|Noah Ringer as the Avatar|
Any director who adapts a film from another source is taking a chance whether from a book, stage or television. There is always the threat that the ‘spirit’ of the original work will not be captured in the film. But the risk is not as great with literature or theatre, which have more ‘limited’ appeal than television, which is after all, the medium of the masses. When a director decides to translate the small screen onto the big one, there is big risk of alienating the fans of the first.
This is exactly the problem with the very talented (but lately-struggling) director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest project, The Last Airbender. The film is based on the highly successful Nickelodeon television series and the response has been all but complimentary.
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world, inhabited by four nations represented by the four elements – air, water, earth and fire (anyone thinking Captain Planet?). Each nation has benders who can ‘bend’ their element and wield it as a power. Then there is the Avatar who is a “special kind of special”: he can bend all four elements and are also the people’s bridge to the spirit world. Only one is born to each generation, and he’s always a reincarnation of the Avatar before him.
When the boy Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer) disappears, the fire nation murders the rest of the tribe, hoping to destroy any chance of Aang reappearing. The fire nation, led by the evil Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), then launches a systematic attack on the other three nations, seeking to enslave them and rule the world.
Enter two members of the water nation, Katara (Nicola Peltz), a waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). When the two teenagers find the missing Aang they convince him to join them in a quest to save the world. The hero must of course first face a series of tasks and challenges before he is ready to lead the battle but with his two sidekicks to help him, he learns to muster courage and face his own demons.
I have not seen the series, but one of the biggest criticisms is that the film has completely ignored the anime roots of the small screen version, instead trying to sell the film to fans with a watered-down 3D adaptation. Admittedly, there there is a paradoxical ‘flatness’ to the 3D. Perhaps it is time directors realise that not all films lend themselves to the format, just as they should understand good television does not necessarily make for good film. The Last Airbender does not quite seem to capture the physical manifestation of the benders’ powers – they are too obviously computer rendered. The worst is the portrayal of the firebenders’ fights: there just is not enough, well, firepower. The flames have none of the warmth or magnificence one would expect.
But it was not the visual aspect of the film that bothered me most. The problem lies with the script. The dialogue is completely convoluted. Shyamalan’s films are mostly about individuals with extraordinary gifts or powers which they may not want but have to confront and accept. But, extraordinary or not, children simply do not speak the way the characters in The Last Airbender do, meaning they just do not seem real. Example (from the mouth of the teen-queen of the water nation): “We have to show them that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs” – huh? This makes it difficult to connect with the characters leaving me indifferent as to whether Aang wins or not.
The main actors are mostly unknowns with backgrounds in martial arts (Ringer is a Texas Tae Kwondo champion). It is a real shame that award-winning actor, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) condescended to play the Fire Lord’s exiled son, Prince Zuko, who is a character with no depth and therefore a waste of some serious acting talent. The main characters are all a far cry from that of Cole Sear, the ghost-seeing child in Shyamalan’s masterpiece, The Sixth Sense (1999). Indeed Shyamalan does not seem have been able to script or create another film that so captured the imagination as The Sixth Sense did.
The Last Airbender was obviously created with a host of sequels in mind, to follow Aang’s journey until he finally conquers all evil. But, judging by the ratings, The Last Airbender will likely be the first and last ‘bending’ film.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense 1999, Unbreakable 2000, The Village 2004)
Cast: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel
Rating: 2½ out of 5