It was kinda risky to do a whole series of unpopular or forgotten summer movies, because I could very well have been forcing myself to watch an all star lineup of all the suckiest failures from across a couple decades. A dirty dozen of squirming and boredom. Luckily, many of the movies I chose have been better than their reputations, or even misunderstood gems, and when they’re not it’s still kind of nice, because I’m seeing them from a better position than the people who saw them their respective summers. I don’t go in with high expectations. I don’t hope for the next great summer movie. Just maybe something that’s more interesting than people said at the time.
In this case I also knew not to hope for an M. Night Shyamalan comeback after THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER and THE HAPPENING, or a good live action version of the popular cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I haven’t seen anyway. Knowing nothing about the cartoon I was able to appreciate the cool concepts they borrowed from it without knowing they apparently did it all wrong. So I have a higher chance of being pleasantly surprised and a lower chance of feeling like I didn’t get my money’s worth.
Like with the later also unpopular (but I liked it) AFTER EARTH, Shyamalan is doing kind of a serious young adult fantasy here. The source material and/or the movie seem to be influenced by Hong Kong martial arts fantasy, Miyazaki cartoons and Zack Snyder digitally-enhanced action – all good ingredients. It even opens with Shaw Brothers style silhouetted kung fu moves representing the elements of water, fire, earth and air. If that isn’t the most badass possible opening to a PG-rated movie based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, I don’t know what is.
(And that’s after replacing the flying stars of the Paramount Studios logo with flying water – an early example of the studio logo customization that would culminate in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS doing it with throwing stars!)
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic and/or ancient world divided into kingdoms based on these elements. Our heroes are two kids from the Water Kingdom. They’re white kids who live like Eskimos, because this frozen village was once a major city? I think they said something like that.
One day Katara (Nicola Peltz, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION) and her pony-tailed older brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, S. DARKO) find a little boy and his giant furry creature friend frozen under the ice. The boy is bald and tattooed like a prophesied chosen one and his name is Aang, played by 2008-2009 Texas State Champion in Traditional Forms, Traditional Weapons, Sparring, X-Treme Forms and X-Treme Weapons Noah Ringer (COWBOYS & ALIENS). Pretty much as soon as they find him the fucking Fire Nation shows up pulling some typical Fire Nation shit (abducting him because he poses a threat to their world domination).
The rules of this world are laid out matter-of-factly. Each tribe has “benders” who do tai chi type moves to control their element. Katara is the last waterbender, so she can make waves and tentacles and balls of water, make them float around, and please note that she can turn it into ice so it works as an actual weapon, she’s not just splashing people and annoying them because their clothes get wet.
The Fire Nation has a whole bunch of firebenders, shooting fireballs, of course, and they’ve tried to kill all the airbenders because they knew the Avatar was one of them. There’s always one person who is the Avatar, a sort of savior who can control all of the elements, and he’s been missing for about a century because apparently he was this frozen little boy the whole time.
So Aang escapes (he has a little glider that he can fly really well on by controlling the air) and he and his new friends travel around together going from town to town, hiding out, practicing their bending and he inspires the people of the Southern Earth Kingdom to reclaim their dirt powers, etc.
Aang has a couple cute creature friends. One is the giant fluffy bison/sloth thing he was frozen with, who wears a saddle and flies Aang and friends all around the world. Another is a pet lemur-bat thing. It would be cool if that thing was just on his shoulder at all times, but I’ll take the couple times you see him.
From what I’ve read it sounds like the movie sort of follows the first season of the cartoon, which explains why it covers so much time – there’s narration and montages to explain long periods of traveling, meeting different people. It’s awkward at times and I’m sure it’s part of why the movie is so hated by fans of the show, but I like that it gives it a distinct feel, an epic without a three hour running time. Sometimes a myth takes place over years without going into detail about everything.
One character that has a pretty drastic arc within this time period is Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, CHAPPIE), son of the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD). Zuko speaks in a cartoonishly evil voice, but we hear the tragic backstory of his facial burns, caused by his father, and know there is some potential conflict there. Later, a masked monkey-kung-fu hero called The Blue Spirit rescues Aang from captivity, is shot with an arrow and turns out to be Zuko. Is he having a change of heart?
Well, no, he just wants to catch the Avatar himself to impress his father. But younger Aang keeps being the bigger man: having a window to escape, he sees masked-Zuko surrounded and goes back to help him. Later, after Katara has defeated Zuko and completely frozen him, Aaang could just leave him but instead defrosts his face. “You won’t be killed by waterbenders if you stay in here,” he advises. Then, over his shoulder as he walks out, “We could be friends you know.”
If they’d made a sequel I’m sure they would’ve been. BEST OF THE BEST 2 type shit.
With such wisdom, his chosen one status, bald head, Asian-inspired clothes and past training by monks, Aang seems like a Little Buddha or a Golden Child. I like that although he’s The One and (potentially) more powerful than everyone else he has a heavy burden of shame on him, which we learn is from running away in fear when told of his destiny. To him it was only a couple of days ago, but his monk friends were all murdered almost 100 years ago after he got frozen.
Whoah, this is kind of like DEMOLITION MAN. Katara is Sandra Bullock.
There’s a good scene where a vision leads him to a temple where an old monk (Randall Duk Kim, THE MATRIX RELOADED) shows him golden statues of his many reincarnations before saying, sadly, “You seem like a nice young man. You really do. You will forgive me, won’t you?”
“For luring you down here. I have lived in poverty because of your absence, Avatar. So you will understand my actions today.”
This guy seemed genuinely proud to meet the Avatar and tell him about his legacy, but also willing to trap him for the Fire Nation because of the way Aang fleeing his responsibilities ruined his life. He betrayed him more willingly than, say, Lando betrayed Han, but at least he is clearly ashamed of himself.
As Aang and friends navigate a series of cliffhangery encounters and battles, Shyamalan (with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who did the BABE movies and the LORDs OF THE RINGS) weds his deliberate camera move style to large-scale-special-effects-fantasy. They have many complex, long take camera moves, turning and floating across various factions, large groups doing their different martial arts styles, usually in conjunction with digital flames or gusts of wind or ice crystals or whatever.
Ringer could’ve been the Ernie Reyes Jr. of the 2000s. His martial arts background definitely helps – you watch a shot of the kid really spinning and jumping and kicking that goes on long enough that when a mini-tornado forms between his hands it might as well be real because the rest of it was.
Of course there’s plenty of trickery involved too, including some wire work and what not to make him super-humanly nimble. In one scene he has his hands tied behind his back and he does a flip and then runs up a wall.
In the most complex battles there’s alot of speed-ramping to show proper awe of these impressive powers. Fight choreographer Ben Cooke is a frequent stunt double for Jason Statham and Daniel Craig, and he played Kit Fisto in REVENGE OF THE SITH.
When things come to a head in the, uh, Snow Kingdom or whatever, there’s some good fantasy stuff that kind of reminded me of the exciting parts of the HOBBIT trilogy. Those Fire Pricks invade on smog-spewing iron warships, they scale the walls on lizardback
or cut their way in from beneath the ice, discarding their drills where innocent children could find them and hurt themselves, I mean that is just really irresponsible of the Fire Nation in my opinion although also pretty cool that they have those drills.
Based on the movie’s poor reputation I think I was expecting the dull, repetitive type of fantasy. But this one keeps bringing up cool new concepts. Like, the bad guys capture Aang, and you think they’re gonna try to kill him and fail, but then they explain that they specifically don’t want to kill him, because they know he’d be reincarnated and then they’d have to figure out who the fuck he was again.
The cartoon is definitely inspired in part by Asian philosophies and myths, so the movie version has the feel of a legend that you never heard before. I mean, the bad guys find a scroll that leads them to a meditation cave where there are two fish called “Push and Pull” that circle each other like a yin and a yang and they are spirits and when one is killed the moon turns red and the universe is off balance but a character (Seychelle Gabriel, THE SPIRIT, HONEY 2) sacrifices herself to give her lifeforce to the dead fish and restore everything. And when she dies the color comes back into her white hair and there’s a whole story about why her hair turned white when she was born but I won’t go into that. Anyway, I love this kind of shit.
Going through these summer movies chronologically, it really seemed like I’d gotten past the point where movies had a major merchandising push. Wrong! THE LAST AIRBENDER had a line of action figures and other toys, like a Blue Spirit mask.
It also had a Happy Meal with little figurines, or fans and ribbons (sorry, girls) or a little plush “Momo,” which I guess is the lemur bat guy’s name.
There was a novelization by Michael Teitelbaum, who is the author of over 200 children’s books including tons of Little Golden Books and The Very Hungry Zombie, a trendy parody of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He later wrote kid’s reference books related to the original cartoon.
I would like to apologize to the whole world for saying this but fuck it, I kind of liked this movie like I would a lesser modern Hong Kong fantasy, one that’s not great but has enough cool stuff in it to be worth my 90 minutes. I know you’re not supposed to say anything positive about this movie, but what about freedom of speech, what about politically correct, etc. It’s like Bill Hicks.
I actually only ever talked to one person who said this was good. It was when it was new and when he raved about it I said “Oh, that’s good to hear, I’d only heard people say bad things about it” and he was surprised and upset to hear this, he couldn’t believe people didn’t like it. He has since died, so this review is dedicated to Phil R., The First Fan of The Last Airbender.
He was pretty alone on that. I know Rotten Tomatoes is Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s relevant here to say that they have LAST AIRBENDER at a 30% audience rating and a 6% Tomatometer. Maybe a better indicator that this was poorly received: it made $319.7 million, and they had designed it as the first of a trilogy (even labeling this one “Book One: Water” at the beginning), but they decided not to go through with it.
So were people just being too nitpicky about it not being the cartoon? I can’t say that. For one thing, I haven’t seen the cartoon, and I’m sure they’re right that it’s way better. But there are a couple of other major issues that people may have held against it.
- This was an early example of a movie shot in 2D and rush-converted to 3D, when the technology for that really sucked. I remember the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake being a 3D conversion that was unanimously panned, and this was the same year. If the 3D was as bad as many reviews say then that’s a shame, because with all the flying water and fire and people this is ideal imagery for the format.
- It was also probly the first movie to receive a major online backlash for whitewashing. The characters in the cartoon are understood to be mostly Asian and Native American, but the movie cast Aang, Katara and Sokka all as white people. The non-white actors are saved for the other nations: the Earth Nation seem to be mostly Asian, while the Fire Kingdom is led by Maori Curtis and Indian Patel and Aasif Mandvi (by the way, it’s weird to see a guy I know only from The Daily Show making evil speeches and shooting flames with his hands). Of course, this is under the watch of an Indian-American writer-director, which makes it hard to see the Fire Nation casting as an attack on brown people, but it’s still weird. I think it’s a fair criticism.
Especially since – and I hate to say this, but I can’t really get around it – the white kid they chose is not quite cutting it. He’s uniquely qualified with his martial arts skills at a young age, and his acting is okay, but he’s not really cool. It’s a hell of alot to ask, but to anchor this movie I think he needed to have a huge amount of charisma and screen presence that at least at this time he didn’t have.
Of the three lead heroes the one who’s quite good is Peltz as Katara. She has this worried look on her face for most of the movie
but it’s a very natural, emotional performance. The movie could use more of that humanity.
Shyamalan apparently wrote a draft of the sequel, and even mentioned it as recently as 2015 as something he could possibly do after SPLIT. But I doubt they’d want to jump from their title character in his early teens to early twenties, so they’d probly recast, and in that case maybe just start over anyway since I am not gonna buy enough tickets to justify a sequel financially.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.