THE LAST AIRBENDER. Starring Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel and Cliff Curtis. Directed by M Night Shyamalan. Rated PG (Mild fantasy violence). 103 minutes.
Reading the vociferous and negative comments on The Last Airbender by would-be reviewer bloggers on the Internet Movie Database, I was glad that I had never seen an episode of the animation series on which this live-action film is based. It was entitled Avatar, but James Cameron must have been quicker to obtain the movie copyright on that title.
Whether it lives up to the television series or whether it is a desecration of it, I cannot say and am rather glad that I have not seen it so can comment on the film as a film. Actually, that is even a bit hard because the writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, has been falling further and further out of critical and public favour with each film that he makes. He did hit the jackpot with The Sixth Sense which has become a classic of psychological thrillers. Since then he has directed Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. Generally, I have quite enjoyed his films as I did this one, allowing that this is geared towards a niche audience, say 8-14 year olds. The other thing one has to make allowances for is some of the cornily inappropriate contemporary American expressions (with the Waterbenders shouting ‘Hey, guys...’ and everyone checking out the situation with ‘OK?;). Since the Firebenders look and speak like Indians (which the main actors are, as is, originally, the director himself) and they are the villains, then it makes the goodies sound very American. Oh, and there is another allowance to be made. The film was converted to 3D after production so there is minimal 3D effect.
That said, it is a fantasy that relies heavily on eastern religions and traditions rather than Christianity (as does the Narnia series with which there are some comparisons). The young Avatar himself (Noah Rigger) looks very much the head-shaven young Buddhist monk, even looking like Kundun and those stories of the search for the present Dalai Lama. He is also adept, as are some of the other benders, in martial arts. It would be interesting to hear from Buddhists whether the connections are deep or only surface resemblances.
We are in a world of four nations, Air, Earth, Fire and Water. The Fire Nation is conquering Earth and Water, having vanquished the Air Nation, except the young boy who has run away and been hidden for a hundred years and now emerges, the Avatar, the one who has links with the spirit world and is Lord. While he becomes the Lord by the end of the film, the sequel (the Fire Nation strikes back) is clearly heralded.
Not that much of a plot as the nations do battle and the Fire Nation tries to destroy or control the Avatar. A Fire prince (Dev Patel, the Slumdog Millionnaire) wants to capture the Avatar to make an impression on his father who has wiped him off as a weakling. The Avatar is rescued and saved by a young man and a girl from Water.
So, chases and fights, special effects, especially fire battling water, some strange creatures and an excursion into a fantasy land which is somewhat different from the better known worlds of recent cinema imagination.
It won’t capture a large audience of adults or older teenagers, though they might like it.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 16th September 2010.