UNpopular Opinion: The Last Airbender
Written by: Paul Gagne
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
I get the backlash against M. Night Shyamalan: I really do. He is as pretentious as the day is long, and the only thing worse than his acting are his plodding, one-note scripts. He struck a nerve with THE SIXTH SENSE, and at the time the reveal at the end was a gut-punch to audiences across the world. Flash-forward five films later, and he was just repeating himself, tacking evermore ridiculous twist endings onto increasingly preachy films. I broke up with him after SIGNS. We tried to get back together during LADY IN THE WATER, but that proved a huge mistake on my part. Some people never change.
Or do they?
While I do understand the backlash, as I said, I also think it is misguided. People decry Shyamalan as a director, and nothing could be farther from the truth. The man can command a movie set. He has a great eye for visuals, knows how to create mood and suspense, and frequently gets amazing performances out of actors. THE VILLAGE, for instance, boasts an incredible cast and a jaw-dropping performance from Adrien Brody. I have always said that I found him to be an impressive director, and longed for the day when he would get out of his own ass and do someone else’s project.
That day finally came with the bizarre announcement that Shyamalan would be directing the theatrical adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (I felt the same way when I found out Zack Snyder was doing The Guardians of Ga’Hoole). While I would have preferred he shoot someone else’s script, the fact that he had adapted something not of his own creation gave me hope that he was trying to progress as a filmmaker. And that is exactly what I got.
Now, I am not claiming that THE LAST AIRBENDER is a perfect film, nor am I saying Shyamalan completely changed his stripes with its production. Yes, he made seriously self-destructive decisions, such as having character names wildly mispronounced from the source material, and removing the campy humor entirely (and thus rendering Jackson Rathbone’s role of Sokka something of a limp fish). But these are really small quibbles that can be easily contained within the circle of die-hard Avatar fans. As with remakes and book adaptations, you need to distance yourself from the source material and take the film on its own merits.
Which is what I did. And I did not find the film lacking. I thought it looked excellent, which is the first component in a successful fantasy film. The world Shyamalan created for the Avatar characters was wholly believable. Sometimes the CGI water flying through the air looked a little fake, but that is a difficult effect to render. The fire was awesome, though, and Oppa the flying bison was damned skippy. I particularly enjoyed young Aang, the title character, zipping around through the air with his staff/glider thingie.
While I found that all of Aang’s emotional beats hit home, of a boy out of time who felt the onus of his singular nature being taken out on those he loved, it was really Dev Patel who stole the movie for me. His portrayal of the conflicted Prince Zuko, son of the Fire Nation Chief Ozai (played by the always appreciated Cliff Curtis) was spot-on, and he became the role so completely that I didn’t recognize him as the kid from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE at all. The fight scene he has with Aang held me rapt for two reasons: physically, because it was clearly not a Hollywood, they both fight perfectly fight. Zuko lunged for Aang, and Aang ducked and covered when he could. Sure, they busted kung fu on each other, but it seemed more like a martial arts fight you would actually see on the street, if that makes any sense (or if any of this does). But emotionally, it was a fight between two tormented boys, both with huge burdens of responsibility thrust upon their immature shoulders.
In fact, I found the whole Fire Nation fascinating. It was as if Hitler, a noted occultist, had actually found a way to give his Nazi officers superhuman powers. My daughter complained that in the cartoon the Fire Nation warriors could all create fire in their hands from nothing, but I think Shyamalan changing that for the film was a stroke of genius. It lent more credence to Zuko’s uncle Iroh (played by Shaun Toub from Iron Man) being a revered and feared Fire Nation warrior, and upped the importance of the coming Sozin’s Comet to the Fire Nation’s plans for total domination.
So, my final take on the film is that it stepped up to the plate with emotional arcs for the two main characters, great special effects and impressive fight scenes, great set design and costumes, and just a hint of socio-political undertones. Complaints of “race-bending” are ridiculous and easily dispelled by a simple Google image search for a comparison of the cartoon characters to the actors in costume, and as for arguments about the changes made from the source material…we’re all big moviegoers now, who should be able to understand that sometimes things have to be altered during the transition to a live-action film. And if you make those arguments and are above the age of twelve, I will laugh at you to boot.