The Last Airbender, by Cameron J. Czaja

When Avatar: The Last Airbender first premiered on Nickelodeon back in 2005, I thought it was a unique show. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the show wasn’t like any other kid’s program as it had a continuous story with character development set in a fantasy world. Unfortunately, I didn’t really continue with the series until I was in college. In my defense, I moved overseas when the show was finishing its first season and it was hard to keep up with television back then. Heck, when the series finale was going on I was attending World Youth Day in Australia, so I definitely would’ve missed it even if I was watching it. Fortunately, the series went on Netflix and I was able to binge the entire series from there. Better late than never I always say. 

For those who don’t know what Avatar: The Last Airbender is about, the series takes place in a mythological world inspired by Asian mythology. This world is divided into four nations: The Water Tribes, The Earth Kingdom, The Fire Nation, and The Air Nomads. What makes this world unique is that there are individuals that can use a technique known as bending where they can bend a specific element such as water, earth, fire, and air. There is, however, one person that can control all four of the elements and that person is known as the Avatar. When an Avatar is present in their time, they are the only one in existence, and when they pass away a new one is reborn and the cycle continues. 

When in 2010 I heard that Nickelodeon and M. Knight Shyamalan were making a live action film based on the first season simply called The Last Airbender (to avoid confusion of James Cameron‘s Avatar) I was somewhat curious. That’s when I started binging the show on Netflix and after I finished the first and second season I was blown away by how amazing it was. I was three episodes into the third season when The Last Airbender came out and instead of finishing series I watched the movie because my anticipation meant couldn’t wait (I did finish it a couple days afterwards though). After watching it I was confused as to what I just saw and in denial for a while because I just couldn’t believe that I saw a bad film. That’s what happens when you over anticipate yourself a film. I even rented it a few months later just to get a second opinion and I couldn’t lie to myself anymore that it is indeed a bad film. Recently I’ve re-watched it on Netflix to “commemorate” its tenth anniversary just to see if it was bad as I remembered. Was it though? As usual, let us find out.

Based on the first season, The Last Airbender follows The Avatar who happens to be an Airbender named Aang (Noah Ringer) who is as the title states the last Airbender in their world. The reason this happened is because his nation suffered a great attack from the fire nation who decided to wage war against the other nations. Aang escapes the fate of the other Airbenders when he ran away from the Air Nomads when he was chosen to be the next Avatar. Another reason he was able to escape death from the fire nation was that he ended up getting frozen near the Southern Watertribe. It wasn’t until two members of that tribe Katara (Nicola Peltz), who is a water bender, and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) free Aang from his icy prison. From there Katara and Sokka learn more about Aang’s past and he soon learns that he was actually frozen for a hundred years. He made this discovery when he went back home and saw with own eyes that his home of the Airbenders was not only deserted but everyone was dead as well. Not knowing what to do, Katara suggests to Aang that the three of them should travel towards to Northern Watertribe. That way Aang can master waterbending, which would be the next step towards being a fully trained Avatar.

As stated earlier, the last time I saw this film was around ten years ago and I think it’s safe to say that even though my way of thinking critically has developed this past decade, The Last Airbender is still a terrible film. Even if I didn’t watch the series, it’s still a boring film that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. 

In retrospect, trying to make a film like The Last Airbender out of a television series is already a major red flag. The description that I gave earlier took place within the first three episodes of the series and even then leaves out crucial information. The majority of the film was either told through tons of exposition and narration that felt completely unnecessary. Not to mention it was rushed as well. If you missed a bit of exposition or narration, then you’ll be lost and left feeling confused when the film ends. What’s funny, though, is that this could’ve worked as a live action film if they had planned it right. Hear me out. If they had made the first season into a trilogy (much like The Hobbit trilogy as it isbased off of one book) then this could’ve worked. Not that I’m advocating another Last Airbender film, but if they expanded it into three films based on one season that might have worked. Then again, being rushed was not this film’s only problem. 

Aside from a rushed film with tons of exposition, another thing The Last Airbender had was the bad acting and poor delivery of dialogue. Now I wasn’t expecting Oscar-winning performances here, but I wanted some acting that was somewhat decent and have some life put into it. Instead the performance felt very wooden and with that comes poor delivery of the dialogue, which was very cringe worthy to hear. While I usually blame the actors for this, the real perpetrator here is the director M. Night Shyamalan. Prior to the film’s release, he already had a mediocre track record and even though I haven’t seen all of his films, I could confidently say that this is the worst one. I say this because of the resources he had (i.e. a $150 million budget) and he found a way to make it bad. He did make some films afterwards that I did like, but The Last Airbender is one that I’m still trying to forgive him for making. 

For me the reason why I strongly dislike the The Last Airbender is because of how M. Night Shyamalan didn’t capture the magic of the television series. I know I sound like a fanboy complaining, but you’ve seen Avatar: The Last Airbender then you’ll know what I mean. For those who haven’t seen the series, what makes the Avatar: The Last Airbender great is how they incorporate martial arts into it. Whenever someone in the show bends an element, they do so by using a specific martial art, which was amazing to look at even for an animated series. On paper, it sounds like it would be amazing in live action, but in reality not only was it dull, but it is ridiculous. Then again, I blame M. Night for that. Another thing that Avatar: The Last Airbender did better was the several themes present in the series. The show itself is very complex and has several themes that I won’t get into for spoiler sake, but it’s something I’ve reflected on that not only made me think differently, but also made me a better Catholic as well. If The Last Airbender had any of those deep messages I probably would’ve felt differently about this film, but instead we got a film that made me ask myself when it was over “why did this film get made?!”

As you can already tell, The Last Airbender is one of the worst films that I’ve seen that came out this past decade and I really wish it was something that didn’t get made. I know I may sound hyperbolic, but to me this film is a huge blemish on the legacy of the animated series that I consider to be one of the greatest television programs of all time. If you haven’t done so already, please do yourself a favor and watch the series instead of this film. It’s on Netflix with three seasons and twenty episodes in each season. It’s full of heart and great visuals whereas the movie leaves you with nothing but anger and sadness. Fortunately, the animated series did continue with a sequel series called The Legend of Korra, a proper silver lining if I do say so myself.

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