The Last Airbender, Part II: Ritualised form

The author is also behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006. There are several articles on each film: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here) and Lady in the Water (2006, here and here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview. There are also an article about Split (2016) and two articles on After Earth (2013), here and here. This is the second of two articles about The Last Airbender (2010). The first one is here.

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The sense of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films as rituals arises from a recurring narrative line: characters gradually approach the truths about the world and their own potential and purpose through a ritual of various self-doubts and crises. The ceremonial nature of the works is greatly enhanced by the repetitions of, and variations on, a large number of recurring motifs. His films of 2008-2013, made with lesser independence and artistic control, cannot compete with the earlier ones in this complexity. Also, in Shyamalan’s early days, each scene was often governed by a stylised formal device, lending the works an extra value through a series of hypnotic enigmas. Nevertheless, he succeeds in The Last Airbender to a considerable extent in creating formal elegance, but on a lesser scale and in a more discreet fashion.

Like in the first article, you are getting an appetizer here, as I am jumping straight to the climax of the film. Even though the Moon Spirit has been revived and the defenders of the Northern Water Tribe city have regained their strength, everything is still hanging in the balance. It is up to Aang to find the inner resolve and peace required to fulfil his role as the Avatar, and to succeed in unleashing his full waterbending powers. He is hurrying up to the parapet, to face the warships of the invading Fire Nation. The following slide show unfolds that shot (please note that all slide shows can be restarted from the beginning by clicking on the current image to enlarge it and then return to the article):

So during this shot we have seen Aang both from the back and front, as if the camera is driven by an urge for completeness. The methodical nature of the camera movements enhances the impression of a ceremony. Of course, there is a narrative function too: we are shown the invaders and then basically a reaction shot of Aang, but we get the extra value of elegance and ritual.

Now there is a cut to a close-up that kicks off a flashback, causing an epiphany in Aang, leading in turn to the climax. In the first article I walked through the first four and the last shot of that climax. It is highly recommended that you first follow the link and take a look.

The left column shows key moments of the above pre-climax shot. The right column shows key moments from the climax, (top) from the start, after the flashback, and (bottom) at its very end, Aang’s sensational feat of waterbending having driven away the enemy warships.

We see that there is a symmetry at play here – in inverted form, within the local arc of the shot leading up to the climax, and the larger arc of the entire climax sequence.

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This form-oriented article will be heavily based on screenshots, continuing in the spirit of the first article’s last chapter about the moon motif. We will start out by discussing some important recurring devices: the four motif and the circle motif. Various formal strategies are detailed: the staging of various scenes, the use of camera movement and the reveal motif arising from this fluidity. Then there are echoes creating comparison points in the narrative. Some distinctive use of cinematic form on the shot level is discussed. At the end the six Fire Lord scenes and the climax will be walked through.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of The Last Airbender, here is a brief outline of the plot.

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The four motif

Iroh told Zhao: “You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake.” When Zhao gets his comeuppance it is not accidental that it is caused by a team of four players. As they leave the scene (above), the mise-en-scène even deliberately gather them visually as one body. They represent the power of the potential unity of all four nations of the narrative. Aang is one person, but he has the potential of mastering all four elements, and will then become a unifying figure.

The number four might lead our thoughts to stability and completeness (the four seasons, the four winds, the four phases of the moon, the four heavenly directons, possibly the four noble thruths and the four methods of inducement in Buddhism).

The world of The Last Airbender consists of four elements and four tribes. There are four heroes and four prominent characters from the Fire Nation (and the latter all have four-letter names). The climax starts with four shots that are structurally and formally linked.

We saw in the first article how the death of the fourth character in the picture, Zuko’s mother, connects him to Aang, the last of the almost-exterminated fourth tribe, the Air Nomads. There is also a more immediate connection: directly from dwelling on the picture, Zuko goes to work off pent-up rage through fighting against four Fire Nation soldiers.
Early in the film there is a direct cut from a map of the four nations to Iroh bringing a tray to perform the Avatar test on Aang. From a map of all the world, to a tray holding all the elements of that world: fire, a jug of water and a rock (earth), and the fourth element of air is all around them.
The tray related to all four elements can be connected to the tray the camera lingers on after Aang has run away from the Avatar ceremony. It contains the four toys that Aang chose out of a thousand, as part of the monks’ test to see if he was the Avatar, by choosing the exact same toys that the previous Avatar incarnation did.

The Fire Lord are counting off four disasters in the epilogue. Aang claims that “some of the great monks can meditate for four days”. Iroh asks Zuko after the latter has returned from his adventure as The Blue Spirit: “Where were you the past four days?”

The circle motif

Here the circle motif is extra important since it introduces a major character (Zhao). Aang’s flying contraption forms a half-circle, which also fits the scheme – and in fact there is another half-circle at the tail.

Like in Signs (see here) the circle is the most important motif of The Last Airbender. And similarly to the four motif, the circle stands for completeness and healing. It manifests itself in many ways: circular objects and circular movements, of both characters and camera. Let us first round up some objects:

From the top: The symbols of all four nations, here the Water Tribe, are surrounded by a circle. The large monument in the Fire Lord’s throne hall is a mass of circles-within-circles. Then there is the symbol of the Fire Nation. During the attack on the Water Tribe city, globular objects are thrown (to serve as sources for firebenders) and the drills boring holes from underneath the ice are circular. The same for the lanterns of the city and the moon, and the amulet Aang gave monk Kyatsu.
The airbending tattoo on Aang’s back is circular, Zhao’s warboard too. Ditto for The Fire Lord’s sleeve ornament and ring. During the Avatar test, water is reformed into a circular shape.
Aang’s hundred-year imprisonment has been inside a globe of ice. When Katara is practising waterbending she traps a fish inside a globe of water, like Zhao is too during the final battle. The entrance to the igloos of the Southern Water Tribe is circular.
Zuko is humiliated by Zhao, and the enormous furnace visually underpins his rage that is about to boil over.

One of the most elegant applications of the circle motif happens in a brief flourish – a flash of inspiration, that I find to be among the best in Shyamalan’s oeuvre – just after Aang have been sprung from the dungeon. In the first article, it was described in detail (direct link here) as an apéritif for the circle motif, and it is highly recommended to have a look at that first. Here we will limit ourselves to repeating the images as a slide show:

Just afterwards, when Aang tries to escape, he runs over an entire field of small circles, which the camera then transforms into a vast, dizzying pin cushion.

Another major variation of the circle motif is through camera movement. Most of them are weaved quite discretely into the film. Often the camera points carefully in four directions, connecting the circle motif to the four motif. (All of the screenshot montages below – snapshots of moments within a single shot – are meant to be read row by row, from left to right. For the sake of completeness, I have mapped out all of them, but due to the high complexity of some shots, the snapshots do not always yield an easily legible account. Understanding them in full is not necessary, however, for the general point that is made.)

Zhao enters the dungeon and interrogates Aang while the camera is copying his circling movement around the airbender.
After The Blue Spirit has freed Aang, they storm out on the square which is teeming with soldiers. The camera lurches forward to the left (a small slice of The Blue Spirit’s head is visible at the bottom of the second shot), turns around (in the background we can see the pavillion-like structure where Aang will end up in the next shot), before it looks back at the entrance from where they came. Here a firebender appears and will soon attack them.
When Aang later returns to save The Blue Spirit, they get embroiled in a big battle scene, where the camera is moving in an arc-like movement. It is a bit difficult to see but the movement can be gleaned by following the background of the snapshots. (The pillars of the pavilion can be glimpsed at the start and end of the shot, so it forms an almost 360 degree circle.)
We now move back to Earth Kingdom segment. The heroes have been captured by firebenders and are led into a village. Here the camera is taking in all four directions: first villagers looking at the heroes, then the heroes, and then the two other directions, the last one showing the entrance to the prison camp.
Inside the prison Aang tries to rouse the earthbenders’ spirit to make them rebel against their masters. In a counter-clockwise movement the camera circles Aang (before it moves a bit back again, in the sixth snapshot).
A fight ensues, filmed in a long take. The camera is not performing a perfect circular movement, but at the end has covered almost the entirety of the surroundings. (Because of the highly complex nature of the take, the snapshots could be confusing.)
This shot is a model of clarity, however – one of the most beautiful and serene moments of the film. In a long take the camera is circling Aang and Katara as they are practising their waterbending “dance”, until they are interrupted by the “black snow” (visible in the last snapshot), a sign of the approaching Fire warships. Both camera and characters stop moving when the snow starts falling. This shot is also a prime example of the reveal motif, since the background is gradually disclosed with great lucidity.
In a complicated shot Zhao is trapped inside a globe of water by the four waterbenders. First the camera is rising to look down at the globe (first two snapshots), then it circles the globe and then, in a nice piece of symmetry, it is lowered to look up at it (last two snapshots).

Let us summarise these circular camera movements, in chronological order:

  • 360 degrees: arriving at earth village (16 seconds)
  • almost 360: Aang’s big speech inside earthbender prison (27 seconds)
  • almost 360: the fight scene inside earthbender prison (80 seconds, second longest of the film)
  • 270: the opening shot of the chamber of statues scene, which will be discussed later (84 seconds, film’s longest)
  • 360: Zhao interrogating Aang inside the dungeon (about 20 seconds of a 43-second shot)
  • 360: the first fight scene in the square outside the dungeon (about 10 seconds of a 33-second shot)
  • almost 360: the second fight scene in the square outside the dungeon (28 seconds)
  • 270: Aang and Katara’s waterbending dance in a square in the Water Tribe city (53 seconds, fourth longest)
  • almost 360 probably: Zhao trapped inside water globe (17 seconds)

Furthermore, after the majestic camera movement, when Aang is still inside the pavillion the camera is in there with him, thrice moving along with him, in arc-shaped manoeuvres parallel to its perimeter. Objects and characters are circling too. The big stone slabs that Aang puts in place as a fence are moving around their own axis, as he is manipulating them. During the entire sequence Aang is often spinning around as well. In the first article we saw how Prince Zuko made a circular movement as he was introduced. (This is not a full circle: at the end we can see Katara and Sokka in the background and the first shot was from their vantage point.) As we saw in that scene, firebenders often spin around when they are throwing fire.

Many of the circular camera movements are shot in long takes. Nevertheless, The Last Airbender has a much higher rate of cuts than Shyamalan’s early works, which were mood pieces with much less plot to cover. With an average shot length of 6.8 seconds, only After Earth on 4.99 and Split on 5.96 are faster. This list of the longest takes of the film enumerates 22 takes of 30 seconds or more. If we split The Last Airbender roughly in half, starting with the chamber of statues scene, which includes the film’s longest take, at about 41:30 (the end credits start at 95 minutes), the first part, which contains only 5 of the 22 really long takes, has an ASL of 6.45 and the last part 7.1. At least judging from the cutting rate, the film grows slower the longer it lasts, an often-found characteristic of Shyamalan’s early films. So in this respect as well, he is adhering to his normal mode, but on a smaller scale.

It is noteworthy that almost all conversation between Princess Yue and Sokka is contained within three extended shots, totalling 116 seconds: the two discussions in profile close-up – respectively 46 seconds (eight-longest of the film) and 40 seconds (shared 12th) – and the 30-second shot leading them to the watchtower.

Staging

The circular movement scenes are of course also an aspect of staging. But there are many more occurrences of elegant mise-en-scène in The Last Airbender. In the spirit of the previous chapter, let us start with circle-related stuff. Before Aang was imprisoned in the dungeon, he was captured by the Fire Nation in the chamber of statues scene. In Shyamalan’s films the camera is not something that is merely pointed at the action to record it, it is a living, sensitive, intelligent entity, breathing together with the film, smoothly repositioning itself and the framing to convey the story.

Aang has met a friendly monk who shows him a secret chamber of statues inside the Northern Air Temple, depicting all the Avatars through the ages…
…in a grand example of the reveal motif, the camera gaze allows the chamber to gradually unfold in all its splendour, and not least, in an array of circles within circles, where the smaller round emblems of the four nations also play their part…
…the camera is then lowered to the ground, and sidles up to Aang in leisurely fashion, as if to see what he is doing, standing as transfixed before the statue of his immediate predecessor…
…then it turns around, capturing the monk in another layer, the constellation then broken up when he closes in. Aang becomes aware that something is not quite right…
…and then the film’s longest take is concluded, shockingly, by the monk producing a knife.
Now come several brief shots revealing that Fire Nation soldiers have been hiding behind the statues, of which this is the most interesting, the action nicely framed by two soldiers.

The scene ends with another very nice shot, depicted in the slide show below, where the staging is full of meaning underpinning the scene’s uppermost narrative layer. The monk has asked Aang’s forgiveness: “I have lived in poverty because of your absence, Avatar. So you will understand my actions today.” Still he is racked by guilt and self-disgust. He is backing out and up a staircase, as a phalanx of soldiers are pouring into the chamber, down the same steps.

The shot reflects the monk’s conflicted emotions in multiple ways. He and the soldiers are moving in opposite directions. He is splitting their rank into two lines. The torrent of their entrance indicates the unstoppable flow of events he has set in motion. His walking backwards reflects his shameful unease. He holds out his hand for his “thirty pieces of silver” and one soldier deposits a small bag in it. Until now he has been unable to tear his gaze away from Aang, as if punishing himself, but now he looks down at the money, back at Aang, and down at the bag again with disgust. The shot (and the scene) ends with the monk disappearing up the stairs, his figure and stature diminished.

Then there is a cut to the next scene with Aang chained in the dungeon.
But… is it not something familiar about these scenes?

In fact, there is a sly connection, on multiple levels that ironically compare the two situations, with Aang’s downfall from eager enthusiasm to hopeless despair. Both scenes feature the camera looking up into the ceiling, which has a large aperture, with even the same bluish colour emanating through it. The candlelights are mockingly arranged in a rough rhyme with the beautiful circles.

There is even a similar downward camera movement, but instead of a straight tilt there is a slanted movement in the chamber scene. Also, the urns might be seen as a pathetic downgrading of the majestic statues of the chamber.

Sokka and Princess Yue fall in love during the film. Although love at first sight is implied, a cat-and-mouse game of unspoken feelings is played out. Consequently, they pretend it is not Sokka but his grandmother who is inquiring: “Why is your hair white, young lady? You look very odd.” The game is reflected in their roundabout, circular walk in the shot leading up to that conversation:

First we see a watchtower – on a circular foundation with round columns – which might also be foreshadowing, since the couple will end up in a similar structure…
…the camera tilts down, revealing them as they walk into frame…
…continues further down as they walk up a brief flight of stairs, while circular ornaments abound…
…their interaction is very sweet and easygoing…
…bubbling with laughter, they continue their circular movement…
…passing by the camera…
…into the tower – their interaction is also like dance, in harmony, not dissimilar to Aang and Katara’s waterbending “dance”, where the camera was circling them…
…the camera moves to capture them as they emerge on the other side of the columns…
…having completed a perfectly circular movement.

We now leave the circles behind. The following is a particularly elegant scene, shot in a 59-second take, the third longest in the film, but like the dungeon scene it is connected with the one immediately preceding it. It depicts Iroh greeting Zuko after the latter’s long absence, during which he has rescued Aang, disguised as the Blue Spirit. Afterwards, there is the assassination attempt where Zuko’s ship explodes.

But first there is some sort of establishing shot, another of the film’s many reveals. A helicopter shot is passing by the small peninsula in the centre in order to look around it, disclosing a far away Fire Nation ship. At the same time the camera is panning from left to right…
…and this panning direction is fluidly carried over into the next shot, where Iroh has been waiting for days while Zuko has been away…
…as Zuko then leaves for the ship, there is another reveal, showing us that Iroh, a man who enjoys life to the full, is getting a foot massage…
…another repositioning within the same shot, revealing more of the surroundings, while also framing Zuko nicely…
…then the camera rises, revealing the symbol of the Fire Nation against the ship. Is this another instance of “short-term foreshadowing”, a Shyamalan speciality often employed in Unbreakable – a device that presents clues about what will immediately happen: here the explosion by fire?
It is fascinating, then, to go back yet another step, to the scene before the helicopter shot. Here the Fire Lord learns from Zhao that it is likely that Zuko, his son, is identical with the Blue Spirit, and therefore a traitor. One shot shows his hand, finger tapping against the throne, the very same finger that bears the Fire Nation symbol. In another shot we also see a fire placed close to his head. Could this be more foreshadowing of the assassination attempt? Originally the Fire Lord (according to the list of deleted scenes here) ordered his own son dead, and these visual clues could be a remnant of that – but even in the changed version they are operative as general foreshadowing.
Inside the ship fire continues being used as a harbinger. A lamp in the distance is swinging back and forth, with a creaking sound, as the camera is closing in to signify Zuko’s growing awareness that something is wrong…
…then cut to the other side: we see his scar, caused by fire, another harbinger, also we see his awareness now to be acute, and this is what he looks at…
…some kind of gas leaking from a pipe, the probable cause of the explosive fire on the ship when it is ignited by the torch. (This is fixed to the wall, and not the free-swinging lamp of the previous shot.) The next scene is here.
During the 40-second shot where Sokka and Princess Yue discuss her self-sacrifice, a similar light appears subtly in the background. Like the “light” will also disappear from her hair when she revives the Moon Spirit, the light is also disappearing from this shot, obscured by the kiss. (Note also the tender, slight track-in here.)
Earlier, as Zhao is preparing to kill the Moon Spirit, which is embodied by one of these fishes, they are nicely placed around his head, his reflection even upside-down indicating the abnormity of his plan.
Just before the killing we see Zhao and Iroh from beneath the water, their figures distorted, underlining the unreal and transgressive nature of the moment.
One of the film’s most magnificent and poetic situations is the bridge scene, which occurs just after the fight in the square outside the dungeon, with dizzying use of receding lines of perspective…
…soldiers come after them, depicted as one organism, arms and weapons raised in the same direction, as they are stopping because of the onset of a mysterious fog, blinding them…
…when the fog has lifted, the camera follows them from behind as they storm out. Shyamalan makes the inspired decision to remove all diegetic sound, so only ghostly, serene music is accompanying the run…
…which perfectly matches the situation outside: Aang and The Blue Spirit have vanished, as if gone up in smoke.
Early in the film, when Zhao invites Zuko over for “lunch”, there is an emphasis of Zhao’s ship dwarfing the banished Prince’s vessel, reflecting Zhao’s enormous advantage in stature and resources.
An interesting constellation as Aang discovers the skeletons at the Southern Air Temple and finally realises he has been frozen for a hundred years and everyone he ever knew is dead. He is moving away from Katara, and she recedes into soft focus – no one can realise the extent of his grief and he is entirely alone with it, like he is also alone as the last airbender.
Just afterwards, Aang realises he has stepped on and broken a bone from a skeleton, the moment marked by a Malickian glint of the sun, which is then dramatically blotted out by his head, as he screams: “You’re lying!” (to Katara who has tried to explain that all airbenders has been exterminated). The sun can be said to signify his first glimmer of the truth, and his immediate obstruction of it, a state of denial.
This is before the scene where Zhao is killed by the four waterbenders. Entrances and exits are methodically working in tandem with the fog (which seems to have been “laid on thick” to assist the mise-en-scène of this specific scene). First Zuko appears out of the fog, and then Iroh…
…after Iroh has quashed Zhao’s attempt to defeat them, they leave…
…and while the staging purposefully shows them exiting in the same way, Zhao turns…
…to discover his vanquishers (not out of the fog though). Here there is an amusing near-exponential progression: first one character appears, then one more, then two disappear, then four appear.
Just before Aang accepts the mantle of the Avatar after the climax, something that will forever set him apart from the rest of mankind, this shot is framed and staged to emphasise the incremental stripping away of Aang’s equals, Sokka and Katara.
…where a firebender will use that very fire in a display of power to cow the tribespeople.

The opening sequence, including the discovery of Aang inside the globe of ice, is (without being brilliant) a very well-made piece of film, always interesting to look at however many times the film is watched. It has a nice mixed approach of immersing us in the characters’ point-of-view and a more objectively observing position, with fine use of crane and overhead shots, and the almost featureless surroundings.

In this early shot of Katara and Sokka the film music is evocatively merging with the wind in soothing and alluring fashion.

Camera movement

A main source of the elegance of The Last Airbender is the relentlessly moving camera. Like many outstanding qualities of The Last Airbender, it does not come into its own until (roughly) the second half of the film. The camera records the action in elegant, methodical movements, smoothly alternating between tracking, steadicam, crane and helicopter shots, in lingering sweeps that constantly reveals new elements of scenes, new features of landscape. The reveal aspect is discussed in the next chapter, and in regards to sophisticated movement we have already seen some examples: Aang on the parapet, Aang in the chamber of statues, and, to a certain extent, Sokka and Yue on their way to the watchtower. Later, we will see a Fire Lord scene start with exhilarating camera motion.

In many cases the camera movement creates a bridge from scene to scene by letting the motion follow through into the next shot, for example in the already-seen panning movement linking the helicopter shot and the Iroh-Zuko encounter, before the assassination attempt.

Here is another example: the camera first closing in on the ship and then following through across Zhao’s warboard.
It can also been seen as a follow-through, on a much larger scale, of the camera closing in on Master Pakku in the previous shot.
After the killing of the Moon Spirit, a wonderfully supple, swooning close-in captures Princess Yue, fainting from the shock of the severed life-line to the spirit.
(The scene also features another exquisite touch: in anticipation of her hair turning black when she later will revive the Moon Spirit, and also marking she is losing consciousness, the lighting of the scene is dimmed.)
This is immediately followed by another rapid camera movement depicting Aang’s reaction, at the same time overturning the immaculately balanced shot (three lights on each flank, one in the far-away middle), mirroring how the world is now out of balance. It ends with an image without any lights whatsoever, after the camera has followed him as he staggers closer to the looming dark aperture behind him.
The last of this three-stage camera movement across shots is sluggish, as the camera “struggles” to get past the enormous warship, the laboriousness lending weight and enormity to what we are witnessing, namely the moon turning red.

The reveal motif

Revealing shots, where features of a scene are gradually disclosed by camera movement, are clearly overrepresented in The Last Airbender, and is a generous provider of its elegance. By its nature, this motif is closely connected to the camera movement discussed in the previous chapter. Later the device is in action in some Fire Lord situations, for example in scene 5, where Ozai tells Zhao about his ruthless plan for world domination.

After that scene, which ends with Ozai looking up at the heavens, yearning for power, there is a direct cut to an image of the sky. We could believe that it was the heavens above the palace that he was gazing at, but the image instead shows the consequence of his plan, in a manoeuvre of cohesion:

For when the camera tilts down it reveals the Fire Nation fleet which is now leaving port to launch the decisive attack.
Later the same type of manoeuvre is repeated, as a visual and dramatic echo, when the fleet has reached the fortress city where the heroes are staying.

But here the reveal has more dramatic power, since the peaceful blue sky is substituted with menacing black smoke, and not least, much less time elapses before the ship is disclosed: the danger is acute now that the ships have reached the target. (It is this smoke that causes the black snow.)

We have already seen the reveal device used many times, for example in the chamber of statues, the foot massage scene, and in the Princess Yue/Sokka scene at the watchtower. Now for some more examples.

I love the simplicity yet undeniable dramatic force of this situation: the camera makes a small adjustment to include Zuko in the frame – the first time he is seen in the film – as he spots the beam shooting up Aang’s globe of ice.
The camera lunges forward forcefully to meet Zhao and Iroh as they enter the city during the battle.
For once the reveal is not through camera movement. The two ranks of fighting soldiers are gradually disclosing Aang, who is using his airbending powers to blow them apart so he can get to the parapet undisturbed.
Aang is looking out the window, and since the camera is a curious, living entity in this film, it sidles to peek over his shoulder, at the battle raging in the city.
The camera moves laterally to reveal the tiny figure of Zuko, as he is about to embark on the swim under the ice into the city.
From the individual to the larger society: a magnificent shot, where we go from a close-up of a soldier to reveal the enemy ships…
…while the camera continues to draw back to put more defenders into the frame.

Now the battle starts, in the following slide show. In a long take we stay with a warrior riding an attack animal that scales the wall, and having reached the top, the insides of the city are revealed. He throws fire down into it. In the next shot the camera gradually discloses how more and more enemies are coming up from the ground, having bored through the ice:

This is a double reveal. We see Aang (in yellow) and his friends, then Zuko is revealed on the roof, from where he spies on them, and then the camera rises and zooms in, revealing the spirit cave in the distance. (Zuko will follow the heroes to abduct Aang.)
Another double reveal. The camera is closing in on the battle, reveals Aang and his friends (in the fourth snapshot), then the camera repositions itself, to reveal what they are seeing: enemy soldiers in the distance, including Zhao and Iroh, on their way towards the spirit cave.

The following slide show presents one of the most impressive revealing projects of the film, as the heroes arrive at the Northern Water Tribe City: over three shots, totalling 57 seconds, there are three stages: first the small boats are disclosed, then we go around a bend to discover the city walls, and then there is a large “welcoming party” at the harbour, while the camera glides past and also reveals the city behind them:

Echoes

Echoes have the ability to create resonance-heightening comparison points in the narrative. Quite a few shots towards the end of The Last Airbender will recall earlier key points and some will complete previous unfinished business. We have already looked at the echo between the pre-climax shot and the climax sequence itself, but even this can be extended:

The heroes discover the arrival of Fire Nation warships; Aang faces them alone before the climax; Aang “sees” (his eyes are closed) them off afterwards.
The same pull-back camera movement including people in the foreground is employed two times: the three heroes arriving at the Northern Water Tribe city, and after the climax. In the first case they bow before the Princess and the leaders, in the second one the entire population are about to kneel before Aang.
The heroes flanked by the lanterns recalls the initial shot of Aang’s first flashback, with its columns.
The configuration of the bodies of the heroes is not dissimilar at their arrival and after the climax.
Monk Kyatsu has also two companions (and in the few shots of Zuko roaming the Earth Kingdom looking for Aang, he too has two followers).
Unfinished business completed: the ceremony that was supposed to confirm Aang as the Avatar is finished after the climax, with a new set of people kneeling before Aang.
Both Princess Yue and Zhao (the latter as a reflection) is shown complemented by the glowing spirits. Both characters will be dead by the end of the film. (Although Yue’s “soul will no longer exist in this form” and go on as part of the Moon Spirit.)
This is a local, direct consequence: with the Moon Spirit dead, the moon turned red, Iroh goes into a rage, marked by his eyes turning red. The camera closes in on his face, and at the closest the transformation starts, and then it pulls back again.
More local effects: there is a direct cut from an overview of the city to a map of the same city. (This also resonates with the already-seen cut from a map of all the world to the tray of all the elements.)
There is also an echo between the Yue/Sokka “love scene” and the directly preceding situation where Zhao mocks Iroh. Both are interactions between two people, verbal cat-and-mouse games, and taking place at vantage points (a watchtower, the prow of a ship) but with characters consumed by far more than the view. There is also great contrast: one scene very sweet, the other dominated by a cruel power game.
It is tempting to claim a mild motif of hands: during the climax we see Aang use them in evocative fashion. As Iroh bids farewell to Zuko before he will swim under the ice into the Water Tribe city, Iroh raises his hand, and that sequence will end with Zuko breaking into the city, hand first.
There is a connection between Zuko’s ship breaking up the ice in his approach to the village, and Aang’s large ice globe doing the same.

Form on single-shot level

Overhead shots are something of a Shyamalan speciality. The Last Airbender contains as many as eight (see below slide show), of which the two in the opening sequence are particularly evocative:

Shyamalan was once dubbed “the next Spielberg” so it is almost touching that after the moon has turned back to normal again, he gets the chance to employ no less than three “Spielberg faces” of awestruck people looking off-screen:

Memorably reduced to one single staring eye…
…or augmented by the ever-present moving camera…
…and with this last one, of Zhao, which is followed by a reverse shot that is one of the most strangely beautiful images of the entire film. It is hard to pin down, but there is something about the massive bulk of his figure dominating the foreground, in conjunction with the odd beauty of the lantern in front of him, which looks like a bat with its face on fire.
Speaking about memorable single shots, this brief view of Zhao trapped in the globe of water and the implacable waterbenders on the bridge springs to mind…
…and here the alarm gong is being sounded because of the invading Fire Nation…
…and on a more intimate level, the light is falling beautifully on Katara’s eyes and face, in her dizziness waking up after having been defeated by Zuko in the spirit cave.
The first dialogue scene between Aang and Katara persists in showing her frontally and him at an angle, further away, placing him as a mysterious figure and her as an audience identification enabler.
This way of racking focus is standard practice, but especially evocative here, considering the underlying romantic attraction between Aang and Katara.
There is a small but distinctive pattern of Aang being shown out of focus in the foreground turned towards the camera: before Iroh’s test to see if he is the Avatar; when he is meditating and Katara tries to tell him that she has always believed in him.
We see something similar, intermittently, when he is returning from his first flashback and his first foray into the Spirit World.
Another evocative use of out-of-focus foreground, where the strange reflections in Zhao’s eyes make him look even more megalomaniacal as Iroh pleads with him not to kill the Moon Spirit.
There is little use of strong foregrounding, but here are three situations: during the discussion what to do after Aang has been abducted; Iroh relaxing while Zuko is working off steam; in the opening shot of the scene where Grandma fills in some background.

There is an unusually high number of situations where characters are shown both from the front and back. Some instances are obviously to show that they are immersed in a situation (a kind of point-of-view shot that fully includes the person looking), others have arisen from circular camera movements (here and here) and other types of movement (here). Yet others, however, bestow a genuinely ritualistic quality upon the situations. This slide show presents a full list, always with the frontal one at the top, regardless of chronology:

The three Spirit World sequences are shot in an aesthetically pleasing, distorted mélange of layers, for example with incongruous lanterns, probably a symbolic way of showing Aang where to go.
Finally, in a fight scene just before Aang storms up to the parapet to take care of the climax, rhythmical alternations between several modes of slow-motion are used to quite exhilarating effect – most memorable here, when an enemy soldier is encased in a prison of ice while Aang is somersaulting over him.

The Fire Lord scenes

All six scenes featuring the leader of the Fire Nation, Lord Ozai, are distinctly staged, as if further underlining that we are dealing with the film’s most powerful and exalted figure.

Scene 1

The film excels in alluring landscapes. Here it serves as a mixture of chapter marker, establishing shot, and announcement of a change of scenery. We are going to the Fire Nation for the first time.
Commander Zhao (left) and Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation. As they walk towards the camera, which moves to keep the distance, Zhao is briefing Ozai about the situation…
…now Zhao has said something interesting. Ozai stops and while the take is still running he turns around and they adopt an over-the-shoulder constellation.
After a cut, they embark upon a new «stage» of the conversation. Again they are trotting along…
…again Zhao says something that picques Ozai’s interest…
…Zhao anxiously awaits a reaction, face very expressive…
…and again the pattern is repeated: in the same take, Ozai turns around and they adopt the same position.

The conversation now continues in a conventional shot-reverse-shot constellation. The main idea of the mise-en-scène of this situation, however, is to make it look like a dance between the two, some kind of minuet with ritualised movements. This gives us an impression of entrenched positions of power – it is for Ozai to decide when they shall stop, turn and walk on – as well as the strict rules of etiquette at a court, but also some sort of cat-and-mouse game between them. (Later in the film it becomes evident that Zhao does not shy away from lying to his boss.)

Scene 2

This is a short but brilliant scene, a flashback where Prince Zuko (here played by an another actor) recounts a traumatic event. He knows he is about to take part in a duel, but Ozai has planned a surprise.

Zuko moves towards the camera, while it is closing in on him slightly and at the same time tilts up, so that the bright background windows can underline his alarm…
…Zuko’s sister is delighted about the humiliation she seems to know is coming, and she is approaching the camera, while it closes in a bit and tilts up, in a continuation of the pattern…
…Zuko is paralysed and the bright pattern, which also played a part at the end of Ozai’s entrance, is even more overwhelming…
…while we hear Zuko’s scream as his father burns him, we see General Iroh react with shock. Here the camera is static as if illustrating his powerlessness. His face is also darkened to deepen his resignation.

Scene 3

This situation is astounding because we do not see the face of any of the important characters. Zhao arrives at the throne hall with bad news:

The camera is following him…
…the ritualistic nature of the situation is strengthened by the painstaking symmetrical composition and the co-ordinated opening of doors…
…the camera continues its pursuit, but does not keep up with him…
…it lags more and more behind…
…and it ends up in a static position while Zhao keeps on walking. Metaphorically he is left on his own, and diminished, on his journey to the ruler with bad tidings…
…now for the rest of the scene Zhao is kept entirely out of focus, while we only see the back of Ozai…
…Zhao has arrived and delivers his message…
…Ozai leans back in the moment that his son is accused of treason…
…cut to the ruler’s hand whose fingers are bending and straightening, tapping against the throne (Zhao plays a dangerous game with his ferocious attack on Ozai’s son)…
…and the scene ends with this return to the previous position. (Also see this.)

Scene 4

This is just a short scene where stylisation is provided by Ozai sitting motionless (until he straightens up at the last second) while the camera is calmly closing in on the tableau. Please note the demonstratively reclining, powerful posture. (This scene is probably a continuation of the previous one, but in the narrative flow it is experienced as a separate situation.)

Scene 5

Here a low-flying camera, in elegant and exhilarating fashion, glides over the fields towards Ozai’s far-away castle (see below slide show). We hear the start of a conversation on the soundtrack. The often information-heavy dialogues of the film are not always deftly executed, but it must also be said there are several situations with conversation “played over” visually captivating images, making exposition more pleasing to digest.

The below slide show is yet another manifestation of the reveal motif. The mobile camera does not only record the conversation, but also gradually reveals more and more of the surroundings. Thus the scene is made more visually vibrant, while Ozai’s powerful position is discretely emphasised: we see what he rules over. Furthermore, part of the pattern of the first scene is repeated. Again Ozai and Zhao are walking in conversation with the camera frontally before them, they turn around, shift positions in relation to each other. But the situation is now reversed. Ozai is dominating the conversation (this time in a long, 32-second take).

After a cut, an effective full stop is bestowed on the scene with the following strange constellation, Ozai towering unnaturally high over Zhao. This is eminently suitable for a situation where the ruler is in the process of divulging a plan in which the Fire Nation shall do away with a supremely important spiritual being in order to install himself as sovereign of the known universe. Zhao is taken aback, but also enthralled by this daring and game-changing scheme.

Scene 6

This is the epilogue. Some of its aspects have already been mentioned in the first article, here and here.

In an atmospheric situation the camera is sneaking closer to Ozai and another mysterious person. In fact it seems that the latter has no legs. Ozai is expounding on the situation…
…there is a cut to a close-up, as he is enumerating a series of disasters that have spoiled his plans, but in his usual laconic, imperturbable tone of voice. As so much of his dialogue, seen in the right light, it sounds drily witty, blackly humorous…
…he has a new and long-term plan, however, that will make the Fire Nation the rulers of the world. The camera starts panning away from him…
…while he is going on about his idea, it is as if the intricate pattern of the window is illustrating his ingenious plan…
…then the plan becomes, in visual fashion, increasingly impressive (and the ornaments of the window comprise symbols of all four nations i.e. the whole world he wants to conquer)…
…and now the camera has ended up including his mysterious partner. He asks: “Do you accept this unspeakably important task I’m putting in your hands?” His over-emphasis on “unspeakably” appears to be in dry contrast to his calm, methodical tone, as if Ozai is fully aware of his role as a practitioner of melodrama…
…there is a cut to the other person, who answers “I do, Father.” She smiles in half delight, half malice, as the camera is closing in.

The epilogue paves the way for a second film that so far has not come to fruition. The person is Zuko’s sister, whom we basically have forgotten, since she is only briefly glimpsed in scene 2 (announced as “your sister” in voice-over), and who has otherwise merely been mentioned in passing during Zuko’s ruminations. Does she have legs or not? It seemed like she stepped forward in scene 2. She is also seen sitting in Zuko’s family picture. Perhaps her strange position at the start of the epilogue is only meant as a distraction?

(I still prefer the current epilogue, but the original one, given as a deleted scene on the Blu-ray, is also quite impressive. Here the Fire Lord sets a field ablaze upon hearing the disastrous results of the battle. Zuko’s sister do not appear, so the current epilogue is more clearly setting up a sequel.)

The climax

This is actually a climax-within-a-climax, for the battle has been raging for some time, with many tumultuous events. Its five-minute crest, however, is set apart with its calm, rigorous formal restraint that emphasises not brute force and domination, but the effortlessness and harmony of the Avatar’s powers. The Last Airbender turns into a silent movie here, the monochrome colours reminiscent of black-and-white cinematography, or a tinted silent film. Its dignified, delicate grandeur and lyricism is seductive but also awakens emotion, because the film is succeeding, like Aang, in finding its purpose. The musical score, camera motion, character movement, production design and surroundings act in unison to create an aesthetically alluring, atmospheric piece of art.

First the reader should refresh some already described situations over these two articles: the shot where Aang stands on the parapet before the enemy fleet, and his epiphanous flashback and its surrounding shots, and the first four shots of the climax. Also bear in mind that the sequence is accompanied by one of James Newton Howard‘s finest pieces (here, although somewhat rearranged it seems).

A brief summary of the first four shots (to be read row by row).
After three shots from the sea level, depicting growing confusion among the invading forces, this is the first real drama: the water is rising hard enough to overturn a bridge used for entering the city…
…a wall of water starts to creep up the city walls…
…we see the water rising…
…the camera rapidly tilts up…
…and swoops exhilaratingly in on Aang, as if he is pulling it in with his hands, controlling the camera as well as the water…
…the camera is flowing up along his body as part of an extended movement…
…to record this moment (while his hands still seem to lift the camera). So far Aang has been warming up. The glow of the eyes and tattoos signifies that he is now turning on full power…
…the camera starts pulling out, taking in his head tattoo in its full glory, as Aang is pulling at and conducting the water…
…the camera is still drawing back, through the water wall, which has now risen higher…
…the camera in The Last Airbender just can’t stop moving, so it continues to pull out even though we can only see a faint outline of Aang. (Please recall that this almost abstract take started already here.)
From down in the square we can see the water rising, the watchtowers doing a nice framing job…
…the camera tilts up a bit, as if mimicking the rise of the water, while the firebenders realise something is afoot…
…after a shot of astounded waterbenders, cut to this one, where the camera closes in on Master Pakku and the waterbenders with an intensifying effect…
…the camera glides along the wall, revealing the progress of the water…
…Katara is overjoyed…
…the firebenders try to make a break for it, but the holes in the wall they bored to invade the city are now inaccessible because of the water wall (this explains why there are so many enemy troops still inside the city after the climax, where they will cease hostilities and join the others in acknowledging Aang as the Avatar)…
…up on the parapet Aang is still doing his graceful dance…
…while he is kicking the water even higher, the camera elegantly moves over the watery wall to peek down at the fleet…
…the shadow cast by the water grows…
…the camera moves in on them, strengthening the looming threat of the wall…
…this guy, captured in a wonderfully iconic angle and posture, we will see later…
…while the image gets drenched in evocative flares from water particles, the threat of the water seems to force him out of the frame…
…the situation is even darker for the ship we saw before, the angle steeper and the framing has moved forward, as if willing the ship to leave…
…the camera glides along this ship, from left to right, in the direction that the soldiers itch to take, away from the city…
…Aang in a marvellously iconic, godlike posture…
…a narrative aside, showing that Iroh and Zuko has escaped the city…
…the threat of the water coming crashing down is still looming, and compare the powerlessness of that hand…
…against the creator of the threat, still completely implacable…
…the camera strides up to this fellow, whom we saw before…
…catching him perfectly, as he is now striking that iconic pose again – obviously he is some kind of commander, who now loses his nerve and signals the fleet to leave (he cannot know that it is against the principles of the Avatar to kill, so the water is merely a threat)…
…the ships are starting to move out of the harbour – the water has metaphorically extinguished the fire of the invaders…
…the film is starting to prepare us for closure, through this stylised camera movement, which also turns to include the water…
in a formal echo, and reversal, of the earlier camera movement, it is closing in this time…
…we see the height of the wall starting to decrease…
…and then with this utterly simple command…
…the water falls to rest.
The last, stylised shot of the climax.
Aang has been in a trance the whole time, but now he is about to see Katara.

(The entire passage can currently be seen here, although with very muted sound.)

*

There are a lot of closures and connections going on here. Let us first take a look at how the last shot of the climax fits in.

From top, row by row: The first four shots of the climax, and the start and end point of the last shot.

The structure on the parapet that was so important in the first four shots is still carefully playing its part, even into the last seconds its presence is still felt. The mise-en-scène of the last shot is governed by the same ritualistic, geometric camera movements as when the climax started. It also helps form a closure together with the other stylised camera motions just before (here and here).

The camera of The Last Airbender has such a thirst for motion that it just goes on moving even when we can hardly see anything. It is tempting to regard the situation where Aang is hardly visible through the water wall during the climax as a reverse of the track-in on Zhao when he became overcome by water.
This echo seems very meaningful. Aang alone mans the parapet in the climax, compared to the phalanx of defenders before the battle. Again there is a reversal: while the camera pulls back from Aang, it is gliding forward along the line of defenders, in a revealing shot.

Let us summarise the most memorable camera movements connected to the climax in this aesthetical slide show:

The visual language of the hypnotic climax is a fascinating mixture of minimalism and maximalism, the ascetic filming of a monumental event. M. Night Shyamalan has succeeded here in finding a cinematic equivalent to the effortless unfolding of superhuman powers, in a formal framework also suggesting the hero’s ritualised path to that state.

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