child, frozen in the ice (like Captain America) with a big Neverending Story-type flying pet who slips out of the film when it gets crowded. Aang is the Avatar, and his abandonment of his post when faced with responsibilities started all the tsuris, and let the Fire Nation, who look and sound Anglo-Indian, go all Nazi. Aang needs to be trained to bend the other three elements, and the happy band head North to some powerful water benders – pursued by an evil Fire general (Aasif Mandvi) and a disgraced Fire prince (Dev Patel) who want to capture the bender for different reasons. Sokka has a vestigial romance with a water princess whose hairstyle looks hilariously like a penis and Aang agonises as the Fire fleet nears the city – approaching by water might not be the most sensible way to assault water-manipulating telekinetics, but the wicked general has a scroll which shows the location of a sacred fish that represents the moon spirit which is the source of the Water people’s power.
The film has spectacle and sweep, and stages mystic battles well: it is actially MNS’s biggest, most spectacular, most confident fantasy in terms of sheer stuff: there’s a lot of Red Cliff influence here. However, it’s hobbled by a 3D process imposed in post-production. In 3D, the cinematographer and director have to maintain deep focus on all the planes of action, but this was shot flat and makes a lot of use of rack-focus (blurring foreground or background to emphasise whatever is in focus) which utterly negates the point of any tridvid process. And gives viewers a headache. Performances are variable, but it never quite gets over the hump of modern American accents in a fantasyland setting – to be fair, there’s no real reason why inhabitants of Narnia or Middle Earth should talk in pidgin Shakespeare either, but somehow that plays better than the ‘hey, you guys’ teenspeak used here. It’s set up as the first of a trilogy, with only one element mastered in the plot – Aang needs to get up on his Earth and Fire skills – and a coda which brings on a major new baddie who looks more fun than the ones got out of the way. I don’t have the let’s-hope-we-never-go-there-again feel I had coming out of Eragon, and with some tweaks the franchise could improve in volumes two and three.