The Last Airbender, Part I: Harmony of elements
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 first of two articles about The Last Airbender (2010). The second one is here.
I’m going to cut directly to the chase here, to give you an idea how M. Night Shyamalan is blending form and content in elegant, inextricable fashion to give The Last Airbender its lyrical power. Due to unprocessed grief, the protagonist Aang (Noah Ringer) has so far been unable to fulfil his destiny as the world’s most powerful being. The following frame grabs break down the first four shots after an epiphany, which has arrived in the nick of time because the invading Fire Nation will soon overwhelm the city of the Northern Water Tribe.
The first 45 minutes of The Last Airbender are wobbly indeed. Although far from uniformly mediocre, it is at times extremely exposition-heavy and often suffering from stiff, insecure performances from young actors without much experience. But eventually the film changes nature. There is more action, the dialogue becomes far less prominent, and the most irritating character, Sokka (played by an abysmally miscast Jackson Rathbone), is more or less relegated to the sidelines. The turning point comes as Aang has been liberated from the dungeon of the villains:
The liberation of Aang seems to release M. Night Shyamalan too, who can unfurl his visual powers, assisted by the now-deceased The Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and composer James Newton Howard‘s inspired, transcendent score. The film becomes a master class in how the choreography of musical score, camera motion, character movement, production design and surroundings can act in unison to create an aesthetically alluring, atmospheric piece of art. The Last Airbender is a symphonic work, where the sketchily drawn characters become representatives of something larger, and pieces in a formal game of harmony. 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 five-minute crest of the extensive climax must be among the most monumental in film history, without ever losing the rigorous formal restraint I pointed to above. The Last Airbender here turns into a silent movie, 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.
This article will contain a general evaluation, an introduction to the characters of the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe plus Aang, a discussion of character development and the sacrifices therein. It will further deal with the criticism against the film, how exposition is handled, its references to his other films, and an analysis of the very important moon motif. This last chapter is a harbinger of the extensive visual analysis on the agenda in the second article. (There is also two addendums: detailing Aang’s three flashbacks and the film’s voice-over.)
Other than that, there’s an astounding array of similarities between The Last Airbender and After Earth (2013), all of which are described in this chapter of the first article about the latter film. Also, look here for how The Last Airbender fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks and statistics etc.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of The Last Airbender, here is a brief outline of the plot.
How to square the stellar description above with a film that was annihilated by critics, resulting in a Metacritic score of 20/100, and has a current public-opinion-reflecting IMDb score of 4.2? It’s almost hilarious how every time I consult its IMDb entry there is always a new top User Comment, its title yet another variation of “utter drivel”.
First: to fully appreciate The Last Airbender you must love form. This is even more important here than with the early Shyamalan works, because this film is on much shakier ground in regards to the most common layers on which a film is appreciated: acting, storytelling flow, identification. But you are not asked anything more than to use the same faculties as when watching a Kubrick or De Palma film, or any cinematic work that to a large degree relies on the marriage of “form” and “content” to create the full impact of the artistic experience – appreciating such films just on the level of character or story will yield a mere pale shadow, and will often not make sense at all (quite a few De Palma movies comes to mind). So as preposterous as it may sound for a film based on an animated TV series targeting six to nine year olds, The Last Airbender requires marshalling the powers of an experienced film connoisseur, with a willingness to engage on the level of symbolism and subtext.
The Last Airbender is the second of Shyamalan’s three films in the difficult period of 2008-2013, which also gave us The Happening (2008) and After Earth (2013). After having fallen spectacularly out of favour with both audiences and critics, he was now relegated to operate as any other director within the studio system. The almost total artistic freedom he had enjoyed in the Disney period (1999-2004) and at Warner Bros. with Lady in the Water in 2006 must have seemed unreal as he now trudged along, navigating the obligatory obstacles and compromises of the film industry.
The reception of these three works between 2008 and 2013 suffered from an almost irrational anger against the director, a trend that had started long before. (The start of the first article on Lady in the Water, the lead-off piece of my Shyamalan Analysis Project, goes into this.) This fashionable, hostile attitude – which evolved from an increasing scepticism towards his early works, especially The Village (2004), unfortunately marketed as a horror movie – led to many ungenerous readings, to put a fine word on it, of the films from this difficult period.
So things were generally not looking up in 2010, the year of The Last Airbender. Other than that, the film was struck by a perfect storm of:
- difficult-to-live-up-to expectations from the vast fan base of an overwhelmingly popular source material
- the notoriously dim view of fans of any source material to changes (in fact, except for the last couple of episodes, very little remained from the TV show’s first season, which the film was meant to cover)
- being forced to post-convert the film to 3D, with little artistic/entertainment effect, the loss of light inherent in 3D only serving to darken a film with already dark images (this review savages the 3D, although the writer seems so angry at the film itself that one fears he may exaggerate also in this respect)
- producers insisting that a “good half hour” of the film had to be cut (and some of it reshot) to save costs of the 3D conversion (here is a list, search for text “deleted scenes”)
- and certainly mistakes by the director himself, for example in casting (mainly with Rathbone, forget the racist casting pseudo-controversy)
- and outside the film, cocky statements that this was to be Shyamalan’s Star Wars trilogy, serving only to create an enormous height from which to fall
Shyamalan’s five-years-later defence of the film that he made it for 9-10 year olds (in this interview) sounds strange, however, and one of the few things this sloppy piece from Den of Geek (to which we will return) gets right is that the TV series was “bright and colourful and funny” and “none of that is true of the film version”.
My initial response at the time of release was that it seemed like a deliberately old-fashioned film, a children’s adventure movie in which characterisation took a back seat to plot and landscape. Its calm visual style, devoid of the hectic dynamics often seen in modern films, added to the impression of something out of the 1950s or 60s. Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955) springs to mind, whose emphasis on mood and visuality has secured it a place in the canon regardless of its perceived success at the time as a boy’s adventure film. (It was regarded as a failure.) This deliberately-old approach to watching it was not unnatural since Shyamalan’s previous film, The Happening, was a conscious homage to sci-fi B-movies of that same period, and there have been other examples in recent years: Agora (Alejandro Amenabár, 2009) and the Ridley Scott films Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). One could also argue that James Gray has made a career out of making “old-fashioned” films.
So I was not overly concerned by the fact that the characters were superficial and thought the film was quite impressive and the finale majestic. On the second viewing, however, the stiff acting and the sometimes stilted interactions made themselves more felt, and I spent that and the next viewing vacillating between cringing and being continually enthusiastic about the other enjoyable stuff. I made sure to watch it in 2D, however, and it looked crystal clear and quite beautiful. We should not forget that a large share of the opinions about this film was formed facing the ruinous 3D version. My current opinion has evolved from various Blu-ray viewings over the years. The good things have just increased in impact. I tend to overlook Sokka, in the same manner as I have made my peace with other irritating elements of otherwise good films.
So The Last Airbender is a schizophrenic film, in many ways. To an extent the blistering anger and scorn towards it is understandable, because even though Shyamalan has preserved the basic personalities of the three heroes, the playfulness and sense of fun in the TV series is largely gone. The tone of the film is slower, much darker and fateful – more “grown-up”. In a way Shyamalan’s sensibility as a filmmaker is unsuitable for the ostensible target group. He cannot help being constantly drawn in another direction, to make a work that addresses an adult’s ability to engage with a sophisticated use of cinematic devices and, in his characterisations of the bad guys, more irony-layered acting.
I am perfectly and painfully aware of the hostility still dominating the perception of this film. Over these two articles, however, I will ask any such reader to put aside the confirmation bias for a while and try to approach the film from another angle. Aside from the 3D, the rockiness of the first half of The Last Airbender might have caused many to give up and thus become unable to fully appreciate it when it hits its stride. I feel that my enjoyment of this film, despite its flaws, is based on sound artistic principles. When The Last Airbender really works it reaches the same level as Shyamalan’s early films, and it is easily the most pleasurable of the three films from his difficult period of 2008-2013.
Characters: the Fire Nation
The Fire Nation is waging war against the two other tribes representing the elements of Earth and Water. (The fourth tribe, the Air Nomads, has already been exterminated, except for Aang.) As usual in this type of film, the actors playing villains are allowed more elbow room.
Every time I watch The Last Airbender I delight in the many indestructible moments when the brave but arrogant Commander Zhao appears, outstandingly acted by the comedian Aasif Mandvi, with his high-pitched, melodious voice, suave irony, jolly cynicism and a rational, business-like approach to evil. (“My name is Commander Zhao. I set this trap for you. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna kill you. Besides, you’d just be reborn again, and then the search would continue.”) Even when he speaks to the powerful Fire Lord his voice is not without a touch of insolence, and he must be said to play with (ahem) fire when he states: “I fear that your son is not only incompetent, but also a traitor.” When Ozai says “Let’s hope, for your sake, my son doesn’t find this person first and he turns out to be the Avatar. He would return as a hero and, for all purposes, be your superior,” Zhao gamely accepts the challenge without batting an eyelid, with a cocky and totally self-assured “Well, I suppose it’s a race, then.”
He dares try assassinating Zuko against his father’s will, which requires extraordinary courage and ambition. He also produces a subtle moment when he shakes his head almost imperceptibly and voices “fools” after he discovers that the guards have let Aang escape from the dungeon. Finally, he is brilliant as he fights his own fear when about to kill the Moon Spirit, trying to convince himself with: “The Fire Nation is too powerful to worry about children’s superstitions.”
Cliff Curtis as Ozai, the Lord of the Fire Nation, is also magnificent, as a sleepy-looking, lazily brusque, unperturbed practitioner of political intrigue and casual evil.
There is a good deal of underlying humour and ironic distance in these two guys’ delivery of bombastic lines (which of course go over the head of any children in the audience). Ozai is partial to boorish condescension (“Get on with it”; “I am pleased”; “And how did he escape?”), but expresses himself in an impeccably cultured tone. In the epilogue he is wearily counting off a litany of as many as four disasters, managing to make it sound as if he is both totally disgusted and entirely unfazed: “Our forces in the Northern Water Tribe have failed to take the city. General Zhao was killed in battle and my brother has become a traitor. My son’s proven himself a failure.” His last words in the film are a question to his daughter: “Do you accept this unspeakably important task I’m putting in your hands?” with emphasis on an especially pompous word choice as if mocking his own melodramatic tone. Cliff Curtis is not sending things up, but there is this almost invisible undertone of sardonic detachment.
Zhao’s first lines in the film come upon spotting Zuko’s ship and he exclaims in his usual ironic lilt: “The banished prince. Let’s offer him lunch.” (The many unfair criticisms of The Last Airbender even include the un-fairytale-world use of “lunch”, although it is par for the course for such films to knowingly use deliberately inappropriate phrases for a wink-wink effect – as if it is suddenly not allowed to play by normal rules of engagement.) Zhao then proceeds to humiliate Zuko in front of a room full of soldiers and finishes his ironic speech by pointing out that Zuko during his banishment “is not allowed to wear the Fire Nation uniform. But we will let him wear it today, like a child wearing a costume.” Later in the film it is Iroh’s turn to be mocked, this time the invitation is not for lunch but for an invasion, but the tone is the same as with Zuko:
- “General Iroh, I’m glad you could accept my invitation to join us on this historic event.”
- “Your invitation was most gracious.”
- “You are a gifted strategist. No one can argue that. Your failure in the Hundred Day Siege of Ba Sing Se won’t be held against you. Your son died in that siege, didn’t he?”
- “Yes, he did.”
- “Again, I offer my condolences on your nephew [Zhao believes his assassination attempt succeeded] burning to death in that terrible accident.”
- “Thank you.”
Zhao reminds his guest about no less than three disasters and Iroh has no choice but to stand there, pretending to be thankful.
There is more humour in the film, for example Master Pakku saying with exaggerated knowingness: “I had a feeling you might volunteer,” when Sokka wants to be the permanent guard for the lovely Princess Yue, yet absolutely everyone understands he is in love with her. And in a very nice touch Pakku is doing football tricks with a sphere of ice during his sparring session with Aang. The first two shots of Aang’s last flashback are also delightful, but in a different, much more warm and innocent way. (I am indebted to my former film analysis partner Aubrey Wanliss-Orlebar, who inspired me to embrace the film’s various humorous aspects, although we might at times disagree on their exact nature and function.)
Shaun Toub plays General Iroh, Ozai’s laidback but courteous and honourable brother. With his soft voice and nuanced facial expressions he has a hypnotic presence and is easily the most interesting character in the film. Iroh accompanies the banished Prince Zuko on his travels, trying to calm down the young man, often with a dry wit, but in the scenes with the ultra-ironic Zhao he becomes the “straight man”.
Prince Zuko is played with ferocious intensity by Dev Patel (who has been criticised, but who hasn’t with this film?). His single-minded interpretation gives meaning though, for a figure obsessed with the necessity for a grand deed to win back the favour of the Fire Nation’s ruler. We also feel that there is an underlying trauma governing his entire behaviour. The film version is on the whole much more concerned with character motivation and psychology than the TV series, which targets young children, emphasising action, light-hearted fun and adventure.
Characters: Aang and the Water Tribe
Aang is playful and carefree. Since the film aims for a higher degree of psychological realism he is much harder hit by the news of the extermination of his people and his indirect culpability due to his 100-year absence, while the TV series incarnation is more childish, so he can shake it off and continue on his genre-required adventures.
Aang is played by Noah Ringer, of whom this author must confess a great fondness. He has clear limitations and little projective power in dialogue delivery – his supposedly rousing speech to the inmates of the earthbender prison is nothing to write home about – but he is athletic and very good at the physical parts. He is actually quite impressive, especially since he had no previous acting experience. His face is truly like an “open book”, and there is something very heartfelt, sincere and immediate about him. He is doing an especially fine job in the more abstract, body-language scenes, from which we are going to see a lot in these two articles. The following slide show presents him in fine style:
Aang is a Messiah-type character. The Fire Nation exterminated all the air nomads because they knew the predestined cycle would cause the next Avatar to be reborn as an airbender, which is reminiscent of King Herod ordering the killing of all male young children to get at Jesus whom he knew would be among them. Also, during Zuko’s raid early in the film, he shouts: “Bring me all your elderly!” – another connection in its polar opposite regarding the age of the targeted group. (A weak point of the film is that it never explains why: the Fire Nation did not know that Aang had been preserved by the ice for 100 years, so they were looking for a very old man. The film viewers are likely to assume that the elderly are to be hostages to force the Avatar to reveal himself.)
Nicola Peltz is playing Katara as an energetic and lively figure. Peltz seems to have evaded most of the criticism – at least she has not been particularly singled out – but she seems like a fine choice for this type of film, with no need for deep characterisation in the usual sense. When required she can produce some pretty effective close-ups, however, as we shall see in the next chapter.
Sokka is also like in the series: overprotective towards his sister, assertive and self-important with a hugely inflated self-image, for in reality he is mostly clumsy and foolish. He is also not without charm in the source material, but as played by Jackson Rathbone he is by far the film’s single weakest element. It is not easy to understand what he and Shyamalan are trying to do. They seem to aim for anxious and tense, but he sticks out of every image like a sore thumb, often standing in the background with an odd glare, speaking with in a tone meant to be intense with pent-up anxiety but there is something about his voice making him only come across as forced and extremely irritating. He is stranded in a no man’s land between a comedic and a credibly straight character with hinted-at issues. He is also rivalling the character Alma in Shyalaman’s The Happening in asking obvious questions: “Did you see that light shoot into the sky?”; “So… are you the Avatar, Aang?” – with the obligatory weird voice and look. Here is a slide show that gives a fair impression of how he looks like:
During the last two thirds of The Last Airbender, Sokka’s presence is mercifully more or less limited to affectionate interaction with Princess Yue, played by Seychelle Gabriel, who despite her doll-like exterior nevertheless radiates inner beauty. She releases something in Rathbone: the actors seem genuinely taken with each other, and their long scene before the invasion with its subtle chemistry becomes a charming high point of the film.
The portrayal of their romance has been criticised: it develops too fast, so we cannot really feel anything when she gives up her life to revive the Moon Spirit, thus sacrificing her love for Sokka. Granted, the arc is short but as with a fair amount of the criticism levelled at this film, this snipe seems rather thoughtless. As the heroes arrive at the Northern Water Tribe city, Katara’s voice-over states that Sokka and “the princess became friends right away”. This accompanies images that really hammer in: love at first sight. There are no less than three shots of them looking at each other.
And in the overture to their “love scene“, she says “I’ve loved spending these weeks with you,” so we ought to understand they have had a long time to develop their feelings. And the long (96-second) scene that follows is so finely acted and suffused with genuine feeling that although their love is still unarticulated, and unconsummated at the point of her sacrifice, it should feel very real. (They are also holding hands, almost entirely off-screen, walking up the stairs in that scene.)
Character development and sacrifice
Aang and Prince Zuko, hero and hero-villain, are linked as antagonists – as Aang says, however: “We could be friends, you know” – but, as illustrated by the above images, in many other ways. Zuko’s destiny is dependent on capturing Aang, to win back the favour of his father, the Fire Lord. Aang yearns for a normal life, Zuko eschews it. He has to catch Aang first and “then we can think about the pretty girls,” but ultimately Zuko also wants to return to normality. Furthermore, as Vincent Malausa in Cahiers du cinéma points out, as retold by David Davidson here, that “the dichotomy” between Aang and Zuko “can be seen as two sides of Shyamalan’s character: one wants to create magic and mystery while the other wants to fulfill his duties (i.e. commercial imperatives)”.
The journey towards truth for all of the principal characters of The Last Airbender is as ritualised, as full of doubts and setbacks, as in the early Shyamalan films. Their character arcs are determined by the necessity to realise that something must be sacrificed and self-centredness must be conquered. The learning curves of them all dovetail during the climactic battle. The mildest form of sacrifice comes when the hotheaded Zuko for once listens to reason and refuses to accept Zhao’s challenge on Iroh’s advice: “Come away from him, nephew. There are too many soldiers now. They will never let you take the Avatar. We must leave immediately. He wants to fight you so he can capture you, Zuko. Walk away!” So Zuko learns wisdom and restraint, and sacrifices his pride – which is just self-destructive impulsiveness masquerading as pride – that has governed his actions so far.
During their “love scene” Princess Yue says to Sokka: “When I was born I was not awake. My mother and father could not get me to make a sound or move. So they prayed for days to the Moon Spirit and dipped me into the sacred waters. My parents said that my hair turned white then and life poured into me.” During the climax, when the Fire Nation has the advantage since the Moon Spirit is dead, Iroh realises it can be revived if Princess Yue returns the life she once received from it. Echoing the ultra-important Shyamalan motif of purpose, Iroh says: “There are reasons each of us are born. We have to find those reasons,” and Yue realises: “This was the reason I was born.” When Sokka pleads with her she responds: “There is no love without sacrifice,” and soon she convinces him with: “My people are dying, Sokka. Those who are in charge of others have a responsibility. It is time we show the Fire Nation we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.”
Aang has his own inner struggle. He once fled the responsibility of being the Avatar because he could not accept forsaking to have a family (“they said that’s the sacrifice the Avatar always has to make”). He is unable to fulfil his waterbending potential because every time he tries to think back on his monastery days, he cannot help think about the massacre of his people too, and then his mind collapses. (See the addendum about his three flashbacks.) But, as Master Pakku says, “To master water, you must release your emotions, wherever they may lead you. Water teaches us acceptance.” (This is alluded to in the opening scene: when Katara thought about the difficult subject of her dead mother, her waterbending went better.)
While the reasoning behind Yue’s decision is overtly articulated and for Aang more indirect, there is more going on. It is a commonly held belief about the source material that there is an unspoken romantic connection between Katara and Aang, and this seems the case for the film too. According to this list of deleted scenes The Dragon Spirit originally “…warned Aang that his feelings for Katara must be controlled, and that it will conflict with his duty as Avatar,” so it appears this was meant to be much clearer. We are merely left with faint indicators buried in subtext.
For example, while Aang is meditating in the spirit cave, Katara says: “Aang, can you hear me? I knew you were real. I always knew you’d return.” One gets the feeling this is only an overture to a confession about more intimate matters – she did not speak until the others had left – had she not been interrupted by Zuko’s entrance.
What should have been an unambiguous moment of triumph for both of them is fraught with doubt and sorrow. It is all very subtle, but becoming aware of the torn mind of Katara, especially, helps our emotional involvement. The camera’s interest in her (in the spirit cave) hinted that the discussion hit home with her in a decisive way. Reasons for being born, no love without sacrifice, those in charge of others have a responsibility – these remarks suddenly resonated deeply with her: Katara as a nearly full-fledged waterbender (after all, she presented herself to Zuko as “the only Waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe.”) has a duty to fulfil as a future leader of her tribe. This realisation makes it “easier” for her to sacrifice her romantic interest and personal happiness at the end, for the greater good. Likewise, Aang’s triumph is totally unselfish because in Avatar modus he let go of everything resembling a self. He was purely the instrument of being Avatar. Even when his self returns when Katara turns up and in the aftermath, there is no sign of elation over a personal triumph.
Furthermore, the emphasis on Katara as a spectator to the discussion between the two lovers is another indication that she harbours romantic feelings herself. We have also seen the harmony between Katara and Aang during their waterbending dance in the courtyard just before the arrival of the Fire Nation ships. The wistful musical theme accompanying that dance – a variation of that was also played when she opened up to Aang during his meditation – returns during Yue’s self-sacrifice, first in embryonic form as “reasons for being born” are mentioned, and then fully as she steps into the pond. So in their final scene Katara ends up prodding Aang to accept being the Avatar, even though it means he has to give up a normal life and family relationships, with her. It definitely seems to be more going on here than Aang and Katara not being able to be friends on an equal footing any more.
To summarise the sacrifices and development of the principal characters:
- Zuko is sacrificing his misplaced sense of pride
- Yue sacrifices her life (at least as she knows it: “I believe my life force will leave my body and return to the Moon Spirit … my soul will no longer exist in this form.”)
- Yue and Sokka are sacrificing their love for each other.
- Aang is sacrificing a normal life
- Katara is sacrificing her love for him.
With this, a beautiful parallel is emerging between the two couples (and this structural similarity even further reinforces the notion that Katara is in love with Aang). Love is sacrificed and one character from each couple transits into another form of existence: Yue becomes one with the Moon Spirit and Aang becomes the Avatar. Both are also becoming one with myth, which can be seen as a variation on the theme of harmoniously working together, for example in Katara and Aang’s dance.
There is also a development for the Dragon Spirit. Like Aang has three “visions” of his past, through the flashbacks, he has three visions where he communicates with the Dragon Spirit. In the first one it just puts the head forward saying: “The Avatar? Where have you been?”. In the second one it is more active and the conversation is longer. During the final vision it leaves the cave where it has resided so far, and seems about to take flight with its wings.
Another Fire Nation character, General Iroh, is also developing. In the early stages he is a fellow with a laid-back joie-de-vivre attitude, enjoying a cup of tea while Zuko is beating the shit out of his crew, or getting a foot massage as Zuko gets back from his arduous foray as the Blue Spirit. Iroh grows more serious after Zhao’s attempt on Zuko’s life and as he gradually realises the extent of his superiors’ depravity, including the plot to kill the Moon Spirit, to the point of becoming a real hen mother when Zuko is embarking on his underwater swim into the Northern Water Tribe city. (Iroh has also lost his son – it is a bit unclear when that happened, but it seems like Zhao is referring to off-screen events within the time span of the film, which could further explain his turn towards the serious.) There is genuine fatherly love from the previously so aloof and ironic Iroh as Zuko rows away.
This Gizmodo article, that sums up what is missing from the TV series, claims: “There are maybe two funny moments in the entire film, both have to do with Sokka and water.” The scathing critique from Den of Geek says: “For starters, it is absolutely deadpan. There’s not a bit of intentional humour in the whole thing.” This is plain wrong. For one thing the entire layer of irony is overlooked, but that is excusable since it requires being on a certain wavelength with the film. But there are many other overt moments of humour. It is correct though that most of them have to do with Sokka. One of the really dumbest moments of the film comes when the dazed Appa, the giant flying bison, is felling Sokka with its tail, and for Sokka to think that it is trying to eat him is pretty rich. This is one instance of intentional comedy that does not work at all.
Other occasions of Sokka humour is kicking Fire soldiers in the butt (twice) during the prison rebellion, and earlier in the same scene shouting: “OK! Everybody can help us now!” after he has taken the foolhardy decision of joining Katara and Aang in opposing the guards. There are also quite a few other smaller bits of business. The huge problem for The Last Airbender is that Shyamalan is unable to get Jackson Rathbone to pull these scenes of comic relief off.
Much has been made of the fact that the earthbender prison is on land – in the TV series it was on a ship – providing access to earth and rocks as weapons, but this is a silly criticism, along the lines of all those crowing about the idiocy of the aliens in Signs invading a planet with so much water, their one weakness. It is stated in the film that there is some kind of hostage situation: “Those who could not bend were allowed to live in peace, if we were imprisoned.” Over the course of the war, the earthbenders are obviously also thoroughly demoralised.
There has been much hilarity over the fight scene inside that earthbender prison. I have to confess: I have no idea whether the scene is good or bad. Sometimes I think its chess game structure is elegant, with the opposing sides waiting for the other to make its next move, at other times it seems simply stilted, the scene suffering from Shyamalan’s insistence to shoot it in one take (at 80 seconds it is the film’s second longest). Sometimes I think the band of earthbenders who are dancing, gesticulating and grimacing – they have become notorious among the film’s detractors (see here and here) – are meant to be funny, that they are not doing anything, but are just some kind of cheerleaders.
An accusation of apparent clumsiness is that Katara does not ask Aang about his name until they have reached the Southern Air Temple. But she did ask him that, as the very first thing, when he appeared from the ice, but he was too dazed to answer. Then he is taken very quickly from their village. But arriving at the temple, haven’t they now finished a long flight, with ample time for conversation?
Besides the problems already pointed out earlier, I have my own criticisms. Several scenes in the first half cannot muster much interest, especially the situation at that temple – except the flashback and the spirit world foray, both of which are fascinating throughout the film – and during the Earth Kingdom part of the film. The early raid on the Water Tribe village also lacks dramatic force. (See here for some more problematic scenes.)
Another curious problem is that some lines seem totally superfluous, like when Zuko enters the spirit cave and Katara says: “The Fire Lord’s son. You took him from our village”. Well, it has been a long time since the opening scenes, a good part of the audience will be children who might have attention problems, but do we really need to be reminded of the very dramatic incident of Zuko abducting Aang? Momo, the flying lemur, is badly integrated in the film, some sort of mascot, but has nothing to do (besides finding the waterbending scroll, by accident). It just turns up from time to time. Appa, the flying bison, is not working too well either, overly cute.
Aang’s airbending when escaping from his cell looks rather strange, and stiffly staged, not a good way to make a favourable first impression of your hero’s abilities. And isn’t it strange that the spirit cave, so vital to the Water Tribe, seems to be unguarded, even with a war going on? The party from the Fire Nation appear to walk right in. (Guards could have been killed off-screen though.) Shyamalan’s films are usually technically impeccable but here there is a glitch in an otherwise smooth camera movement (at approximately 45:35) as it rises behind the guard who discovers the other two bound guards.
Finally, there is a continuity error. Among the many similarities between The Last Airbender and its “companion film” After Earth, especially curious is the fact there are bad continuity errors due to fetishised objects gone missing, in both cases caused by cuts. In After Earth Kitai is losing his cutlass at some point and in The Last Airbender Katara is losing her necklace, an heirloom after her mother. In the TV series this is a plot point, which in the film was meant to occur in the Earth prison scene, where it was found by Zuko when he came there (a short glimpse of that arrival remains in the film) and later it was recovered by Aang after Zuko (disguised as the Blue Spirit) has freed him from the dungeon (see this, search for text “deleted scenes”).
The Last Airbender is heavy on exposition, but some of the criticisms levelled against this are thoughtless, as if the critics in question only have hazy recollections or a poor understanding of the film. This sentence from the Den of Geek piece is a good example: “The script still doesn’t give the actors much to work with – their one major dialogue scene ends with Zuko delivering the so-called clanger ‘We will catch him soon, Uncle, then we can think about the pretty girls.'” This is actually a very sensible line, answering Iroh’s attempt to steer him away from a life of confrontation by pointing out: “There are a lot of pretty girls in this town, Zuko. You could fall in love here. We could settle down here, and you could have a blessed life.” Zuko’s answer concludes what is in fact a resonant, multi-purpose scene, which unequivocally demonstrates how impossible it is for Zuko to give up his search, and is also humanising the belligerent prince.
The incognito Zuko calls a little boy over to their table, asking him if he knows the story of Zuko’s banishment. Their interplay is very telling. For one thing the boy is very good-looking in contrast to the hideously scarred Zuko. The prince can see himself in the innocent-looking boy; Zuko could have been the same if allowed a normal life. Their intertwining is strengthened by Zuko and the boy alternating in “reciting” the lines of the myth. The scene includes a highly evocative, nightmarish flashback through only five precisely-stylised shots, driving home the brutality behind Zuko’s trauma. (We will return to that in the second article.) And the whole world knows, to the extent that the boy knows the story by heart. Possibly the most heartbreaking aspect of the scene is that to the boy this is myth, but to Zuko this is a reality he has to live.
Another scene criticised for its expository nature is the situation where Commander Zhao has invited Iroh and Zuko over for “lunch” (see slide show here). But again it does a lot more than just providing backstory. Zhao’s arrogant and taunting personality unfolds for the first time, his monologue is elegantly written and performed, there is lots of tension, Iroh’s mentor relationship towards Zuko is deepened, and it shows another stage of Iroh’s shifting loyalties. Not least, Zhao intentionally continues the pattern from the flashback with another public humiliation for Zuko, in front of the large assembly of soldiers (which also serves to show off the military might of the Fire Nation).
Zuko and Iroh are enjoyable characters in themselves, their interaction as well, with its calm-hothead dynamics. So even in other expository scenes they are interesting to watch, for example in the short scene where we discover that Zuko is stowed away on the Fire Nation war ship, which clearly is intended to provide the audience a summary of what is at stake at this point. Later, when Zuko sets out in his little boat, about to swim under the ice into the city, Iroh is telling him things he already knows, but the audience needs to know, yet it does not feel forced since Iroh is now besides himself with worry, acting with understandable fussiness.
There is a small pattern in the film of Zuko opening up to a character who is unconscious. After Zuko has defeated Katara he addresses her prone body, as if in excuse: “I’m not allowed to go home without him.” Soon afterwards, he starts mumbling to himself, but to deaf ears here too, since Aang is still in deep meditation: “My sister Azula was always the special one. She was a Firebending prodigy. My father loves her. He can’t even look at me sometimes. He says I’m like my mother.” This provides useful information to prepare us for the epilogue when the sister appears, but has the double function of being a bittersweet expression of Zuko’s loneliness, further humanising him. (Katara opening up to Aang while he is meditating also fits nicely with this pattern.)
You will hardly find any film without the characters discussing their predicament among themselves. The question is whether their accumulated weight reaches critical mass. In The Last Airbender, as in all films, items of exposition are often integrated in scenes with active characters interacting with their surroundings. The following, however, is a list of scenes of an expository nature where characters are stationary – what one wants to avoid – mostly in chronological order, with the non-satisfactory ones marked in red.
- discussion between Katara and Sokka about what to do after Aang has been taken away by Zuko – shot in one take, visually fairly interesting
- their grandmother explains to them background of the Avatar – boring scene, she is an uninteresting character
- Zuko and Iroh are invited over for lunch at Zhao’s ship – very good, already discussed
- discussion between Aang, Katara and Sokka about starting a rebellion – very awkward, super-static, shot in tight close-ups breaking the tone of the rest of the film (could this scene be the result of the cuts, to paper over them by summing up events meant to unfold over a longer period of time?); also see here
- the teahouse scene that includes Zuko’s flashback, – excellent, already discussed
- discussion by the lake where Katara and Sokka are wondering what to do with the depressed Aang – very stiff (result of a reshoot?)
- Aang and the treacherous monk inside the chamber of statues – visually magnificent, shot mostly in one take (the film’s longest at 84 seconds), we will return to it in the second article
- discussion among Northern Water Tribe leaders about strategy, with Sokka appointed guard for Princess Yue – not terribly interesting, but brief
- some short scenes discussing strategy among Fire Nation characters before and during the climactic battle – the first one, (here and here) Zhao taunting Iroh, is very good, the others are useful for driving plot forwards
- a 30-second scene with Iroh and the stowaway Zuko on the Fire Nation ship – already discussed, okay
- the scene with Princess Yue and Sokka discussing her past – mostly static, but excellent and very charming
- discussion among the heroes what to do after Moon Spirit is dead – dramatic urgency, emotionally resonant, so no problem here
- the six Fire Lord scenes contain wall-to-wall discussion – textbook examples of how to make such scenes visually interesting, also with fascinating characters – this will be walked through in the second article
In regards to voice-over, the Den of Geek article is way off the mark again (besides getting the name of the actress wrong), claiming the film “leans on voiceover exposition from Katara (Nicole Peltz) for at least 50% of its story” – this is rubbish. Katara’s voice-over takes up 1.36% of the running time and consists of a puny 19 sentences (excluding her reading aloud the background explanation scroll, not a proper voice-over). This addendum contains a full list.
References to other Shyamalan works
For a summary of how The Last Airbender fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks and so on, look here. One example: the film provides a rich terrain for Shyamalan’s obsession with mentor characters. Aang is a mentor character for the whole world: “With his mastery of the four elements, he will begin to change hearts. And it is in the heart that all wars are won.” Aang and Katara are mentors for each other. Master Pakku for Aang and Katara in refining their waterbending. The Dragon Spirit for Aang. The monk Kyatso for Aang. General Iroh for Zuko. Their grandmother for Katara and Sokka.
For a large list of references to its “companion film” After Earth, see this chapter of the first article on that film. The second article will discuss the important motif of circles (also prevalent in Signs) and the number four (numbers were extremely important in Unbreakable). In a portion of the long-take fight scene inside the earthbender prison, groups of inmates are rising one after each other as the camera is passing, reminiscent of how the movement of persons is orchestrated to reinforce the camera movement in the hospital reception scene in Unbreakable.
Other than that, it is not surprising that The Last Airbender has most in common with Shyamalan’s other (half-)fantasy film, Lady in the Water. This is particularly poignant:
After the sea nymph in Lady in the Water has been attacked by the scrunt and then revived, her hair has turned blonde. (Her hair changed already as a consequence of the scrunt attack, but it is only really visually apparent after the revival.) After Princess Yue has given her life to revive the Moon Spirit, her white hair has turned black. (It turned white in the first place when the Moon Spirit revived her as a lifeless baby.) So in both films we also have entities that were revived: the sea nymph, Yue and the Moon Spirit.
Water is very important in both films, as well as in Unbreakable (the superhero’s weakness is water; his two almost-drownings) and Signs (the aliens’ weakness is water; the youngest daughter obsessed with water). There are also shots from under the water. The following collage presents
- shots from the pool in Lady in the Water looking up at the principal characters and the great bird arriving
- shots from The Last Airbender showing the moon restored by the revival of the Moon Spirit, highly likely taken from under the water, yielding a nice otherworldly bulging effect in the appearance of the moon
- from under the water, where the fish representing the Ocean Spirit looks up at Zhao and Iroh, with the former ready to kill the Moon Spirit, which is captured inside the sack:
There are some references to The Happening. Both films have a resoundingly happy ending only to be immediately undercut by an ominous epilogue announcing future problems (The Fire Lord’s plan for world domination; disaster rearing its head again in Paris).
The moon/lantern/fire/Aang motif
We’ll end this piece with some visual analysis, with lots more to follow in the second article. At a certain point in The Last Airbender everything seems lost. The Moon Spirit is dead. The moon is now casting a sickly red haze over the battle of the Northern Tribe city, with the collapse of the power boost from the moon the defenders counted on, giving the Fire Nation warriors a decisive advantage. (This is the fruition of the Dragon Spirit in its second scene saying: “I have seen a vision of the moon turning red.”)
We find a despairing Aang in the square with the battle behind him in unreal slow-motion, as if in another dimension, and the voice of the Dragon Spirit reminding him that “as the Avatar, you are not meant to hurt others. You must show them the power of Water.” So he cannot join the battle and several times in the film we have seen him – due to unprocessed grief about his indirect culpability in the massacre of his people – unable to unleash his immense potential as a water bender. Then this happens:
If we now go back to start of the film, without putting too much weight on it, some other situations could be said to be part of this motif:
Aang has bid farewell to a normal life and embraced the loneliness inherent in being the most powerful being on Earth. With the cut to the Fire Nation epilogue and the similarity of composition, his solitary position is compared to that of the villains. But while Aang’s is a selfless loneliness, the empty lives of the Fire Lord and his daughter constitute the opposite sort, an egocentric loneliness. Despite all his material resources, the Fire Lord epilogue is miserable and sad in comparison to the tableau in the Water Tribe courtyard.
And while all the heroes and even some Fire Nation characters have undergone changes, the Fire Lord is the same, still plotting, with no shadow of a doubt, no hesitation. The same goes for the Fire Lord’s daughter. But even when they stand alone like Commander Zhao, the tonality is different: they have a depraved companionship.
Addendum A: Aang’s three flashbacks
These flashbacks are consistently lyrical, full of warmth, and always presented without diegetic sound.
So far, this flashback has unfolded like the first two: starting with extremely pleasant memories, but this goes deeper (and have done so already since we have seen two memories instead of one). So far his mind has collapsed, marked by the skeletons, as soon as it has touched upon the opposite type of memory, the tragedy he has helped wreak, in his attempts to come to terms with it. But now he manages to remain inside the crucial moment: his running away from the ceremony of becoming the Avatar:
Addendum B: voice-over
This is a list of the voice-over in the film, all by Katara (excluding her reading aloud the background explanation scroll, not a proper voice-over)
- in the second shot, about the background of her family and tribe (“My brother and I live in the Southern Water Tribe, which was once a big city. Our father is off fighting in The War. My mother was taken prisoner and killed when I was young. In this time of war, food is scarce. My brother and I often go hunting for food, but, unfortunately, my brother isn’t the best hunter in the world.”) – fairly standard device, useful scene-setting
- as the heroes arrive at the Southern Air Temple (“Aang flew us to his home. He told us how he left there in a storm on Appa, and got forced into the ocean where they almost drowned. Aang Airbended a sphere around them, and ice formed. And he couldn’t remember anything after that.”) – papering over cut dialogue; it is odd that it repeats information that Aang had been frozen in the ice, which he told them in the village, and which we also have already seen when he emerged
- as the heroes are training by the brook (“The scroll we had was proving to be helpful. Aang was practicing, but for some reason, he was having trouble with Waterbending. We moved from town to town in the Earth Kingdom. We tried to stay out of sight, but Sokka became concerned we were being followed.”) – scene shot in one take, fairly complex and visually interesting
- summarising events as they arrive at the court of the Water city and over the next few shots (“We arrived at the Northern Water Tribe. We presented ourselves to the royal court. My brother and the princess became friends right away. Aang showed them he was the last Airbender, and was accepted to train with the master. The city knew our arrival would bring great danger. And they prepared for war they knew would come in the ensuing weeks.”) – the first two sentences seem strangely superfluous, the last one as well, because in the next scene they are planning for exactly that war
This is another type of voice-over, actually spoken dialogue laid over other scenes. They are possibly creative solutions to cuts but works satisfactorily as they are.
- as Zuko enters his ship before the assassination attempt (Ozai: “Do not harm my son. Leave him to his isolation.”; Zhao: “You have my word, sire. I will not harm him.”) – this is dialogue from the previous Fire Lord scene, in ironic counterpoint to explosive Zhao has planted and which soon will go off (remember that Iroh said just before: “Zhao’s men were searching the coast, looking for you. They also searched the ship.”)
- there is dialogue bleeding over from a short Fire Lord scene in-between the scene where the heroes approach the Northern Water Tribe city (Ozai: “And what of the Avatar?”; Zhao: “We assume he has rejoined with his supporters.”), and soon afterwards as the heroes arrive at the city (Zhao: “I believe the child Avatar has only knowledge of his birth element, Air. I believe he is trying to learn in the discipline of water. He’s gone to seek out someone in the Northern Water Tribe, where they have lived beyond our reach and openly practice Waterbending.”) – one could claim that this voice disturbs the visual splendor of the scenes, but personally I do not find it terribly distracting
- before the scene where Ozai reveals the plan to kill the Moon Spirit, there is a low helicopter shot over a field (Ozai:”I’ve heard no word of my son for quite some time. Do you know where he is?” Zhao: “I’ve not heard of anything, sire. I’m sure word of him will come to us soon.” Ozai: “The Northern Water Tribe benders are given their strength…” and then the scene starts) – a visually ravishing way to start the scene, also it is perfectly normal to start a scene with the dialogue bleeding into the previous shot