The Last Airbender is a movie of exquisite beauty and, in its best moments, sublime visual clarity. It also contains some of the worst dialogue ever allowed on screen. It’s based on an animated series in the mold of Japanese-influenced anime, and if you’ve ever watched any anime, you know that when it’s dubbed from Japanese the translated dialogue often sounds strange, stilted, and composed mainly of unnecessary exposition. For some unfathomable reason writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has applied that same, awkward speech pattern to what’s supposed to be an English language movie. It’s as if he wrote his script in English, translated it into Japanese, and then translated it back again. Airbender is the kind of movie where characters use twenty or thirty words to say something even when it could probably have been said better with one or two. At times, it’s exhausting.
It’s not just dialogue that’s the problem, it’s the way he’s put the story together too. In theory this is an epic journey across a massive, landscape in an alternate world, but you never really get a sense of what that world’s about or the size of the journey. The movie sort of jumps from one scene to another, as if it doesn’t know how to convey a sense of movement, and when all the time lapsing leaves holes in the plot Night the director is forced to fix the problems of Night the writer by injecting narration to explain what’s going on. That does work to avoid confusion, but it’s a cheap trick and one which wouldn’t have been necessary with a better script. With a few notable exceptions, which we’ll get to later, most of the movie’s characters fare little better. They’re cardboard cutouts there to spout ridiculous sentences in which they repeat portions of the plot which we already know or recite the names of people we’ve already met at least a dozen times before. I can’t think of a better way to describe the writing here than just awful.
So, if you’re someone who thinks great writing is all that matters in a movie, you’ll think The Last Airbender is the worst movie of the year. But I think there’s more to film than words written on a page and in The Last Airbender, while Shyamalan the writer may be at his worst, Shyamalan the director delivers one of his best efforts yet. He does that, in spite of the way he’s been hamstrung by M. Night, the writer. It helps that he didn’t come up with this concept. The blow of his bad writing is blunted by the source material, which has already laid out where this movie must go, preventing M. Night the awful writer from turning it into a story about mildly annoyed house plants. That means no matter how bad his writing is, as a director Shyamalan has something worthwhile here to work with, and work with it he does.
Set in a fantasy world where people have the ability to control the natural elements, The Last Airbender revolves around Aang, just a kid, but also the only person with the ability to control them all. The world has divided itself up by elemental powers. Those who can control the elements are called Benders, and the Fire Benders live in a militaristic place called the Fire Nation, full of smoke belching machines and heat. The Water Nation opposes them with its ability to control all things wet, while the Earth Benders have fallen beneath the Fire Bender boot heel. Air Benders long ago became a group of monks, and it’s from there that Aang, the last Airbender and the only person with the power to control all four elements at once, sprung.
Aang is the Avatar, which is a lot like the Dalai Lama with super powers, and the casting of unknown 13-year-old Noah Ringer to play him was a stroke of genius. It’s more than just the way he manages to make the movie’s awful dialogue seem nearly credible, there’s a calmness that surrounds him, even when he’s at his most direct and intense. A lot of it is in the way he moves. Ringer’s role is a very physical one, but he pulls it all off with an unbelievable sort of grace. There are moments, great moments, in the movie where M. Night’s camera simply stops and lets him move, performing a complicated martial arts dance on screen as if there’s nothing else in the world but him and the blowing wind.
Dev Patel’s Zuko works too, as the movie’s most complex character. A prince abused and cast off by his father, he wanders the world in search of the Avatar, his only means of regaining a place in his father’s household. Guided by a gentle uncle, Zuko wrestles with a desire to do the right thing, and a burning need to regain his place in the world by doing his father’s bidding. Patel, in spite of the horrible dialogue he’s forced to spout, brings a sort of sympathetic anger to the character.
It’s more than just Noah or Patel’s solid performances that make Last Airbender worth seeing. It’s also how much fun M. Night seems to be having with opportunities the movie’s bending powers afford. Water flies around the screen in perfectly propelled blobs or leaps out of the ground in great, tentacled rivers. Flame artfully gouts from a fire bender’s hands, framing the screen and creating a breathtaking image. Put to use in battle those powers are thrilling, yes, but in Night’s hands also heart-wrenchingly gorgeous. It's imaginative and immensely creative. Almost every frame of Night’s movie is a work of art, with perfectly used camera techniques and luscious wide shots that let you see what’s going on even in the film’s most frantic and frenetic moments.
These aren’t just stunning, empty images. The Last Airbender uses its visual prowess to push itself beyond the miserable constraints of its script. We learn almost nothing substantive about Aang from the movie’s misguided, exposition filled dialogue, but his enthusiasm for life oozes out of every frame. It’s in the way he walks or the way he goes down a flight of stairs, taking four steps at a time propelled by tiny bursts of energetic air. Aang feels alive and, visually at least, it all seems to happen effortlessly.
This isn’t an easy movie to praise. The Last Airbender seems as though it’s daring people to hate it. It’s hard to believe anything could be this badly written by accident. In order to get to what’s good in it; you’ll have to endure a lot of M. Night Shyamalan missteps. In the hands of a better writer, this could have been the next Lord of the Rings. The material behind it feels that good. Should someone else take charge of writing the heavily teased sequel for him, I fully expect to give it five stars. The Last Airbender though, is the kind of movie that’s only good in spite of itself. If you’re able to get past Shyamalan’s failings as a writer, this is an achingly beautiful film full of stunning special effects, driven by a powerful score, and based on material so good that even the worst script of the year couldn’t entirely ruin it. It’s worth putting up with M. Night the writer to enjoy the work of M. Night the director.
For detailed analysis of The Last Airbender's 3D conversion, go here.