Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan and Clint: The Last Airbender
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boils and ghouls (that’s right, I’m starting every article out like the Crypt-Keeper now, deal with it) to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give you, the twenty-nine heroic souls who pledge to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon page, an opportunity to choose between two impossibly awful-looking abominations Clint and I must then watch and discuss on our internet radio program.
In my bid to comprehensively cover the wonderful world of things that are terrible, I gave listeners/readers/patrons/Gods a choice between two widely maligned films from the sad nadir stage of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, a phase that kicked into gear with the commercially successful but fucking ridiculous The Village and for a while there seemed like it would last until he died, or stopped making films, whichever came first.
Yes, that’s right. I’m proposing that after M. Night dies in some freaky, ironic way, he’ll continue making bad movies. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate twist from the ultimate twist-master? I hope you’re holding onto your butts and your monocles, because I’m about to hit you off with an even bigger twist: M. Night died shortly after 1998’s Wide Awake. That’s right. The Sixth Sense was directed by a g-g-g-ghost! That’s not even the freakiest part: it was directed by a ghost from the future who is also Hitler! Man, I bet you never saw any of those twists coming.
When it comes to mastering the twist, Chubby Checker has nothing on Night, although considering how many times Checker’s muse has led him to revisit his signature hit on such songs as “Let’s Twist Again”, “Slow Twistin”, “La Paloma Twist”, “Teach Me to Twist”, “Twist it Up” and “The Twist (Yo Twist! version)” (a collaboration with the Beach Boys), it seems insulting that he’s never done a version with Night. Night would direct the music video, he’d have a cameo in it and the clip would end with the shocking twist it was a time-traveling Night who called up Chubby, pretending to be his cousin Marvin, and encouraged him to cover a Hank Ballard dance number called “The Twist.”
(Paul Harvey voice) And now you know the rest of the story.
There are no twists, alas with The Last Airbender. Everyone said it was insultingly bad, and you know what? I found it to be insultingly bad!
The Last Airbender has such a reputation for being terrible that even I, someone who specializes in writing about things that are terrible, was scared off it, despite my mild obsession with Shyamalan, who over the course of his career has been downgraded sharply from “Master storyteller” to “Incompetent storyteller” before getting some of his critical and commercial mojo back with back-to-basic shockers The Visit (which I liked) and Split (which I did not).
M. Night Shyamalan has made a lot of egregiously terrible films but none quite as egregious as The Last Airbender, a film whose Wikipedia page posits it as a film considered one of the worst of all time. From the next Spielberg to a man behind a film considered one of the worst of all time: that’s a hell of a fall but The Last Airbender made me wonder why we fell in love with the Philadelphia-based Frightmaster in the first place.
The Last Airbender is so bad, in fact, that it makes me wonder if there shouldn’t be some matter of ceremony in which Shyamalan’s “Frightmaster” status is angrily revoked and given to someone younger and less terrible.
The film’s toxic reputation both intrigued me and kept me away, but the main reason I haven’t gotten around to watching The Last Airbender until now is because I’d heard that it was bad in a really boring way. I’m also not overly besotted with mythology-heavy fantasy epics like The Last Airbender but I might have gotten to it earlier had I realized what a shameless Star Wars knockoff the film is.
The pathetic attempts to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Star Wars begins with that most Lucasian of openings: the scroll. I’ve said this before, possibly in my piece on Hellbound, unless you are a Star Wars movie, you do not get an opening scroll! You have not earned it. You do not deserve it! All that opening scroll says (other than, you know, all of the things that it says) is that your movie is so lousy with clunky mythology and exposition that you couldn’t fit it all in organically and feel the need to artlessly vomit forth necessary information.
This opening scroll tells us of a world where, as recently as one hundred years ago, all lived in peace and prosperity before a mystical creature of destiny known as an Avatar, who can bend the four elements—air, water, earth, fire—disappeared, throwing off the balance of good and evil in the universe and empowering the evil Fire Nation. Think the Empire in Star Wars. You know, the one that struck back.
Then one day a universe-saving Avatar just kind of shows up out of nowhere in the endlessly annoying form of Aang (Noah Ringer), a 113 year old who has retained the appearance of an irritating twelve-year old asshole (think Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace) after spending a century in some weird frozen state.
If nothing else, Ringer’s performance really makes you appreciate the comparative subtlety and nuance Jake Lloyd brought to his universally derided performance as Kiddie Vader.
In The Last Airbender, Ringer plays a figure of divine prophecy who nevertheless greets people with a high-pitched squeak of “Hey guys!” and is so hopelessly overmatched in the all-important sequence where Aang discovers that his beloved monk mentors have been slaughtered en masse by the evil Fire people that it’s hard not to laugh at his misfortune.
In a Last Airbender that’s not insultingly terrible, this would be a moment of immense power and intensity: our hero is discovering that his entire world is gone, and with it all of the people he loved and who loved him. When your hero discovers the ancient skulls and bleached skeletons of everyone and everything he loved, it shouldn’t be funny, but the turn here from “Hey, y’all! Check out my cool monk buddies!” to “Everything is lost! No!!!” is so abrupt and unearned that you gotta laugh.
Aang is the Chosen One but in order to realize his destiny he must learn how to bend all elements. If I were the people in this movie, I would send him to study with Yoda, but, alas, this isn’t Star Wars, just a sad imitation, so Aang and his pals Katara (Nicola Peltz), a water-bender, and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) set out to train the boy to be a Jed-I mean, bender of all elements while being opposed by the evil Fire Nation.
Aang may have been an iconic and exciting characters on television, but here he's an annoying pipsqueaks. Late in the film, a grown-up complains of the Chosen One, “He was bending tiny stones at us from behind a tree. It really hurt!”
So apparently this all-powerful child-God uses his unprecedented gifts to behave like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson.
The Last Airbender at one point calls upon its hero to squeak an inspirational speech but it’s difficult to respect the authority of rousing, Patton-style oratory if it’s being delivered by a child whose voice has not broken yet.
Ah, but what of the action? Does Ringer prove himself a Bruce Lee-style dynamo when it comes to fisticuffs? Not at all. No, in The Last Airbender, Aang practices a form I have taken to calling CGI-Fu that involves the young actor/martial artist slowly, sluggishly doing Tai Chi moves that are then transformed into bad special effects via computer animation. To put things in Carl Douglas terms, Everybody was CGI fighting! Those computer-generated effects allow them to bend fire like lightning! In fact, it was a little bit embarrassing, because they fought with with piss-poor timing!
One of my pet peeves is clumsy exposition where a character tells another character, or another group of characters, something they’d obviously already know for the audience’s benefit. In my mind, no sentence should ever begin, “As you know” because, motherfucker, if whoever you’re addressing already knows what you’re about to say, then why are you wasting their time?
Sure enough, The Last Airbender features Commander Zhao (Asif Mandvi), a scheming usurper, addressing a large group with the wildly redundant information, “As you know, the Fire Lord has banished his son, the Prince, and renounced his love of him, and will not let him return to the throne unless he finds the avatar. The fire lord believes his son is too soft, and by doing this he will become strong and become a worthy heir to the throne.”
The cool thing about this dialogue is that it’s stunningly naturalistic but is also conveys important information about the film’s plot and characters that we will need to understand what’s going on!
To play devil’s advocate, there’s a performative aspect to the character’s spiel. He’s out to hurt the sniveling little Prince by pointing out his weakness to a large group of people, but it nevertheless feels like the worst kind of exposition.
I actually found myself enjoying Mandvi’s performance. This is partially because he’s one of the only actors who does not deliver a flat, affectless performances straight out of the prequel trilogy , but it’s also attributable to the wry self-awareness the former Daily Show correspondent brings to the role. He alone among the film’s cast seems to understand just how terrible the movie is, and decides to at least have a little fun with the mustache-twirling theatricality of his conniving villain.
Otherwise, The Last Airbender, finds Night misfiring on all cylinders. The appearance of beautiful Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) brings with it the promise of romance, but Night’s idea of flirtation is the pretty princess telling her guard/suitor, “When there is some safety for all of us I will come visit our sister city in the Southern Water Tribe.”
That is some Anakin/Padme banter right there, only worse.
If this is M. Night’s Star Wars then he seems to have skipped giddily to the Phantom Menace stage and at least that had that funny-talking space-frog Jar Jar Binks to lighten things up. Apparently Sokka was the resident cut-up in the acclaimed Nickelodeon show that inspired the film. The only reason I know this is because the IMDB trivia section contains this deadpan, anonymous sick burn: “In the original show, Sokka is a funny comic relief character. However, arguably, no comedy comes from the Sokka in the movie.”
No comedy comes from anyone in The Last Airbender. The laughs are entirely unintentional.
Instead of A New Hope, with The Last Airbender gave the world a new hopelessness, an ugly and undignified ending as well as a beginning. Night thought he had the next great fantasy saga in his hands before an appropriately horrified public told him to get bent.
Like a suspiciously large number of the movies we’ve covered for this column, The Last Airbender closes with a shameless plug for an inevitable sequel. Night set out to make a box-office-busting trilogy but despite an international box-office gross of more than three hundred million dollars, the universe nevertheless responded with a “Oh hell no!” at a volume that can be heard even in space.
Night didn't listen, however, because he announced a sequel last year. Given the incredible hatred this film engendered, I doubt the movie will actually get made, but I've been wrong before. In fact, it's pretty much my thing, like Night's thing is making terrible movies.
Want to listen to me and Clint "chop it up" about The Last Airbender, as the young people say? Then listen to us over at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/nathan-rabins-happy-cast/id1312945471?mt=2