The Last Airbender

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

The Last Airbender‘s title Dalai Lama-like hero automatically reincarnates each time he or she dies. Many critics would agree that Shyalaman’s career needed a similar renewal after Lady in the Water and The Happening. Instead of being another film about the incursion of weirdness into contemporary America, Airbender is an all-out flight into the otherworldly fantasy territory conquered by Jackson and Cameron. Of course, it’s also the graveyard of debacles such as The Golden Compass (which I liked) and Eragon (which I liked too… nah, kidding).

Airbender’s world is very clearly non-Caucasian, with plenty of East Asian landscapes bookended by first and last acts in polar settings (another reminder of Golden Compass). This has led to a tsunami of protests over the fact that the leads are played by white actors; I think it’s a more complex issue than the race-campaigners allow, but if you want to follow the net flamewars, knock yourself out. The story starts from a “Chosen One” premise. Aang, a bald and tattooed little boy, emerges from an iceberg: he’s the latest incarnation of the Avatar, destined to harmonise his world. Unfortunately, during the century Aang was frozen, the aggressive Fire Nation has wiped out his people, the “Airbenders,” and plans world domination.

This is a world in which people manipulate the four classic elements, Earth, Air, Wind and Fire (although the critic Kim Newman has noted that a properly Asian fantasy would have a longer list – the Chinese elements, for example, replace air with wood and metal). Much of Airbender’s combat involves fighters sending, say, fireballs or whirlwinds at each other, though this feels fatally stilted in live-action; the experience is of slomo dancing and effects shots, not a dynamically flowing battle.

I say in live action, because Airbender is based on an outstanding US television cartoon (called Avatar: The Last Airbender; no prizes for guessing why the movie had to drop the Avatar bit, though the cartoon predated Cameron’s film by five years). It was no ordinary Saturday-morning product. Its creators set out to do for TV animation what J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) did for small-screen sci-fi, serialising an epic, ongoing narrative with a structured beginning, middle and end. In fact, the Airbender cartoon succeeded better than Babylon 5, presenting an entirely cohesive fantasy “trilogy” in three seasons, and coming to a triumphantly spectacular end in 2008.

“Triumph” is not a word much applied to Shyalaman’s film, which as of writing has an eight per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (ten per cent less than The Happening – ouch). And yes, the film sometimes reminded me of those comedy sketches with Les Dawson or Dudley Moore, where they would play a beautiful piece of piano music and purposefully hit every wrong note. The script and characterisation are surrealistically bad, in a way that makes Tim Burton’s awful Alice in Wonderland look like, well, Alice in Wonderland. There’s something almost autistic in the way Airbender’s storytelling consists of relentless, graceless gobs of info-dumping and “this is what’s happening now” idiocies. To make a different comparison, it’s like overhearing someone in the next seat explaining the plot to a four year-old child.

The “characters” are furniture that you forget about even when they’re on screen; a lot of the dramatics remind you of a school play; and as if to heighten that impression, Dev Patel, hero of Slumdog Millionaire, pouts and scene-chews desperately as the scarred villain. By any normal measure, it’s a disaster, and this column would be remiss to readers looking for decent entertainment if it gave Airbender more than one star.

And yet, there are saving graces that lift the film above simple stinkerdom, although you’d need to be a very committed fan of fantasy, Shyalaman, or the cartoon Airbender to justify its ticket price. Some strengths are inherited from the toon, including the novelty of an epic fantasy with sweeping Eastern backdrops, and those backdrops can be very handsome when you’re not being distracted by crummy post-production 3D – if you do see Airbender, see it flat as nature intended. The villains’ huge black metal warships are another striking touch, though familiar to anyone who’s seen steampunk-flavoured fare like The Mutant Chronicles.

We also have some interesting fantasy tropes foregrounded with a directness we’ve not seen in Hollywood fantasy before, like a Hero who everyone knows has had a thousand lives and faces, and the coexistence of a secondary world of spirits (though its realisation is stagey and underwhelming). And there’s a handful, just about, of genuinely effective moments and shots that remind you Shyalaman isn’t slumming; he really wants to build a sense of majesty and tragedy that won’t traumatise the kids who loved the cartoon.

The animation, incidentally, will come back next year – Nickelodeon has announced a next-gen version, with a female Avatar and an urban steampunk setting. Surprisingly, there’s a chance that Shyalaman will be able to sequel his film too. Its US boxoffice wasn’t bad, and everything now depends on how much it earns overseas. I’d bet against it, but if Shyalaman does get another go, I hope he’s forced to hire someone who can write, having taken script “credit” on this first instalment.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.