"There are reasons each of us are born, we have to find those reasons"
Cited by many as the artistic low-point of his career, M. Night Shyamalan‘s commensurate of Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons and in certain context, perhaps Joel Schumacher‘s 2004 adaptation of Webber‘s Phantom of the Opera, The Last Airbender is an innately "flawed“ and beautiful picture.
Attempting to simultaneously juggle adapting material made by another artist (or in this case, artists) and tackling high-concept fantasy world-building with a $100 million dollar budget for the first time in his professional career, Night took his time in finding what he deemed the right project for him to enter the Hollywood blockbuster machine, rejecting advances from Warner Bros to make a Harry Potter film when the franchise was still young before settling on adapting the Nickelodeon cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender for Paramount pictures. Incidentally the adaptation itself (along with its loose commitment to conventional plot structure) is one many fans of the show seem to take issue with when handing out the now fairly overwhelming critiques on the film stating that Night "didn't get" what made the show good, which should sound eerily reminiscent to criticisms George Lucas received for his authorial work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
By comparison, the dialogue here has a less theatrical delivery to it than in Lucas‘ space-opera epics, with Night relying on his usually "straight“ and weighty style of dialogue-direction and writing. While I favor this as Night casually asserting his own style onto the commonly more "bookish“ or lyrical dialogue in the wildly popular teenage fantasy genre, the bafflement many have with this potentially jarring departure from what is now considered the norm is understandable. Meanwhile the consistency of the performances delivering these lines (the younger actors especially) suffers from the alleged forced edits and reshoots Paramount mandated upon Night once the decision was made to convert the film to 3D. Nicola Peltz and Noah Ringer’s performances are earnest and in-tune enough to sustain the supposed tonal cohesion whenever they’re on screen, and most of the supporting players’ strength retained but the jarring editing inconsistency, while never detracting from the visual narrative, frustratingly undercuts their potential.
„It‘s time we show the fire nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs“
Yet despite these struggles the strong emotional undercurrent is barely ever lost.
By and large, Night‘s oeuvre deals with both personal and wider-scale tragedy, to which Airbender is no exception. Similarly to The Sixth Sense‘s Cole and later After Earth‘s Kitai, Aang is forced to come face to face with the consequences of a life-altering trauma while also taking upon himself adult responsibilities...
In the world of The Last Airbender, children, born into a repressed/oppressed world (literally and personally) are being delegated to consciously carry the weight of the world while we oppose each other in the name of self-interest. Night doesn't linger on the why or the how it came to this (a more prominent theme in the second season of the television show), but he shows us a representational *who* through Fire nation general Zhao, a man entrusted trusted by Fire-Lord Ozai with leadership in the current colonialist occupation of the Earth Nation. Zhao, in a key moment, takes a stand against the spiritual in favor of control/the material and while he eventually pays the price for it, and while observing Night‘s oeuvre might suggest otherwise (the film critic in 2006‘s Lady in the Water finds a rather unfortunate fate in a similar situation) it doesn't feel like Night is outwardly criticizing materialism over the immaterial, showing sympathy for a kindly monk who makes a choice that ends up costing Aang his freedom, in exchange for money (the monk rationalizes the betrayal by blaming the Avatar‘s 100-year absence for his poor condition, further increasing the mounting pressure on the young airbender‘s shoulders).
„It was not by chance that for generations people have been searching for him and now you have found him. Your destinies are tied Zuko“
The other half of this equation is Dev Patel‘s Prince Zuko. The banished prince seeking to regain his honor by finding and capturing the Avatar with aid from his uncle Iroh, a humble and kindly general within the fire nation ranks. Their relationship is the most important one to divert attention to in the film, with their conversations concurrently mirroring Aang and Katara‘s brief and gestural relationship, with the latter taking on a matriarchal role, and with Iroh relaying to Zuko (and later on in the film, to our heroes as well) some of the key wisdoms that echo throughout the television show and (not so) incidentally Night‘s filmography as well. These are tried and told philosophies of humility, taking personal responsibility and agency/choice but Night concludes all of them in such exquisite and heartfelt visual moments (the revival of the Moon Spirit is one of Night‘s career highlights) that it never wears on the film.
"You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake“
Zuko himself receives a minor personal growth near the end as well (albeit major one thematically) through his uncle‘s guidance, opting to turn his back on the aggression and violence that his dictatorioal father (who permanently scarred his face) and his current current regime adheres. His decision does not seem permanent at that time, but it‘s a small victory nontheless.
Iroh himself remains illusive as a character throughout most of the running time but Night leaves in a minor piece of info on the aging mentor that gives the imagination plenty to work with at least until the still scheduled sequel releases. Much like Ben Kenobi in Lucas‘ Star Wars (1977) he‘s primarily here to inspire.
And as Iroh inspires the central characters, Aang returns the favor multiplied.
"Water teaches us acceptance, let your emotions flow like water“
In the film's climactic breaths, the apex of Night‘s intentions as an artist and his visual flair come together, with Ringer‘s Aang unleashing his potential power as the Avatar by confronting the horrors and guilt from his past and surrendering the ocean itself to his command (The longer creativity is suppressed, the bigger the consequences when it is released). The act causes the colonialist fire nation to retreat their forces, but on its own that is merely plot contrivance. Night focuses on the awestruck faces of the adults previously caught up in their cyclical violent conflict witnessing the act, being reminded of the capability for raw and sincere expression (and imagination) a child can have when we give them our attention and our support. The children are the future. The children are the avatars of our hope. We must do better, if not for ourselves, then for them...
Furthermore, when reading the bending of the elements as allegorical for artistic expression, The Last Airbender is as much a spiritual sequel to Night‘s Lady in the Water as it is an adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon show. Night's narratives always seem to come down to its protagonists giving each other support to achieve reconciliations with their personal pasts and present selves (Peltz's Katara pleads to Aang "don't give up, we can do this together" and later embraces him in key moments).
To further assert my belief in Night as a storyteller, the abbreviations that set it apart from films that tackle similar themes is not only found in Night‘s usually beautiful compositions (gorgeous close-ups, slow tracking shots capturing the details of the spaces he devotes to the action + characters) and sentimental tendencies, but also his devotion to crafting a storybook that‘s truly for children in a somewhat post-Harry Potter cinematic landscape. He juxtaposes and weaves together ingredients of wuxia, dancing, eastern philosophies and elemental magic in a way that while not entirely set apart from the first season of the show he adapts the material from, ends up feeling like a singular, unique cinematic experience... few movies outside Night‘s own oevure (and even so) compare to it.
"He will begin to change hearts, and it is in the heart that all wars are won.“
Yet as much as I appreciate and champion the film as it was released, I can also sympathise with the current negative consensus on it both in the film-community and among general audiences. Night's consistently strong scene construction is abruptly undercut by a lack of plot cohesion, with screentime devoted to key supporting characters and their stories being sadly uneven. The aforementioned structural looseness is also a due to lack of adherence to the standardized template set by successful Hollywood blockbusters, reminiscing more the avant-blockbuster cocktail of Lucas' The Phantom Menace.
Somewhat reassuringly, people shifting their blaming for these qualities towards the studio interference has been a recent change of pace in the discussion surrounding it, with some claiming to be from behind the scenes of the production coming out and removing most of the negatives from Night himself, while placing them on Paramount Studios‘ demand for reshoots and further cuts after realizing a 3D conversion would cost them too much money with the material they had when Night had made his final cut (removing up to 25 minutes of the runtime). Though i would have liked for Paramount to have released Night‘s cut initially, I selfishly wouldn't trade that for what we ended up with either because upon reflection, the film would lose the circumstantial potential as the powerful meta statement both on belief and against cynicism it ends up procreating.
The Last Airbender offers sincerity, beauty and potential catharsis in exchange for such belief, for as with all his films Night is asking us to take a leap of faith, to believe in human connection, to believe in the potential love we all possess as a uniting force in a troubled world... and in the case of The Last Airbender, to also believe in something "flawed"...