The Last Airbender: What went wrong?

Feature Mark Harrison
6/8/2015 at 9:27AM

We look back at M Night Shyamalan's much-vilified fantasy movie, and ask if anything could have saved it...

The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.”

So began Roger Ebert's review of The Last Airbender. It sounds harsh, but Ebert's half-star verdict was fairly representative of the tidal wave of criticism that engulfed director M. Night Shyamalan's most expensive and, ultimately, most derided film yet.

But unlike other misfires from Shyamalan, this wasn't based on his own original idea. It was the first of a planned trilogy based on the beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was hugely acclaimed for its visual sense, engrossing storytelling and lively, vibrant characters. What went wrong? It's almost harder to try and figure out what, if anything, went right.

The series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, takes place in a world torn by war, in which gifted people can control each of the four elements - Air, Water, Earth and Fire. The Fire Nation rules with an iron fist, using their powers and technological mastery to keep the others down. At the start of the series, two siblings from the Northern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, discover a boy encased beneath their icy homeland.

This is Aang, the reincarnated Avatar who can control all four elements and usually keeps the order. But the century since he shrugged off the responsibilities of his role has allowed the Fire Nation to take a foothold and the three youngsters must travel the world so that the Avatar may master the other elements, in addition to his native airbending, in order to bring peace.

Shyamalan discovered the show when his daughter dressed up as Katara for Halloween and was also attracted to the spiritual and martial arts influences in the story. Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies committed to spend $250 million over the course of a trilogy of films, one for each season, styled after successful fantasy franchises like The Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter.

Of course, the obvious challenge in translating the story for film is condensing 20 episodes of a series into a feature length version of the same beats, but the film ran into many more difficulties along the way.

3D-bending and racebending

Over the course of development and production, the budget of this first of three planned films ballooned to $150 million, including a $5-10 million bump when Paramount announced they would convert the film into 3D, three months before its July 2010 release.

The film ditched the prefix of the animated series to avoid confusion with James Cameron's Avatar, which broke box office records in the early months of 2010, and also led to many of that year's live-action tentpole movies being converted into 3D in post-production to ride the wave of audience interest, including Clash Of The Titans, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and, of course, The Last Airbender.

Aside from adding to the budget, this reportedly led to half an hour being cut from the movie so that they could convert it in time for its US release date, before the lucrative Independence Day weekend.

We don't know if James Cameron has ever seen The Last Airbender, or if he was out to get this production in any way, but it just so happened that on the very same day as Paramount announced the conversion, he gave an interview to the Toronto Star, slating such post-3D jobs.

Talking specifically about the seven week turnaround on the notoriously bad post-conversion job on Clash Of The Titans, he said: “You can slap a 3-D label on it and call it 3-D, but there's no possible way that it can be done up to a standard that anybody would consider high enough."

Perhaps Cameron really was the Big Bad of this project, but it seems more likely that the filmmakers and studio bosses played the largest part in the film's failure with critics and fans alike.

There was also the controversial decision to cast white actors as Asian characters from the series, while casting Indian and Iranian actors as the antagonistic Fire Nation characters, which turned some fans against the film before it had even come out. A site called Racebending.com led the calls to boycott the movie, which was then backed by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

Both the studio and Shyamalan were ardent that the film would still be very culturally diverse, with the latter going so far as to call the prospective trilogy “the most culturally diverse tentpole movies ever released, period.”

Aside from all of this negative hype, the film didn't do too badly at the box office. Unlike The Golden Compass, this isn't one of those movies where poor box office returns fettled the trilogy as a whole. So, what was wrong with the film itself?

As you know...

It may well be that the studio wasn't convinced that anybody would be fooled again, looking at how bad the first one turned out. It's not just that they took liberties in adapting the story, or that the characters were the wrong race, or even that the 3D looked crummy - it's just a trainwreck of a movie.

For starters, it is absolutely deadpan. There's not a bit of intentional humor in the whole thing. Yes, the characters are funny in the series, so that's an example of something going bad in the adaptation, but then most films need a sense of humor of some kind. The style of this one should be all too familiar to those who endured Shyamalan's previous work of unintentional hilarity, 2008's The Happening, which would be a legitimate modern masterpiece of schlock if only anybody involved with it had been in on the joke.

The unintentional hyuks are sparser in this one though, because they're embedded in a film that leans on voiceover exposition from Katara (Nicole Peltz) for at least 50% of its story, filling in huge gaps in the narrative rather than trying to work around the limited feature running time. For instance, the first line from Aang (Noah Ringer) in the movie is to say that he's not as upset as he was in some previous, unseen (presumably deleted, cos 3D) exchange.

By ten minutes in, this approach probably leaves anyone who hasn't already followed the series feeling utterly perplexed, and the script just keeps dropping dialogue bombs, clanger after clanger. A notable lowlight comes in this early sequence with the first acknowledgement of Appa, a flying magical creature who hibernated with Aang in the ice, who Katara introduces by explaining “His bison creature thing floats!”

Much of this could be explained by the way the studio apparently cut the movie to get it ready for 3D in time, with ADR covering any resultant plotholes, except that it's far too prevalent in the film to be just an unfortunate accident of post-production.

Plus, aside from Katara's ceaseless narration, Shyamalan's script puts much of the pressure on The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi, who here plays the role of Senior Fire Nation Correspondent as Commander Zhao. Miscast as the arch-villain, Mandvi barely has a single line in the whole movie that isn't explaining motivation or tactlessly dropping backstory bombs for the benefit of the audience.

The film settles a little after the first hour, but whole subplots based around Sokka falling in love with a princess are still glossed over in narration while still playing a huge part in the finale. Of all of Shyamalan's movies – nay, in all of cinema - this might be the definitive example of how not to do exposition.

Against the elements

The dialogue and storytelling hiccups in this script hardly make this unique amongst Shyamalan's filmography, but it's also clearly his most expensive and visually complex work to date, which brings its own challenges. Although the director had a very clear vision for the style of the film, it was Industrial Light and Magic who had to bring his storyboard book to life.

This involved designing many new effects, or further developing relatively new visual tricks, like the film's fire-bending, which was inspired by the effects in Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince. This also required Shyamalan to direct up to sixty takes of some shots to ensure full coverage in scenes with moving elements and a moving camera.

The effects house did a great job and the visuals are amongst the few redeeming features here, but as with so much of the film, it's baffling how they could be integrated so atrociously. If a fireball hits anything or anyone in this movie, it doesn't set it on fire. If a chorus line of villagers from the Earth kingdom perform an elaborate version of the haka, it only summons one piffling boulder to slowly hover towards their adversaries.

And we hate to keep banging on about the first ten minutes, but the first time we see Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), he's supposedly been sloshed with a ball of water that Katara was trying to bend, and complains “I always end up wet when you do that.” Rathbone has a hard job with the de-humoured Sokka anyway, made harder by the fact that he's completely dry when he makes this statement.

The net result is that the film has hugely impressive visual effects that have no weight in the story whatsoever. The same goes for the superb cinematography by the late great Andrew Lesnie, who brings a real thrill to seeing certain visuals from the series realized in live-action, but as mentioned, had his work converted into 3D after the fact. Even when it should be stunning to look at, it's a let down.

What went right?

You can't have many doubts left about what we think of this movie, but is it entirely irredeemable? Surely not - we hold that ILM and Lesnie each did a terrific job on the visuals, even if there was little grounding to do them full justice, but there are other minor highlights too.

We'd also contend that actors Dev Patel and Shaun Toub come out of this with their heads held high. As recurring antagonists through the first season, Fire Nation exiles Prince Zuko and General Iroh are amongst the most interesting characters in the series as they try to capture the Avatar. As with other characters, much of Iroh's beloved humour is gone in the adaptation, but that process leaves the more anti-heroic Zuko pretty much intact.

The script still doesn't give the actors much to work with - their one major dialogue scene ends with Zuko delivering the clanger “We will catch him soon, Uncle, then we can think about the pretty girls.” Nevertheless, Patel brings physicality and internal anguish to the young prince's brooding personality and Toub, while playing a character who is now only required to lend some gravitas, delivers as this version of the character for all it's worth.

We'd also say that James Newton Howard's score deserves the praise it got at the time, with reviews that were almost completely opposite of the film attached to it. In particular, the score that plays over the final battle between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe, called Flow Like Water on the soundtrack release, brings startling life into a film that's otherwise dead on arrival.

Aftermath

As mentioned, despite the all but universal negative response to the film, it made $319 million worldwide. Factoring in the $130 million advertising spend, it made more than its $280m negative cost back and although we couldn't call that a mega-hit, there have been franchises have been built on shakier box office returns at the outset.

The final sequel hook scene of the movie laid out all of the remaining loose ends and introduced the next big antagonist, Zuko's sister Azula, but discussion of the sequels never seemed to go beyond the press junkets for the first one. Shyamalan evidently planned to make them and was as far along as a first draft for the second instalment, but it seems like someone got cold feet and it seems entirely possible that toxic word of mouth on the first film killed off any plans for a franchise.

Five years down the line, on the publicity trail for his new TV series Wayward Pines, Shyamalan is still defending the film as it stands. In an interview with IGN, he stood by the way in which he resisted the urge to take the film above a PG rating and make it more mature.

“My child was nine-years-old,” he explained. “So you could make it one of two ways. You could make it for that same audience, which is what I did -- for nine and 10-year-olds -- or you could do the Transformers version and have Megan Fox. I didn't do that.”

This could also be seen as a jab at Nickelodeon Movies' subsequent success, last year's PG-13 reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, starring - you guessed it - Megan Fox, but with all we've covered, it should be clear that the “it was for kids” excuse won't cut it here.

Certainly, Avatar: The Last Airbender is for kids. It's bright and colourful and funny, with an involving storyline and a devoted fanbase that carried it over to a whole sequel series, The Legend Of Korra. At the same time, we'd recommend checking out the series to anybody, because in all that it holds for kids, it's hugely endearing for older viewers too. None of that is true of the film version.

To give credit where it's due, at least Shyamalan is standing by the film rather than throwing a previous disappointment under the bus to sell his next project as better, as so many filmmakers do on the press circuit. But for all of the myriad reasons listed above, The Last Airbender went alarmingly and hilariously wrong on its way to the big screen. If there's a great two hour movie to be made out of a season's worth of story, maybe the reboot clock will eventually tick around to it again.