The Last Airbender: Caucasians Not In Their Element?

There’s something you should know before we go any further. I’ve never watched a single episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I am reviewing this film not as a fan of the source material, allowing the film to stand completely on its own. I have no idea what they “left out,” and I don’t care. A viewer shouldn’t need to have watched a whole other television show just to be able to appreciate a movie. Films should be viewed and appreciated on their own terms. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender has already been ripped a new one by critics and fans alike, but I am here to tell you that The Last Airbender isn’t that bad.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s a bad movie. But it’s not that bad, and it’s certainly not the antichrist of a movie that people might have you believe. Its biggest crime? A lot of it was really boring.

The Last Airbender, for those who aren’t familiar with the show, is set in a world where cultures are divided by element. There is a Water Nation, an Earth Nation, an Air Nation, and a Fire Nation. Those who can manipulate their people’s element are called “benders,” and are highly respected. The story goes that a century ago, there was one person, the Avatar, who could manipulate all four elements, keep the Earth in balance, and maintain peace and prosperity in the world.  Then, the Avatar mysteriously disappeared, and the world has deteriorated in the hundred years since, succumbing to warfare and to the power-hungry whims of the Fire Nation, who went about conquering the others and forbidding them to practice bending their elements. Now the Avatar, a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), has returned and he, along with new friends and allies—water-bender, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone)—incite a revolution that will bring freedom to all benders and put the Fire Nation, as well as its disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), in their places.

Sounds like a cool story so far, huh? It is. And if nothing else, the one good thing about this film is that it made me interested in watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. There is so much to this story, and you can tell that the movie couldn’t capture what must be an extremely intricate world. Yet the film gives you a taste of something magical and makes you want more. Not a terrible achievement at all.

So, if the concept of the story is great, why did it fail so much in the execution? First of all, as I’ve said in a previous M. Night Shyamalan review, he’s a fine director, but he should never be allowed to write anything. Just because you’re a director doesn’t mean you should be a writer-director. The sooner Shyamalan realizes this, the better off we’ll all be. The dialogue was so cliched it hurt, and there were far too many scenes where nothing much was happening except characters reiterating things they’d already said clearly and succinctly in previous scenes. And then there was the pointless romance between Sukko, who was, himself, pointless as a character in this film, and Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), princess of the Water Nation. If this romance exists in the original cartoon, it certainly wasn’t warranted, explained, or earned in this film. Not only did the script not give the relationship a basis in something real, but Rathbone and Gabriel were the worst actors in the film. Watching them pretend to be in love nearly made me vomit up my root beer.

Discussion of the actors leads me to one of the more controversial aspects of The Last Airbender. For over two years, groups like Racebending have been protesting the fact that, while this story is Asian in sensibility, most of the leads are non-Asian. Now, it has always been my opinion that minority actors shouldn’t have to play white characters in order to get to play heroic roles; that we need more minority roles written and that it’s up to minority creators to make those opportunities. The converse is also true. The few heroic minority roles that DO exist should go to actors of that minority. However, I will say that, with the exception of Rathbone and Gabriel, who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, I think that Ringer, Peltz, and Patel are extremely talented. Ringer gave us a nuanced Aang. I believed that this kid was raised by monks and could lead adults in a revolution, and that at the same time, he was plagued by a child’s insecurity. Ringer plays the role with poise, grace, and sharp intelligence. Nicola Peltz as Katara, while shaky in the beginning, gives a solid performance once the character comes into her own and becomes a true heroine. And Dev Patel, whom I loved in Slumdog Millionaire, gave a great performance as Prince Zuko, believeably longing for the love of his father and hiding behind a harsh demeanor. A scene in which Zuko, in disguise, asks a child to tell his guardian what he knows about Prince Zuko’s humiliation was especially heartbreaking. 

So, these three are solid actors all. However, the fact that Patel is the only obvious Asian did pull me out of the story. The opening scene, in which Katara and Sukko are out in the snow and come across Aang in the ice, was cringe-worthy, because they looked and sounded like two white kids playing dress-up. They felt out of their element. Watching their very white grandmother tell them the story of the Avatar was even worse. They were wearing parkas, and yet the conversation could have just as easily been taking place over tea in a suburban New England home.

You wouldn’t hire an all-Black cast for The Leif Erickson Story, so why would you cast mostly white people in a story with such a strong, obviously Asian sensibility? I was forced to wonder why Shyamalan, who is of Indian extraction, would cast in this way. Surely there are talented Asian actors who would have played these roles just as well? Interesting, too, that the Asians given the most prominence in the film are Indian, which makes it look as though Shyamalan is willing to sell out the Asian continent while making sure the Indian sub-continent is well represented. That was uncomfortable to see, as it’s one thing to make sure your culture is represented, but quite another to do it at the expense of someone else’s. Especially when that choice makes much of your film feel false.

Lastly, this film failed because of the very thing that was supposed to make it cool. I will say right here and now that I hate the 3D craze and can’t wait for it to go the way of laserdiscs and 8-Track tapes—or the way of 3D the other times it’s tried to be a force in film. For all the talk of “eye-popping 3D,” nothing really popped. The 3D element didn’t enhance the story, but seemed to be stuck in for its own sake, and the fact that the 3D glasses still have space around the edges where the glasses stop, and the thing that’s popping out at you also stops there distracted me. I would have much preferred the special effects to just be really good in 2D. I go to the movies precisely because I enjoy looking into a world. I don’t need that world popping out at me.

The Last Airbender is a poorly-excecuted film. To many fans of the original source material, it’s an abomination. To me, it is simply a misguided attempt at adaptation that made me curious about the real thing.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

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