Tor.com asked us to review the newly released The Last Airbender film as an aside to the Avatar re-watch. Just so you know, the re-watch will return to a regular schedule after Readercon. Also, be on the lookout for our exclusive interview with the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender next week!
This movie took the heart and soul out of everything that is Avatar: The Last Airbender and turned it into a mediocre action/fantasy movie. As a fan of the show, I went into the theater with very low expectations, but I was not prepared for what I was about to watch.
The opening sequence is so faithful to the show that I allowed myself to feel hope… but that quickly died. The movie drags along in what feels like an endless montage of season 1 of the television series. I’m not typically the type of person who is angry when plot changes occur in order to condense very detailed source material, but this film made me understand that anger.
The saddest aspect of this film was the lack of humor and fun. The television show practically thrives on the humor, which helps to balance the darkness of what is actually occurring. The only laughs I heard in the theater were no laughs of joy, but rather, mocking laughs at how ridiculous some of the dialogue and shots were. Appa and Momo were total afterthoughts. Momo’s name isn’t even mentioned until his final appearance in the film. Things like this happened multiple times over the course of the movie. A character would be introduced visually and take part in the dialogue, but the audience wouldn’t know their name until the second or third appearance. I wonder if this is something that viewers new to the world found difficult to follow.
I’m not getting into the casting much, except to say that I do not buy the line that these were the best possible actors for the roles. It felt like none of them really understood what their character was based on. The only casting that really worked for me was that of Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh. Iroh is also one of the few characters that I felt carried over some of the television show’s character’s essence.
In our rewatches, I repeatedly mentioned my hatred for the character of Haru. I want to take a moment to discuss how frustrating it was to watch Haru make an appearance in the movie, but with no sign of Suki whatsoever. I seem to remember seeing promo photos featuring the Kyoshi Warriors and Suki, but that scene must have ended up on the cutting room floor.
All in all, the film was a huge letdown. The quickly put together 3-D did nothing to enhance the visual storytelling of the film and in the end actually hurt the color scheme of the film. The dialogue was painful and filled with excessive voiceover info dumps to move the plot along.
It was sad to see such beautiful source material turned into a mediocre film. The heart was ripped out and in turn, my heart was broken.
Critics with a greater gift of snark than I have will be able to provide the heavy-handed irony that seems to be expected of reviews of The Last Airbender. Frankly, all the hate is exhausting. So, rather than bash an easy target like this terrible movie, let's carefully examine what went wrong, and maybe start a dialogue about how they could have fixed it.
I don't want to criticize the performances in this movie, even though they were part of the problem. It is hard enough for anyone to carry a massive epic fantasy film. Lord of the Rings had Ian McKellan. Star Wars had Harrison Ford. Heck, even the bad Star Wars had Liam Neeson. The Last Airbender had a thirteen-year-old martial artist from Texas. Combine this with the clunkiest dialogue in history, and a director who in this writer's opinion has never directed actors well, and you have the stiff performances you get here.
The thing that hurts The Last Airbender the most is that it is based on a popular television series. Too complex to rope in a new audience, too short and Cliffnote-y to satisfy all the fans. Almost all the best adaptations deviate heavily from their source material. They have to. TV and film are not the same. When filmmakers cling to the structure of something far grander than a two-hour movie can contain, the result is a film that feels more like a much longer film with all sorts of stuff cut out, indiscriminately, like a horror movie shown during the day on network TV.
As a simple example, think about the original Star Wars film. You have a brief prologue on a spaceship, then three acts. Each act has one major set piece. Tatooine, Death Star, Yavin. Three settings. The Last Airbender jumps around a dozen locations, never really giving us enough time to sink into the world before we are whisked off to some other scene.
There is also far too much plot in this movie. Generally, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. The more character development, the less plot (look at the films of Robert Altman or Judd Apatow for examples of this), and the more plot, the less character. The Last Airbender is a perfect example of the latter. In the series, Sokka and Katara are equal leads to Aang, rich characters with lots of backstory and distinct personalities. In this film, their personalities are non-existent. At least Aang is given something to overcome, and Katara has her mission (protect the Avatar at all costs!). Sokka's only tangible objective seems to be to get laid, even if it means the destruction of the Northern Water Tribe and the moon. But other than those few token elements, the protagonists of this movie are bland, hollow characters.
I wanted to get through this whole review without raising any complaints about stuff that someone who has not watched the television series would never notice, but there are a few things that really irked me. They are all examples of, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Who exactly are Ahng and Soakah and Eeroh and the Ahvatar, and what's an Agni Key? This isn't a book, where the names are only written down and you can debate the pronunciation of Saruman with your friends. This is a TV show, where living actors spent three seasons pronouncing certain names the same way in every episode. I can just see the production meeting: “I got it! Let's distinguish our version of Avatar by pulling fans totally out of the movie every time someone says a proper noun.” And then another executive says, “Yeah! That's a great idea. And then they'll all be whispering to each other in the theater, asking how we could be so stupid, instead of listening to the dry expositional voiceover. It'll be great!”
Perhaps my biggest complaint is in regards to bending itself. In the film, the entire concept of bending changes. In the show, bending is an extension of martial arts. When you punch, the water punches. When you kick, the boulder flies. When you jump, the air lifts you high up. In the film, the concept is totally different. The bender must perform a complex kata, dancing around, and at the end of this routine, a single act of bending takes place. A water whip, or a burst of fire. Not only does this totally change the physics and logic of bending, it slows the fight scenes down...a lot.
At times The Last Airbender felt like a fan film, in terms of production value, storytelling, and performance. I often found myself wondering where the budget went. I suspect the inexcusably bad green screen effects were the result of the 3D conversion rush job, which in a way sums up everything that is wrong with this movie, and perhaps movies in general. Dear Hollywood, Stop giving us what you think we want, and just tell a good story.
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.
Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on Twitter as @thejordache.