Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: It's Good, If You Don't Like Good Dialogue

The Last Airbender does not just bend air to his will, he is in charge of keeping the world in balance – but he is not ready for the task. Atrocious writing is the pustule on a strikingly beautiful movie with decent acting and captivating action sequences.

While out hunting, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), of the water tribe, find a frozen sphere with a boy and his floating beast of burden inside. When he escapes the bubble, the brother and sister realize he is different. He is an airbender. Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last of the Air tribe. Aang is not just the last of his kind, he is what the world has been missing to keep the world in balance. When the leaders of the Fire Tribe realize Aang is alive, they dedicate their resources to hunting him down.

A bender is a person who can manipulate the elements of the earth. There are earth, fire, water and wind benders. They control the elements using what appear to be martial arts forms. Much of the movie is the characters using these forms. Occasionally the forms get a bit tiring because there is a disconnection between the motion and the effect, but generally, they are beautiful expressions of discipline. More than just the forms, the fight choreography is captivating. There are transitions between live and computer generated fights that are hard to spot.

In fact, there is no shortage of pristine aesthetics in The Last Airbender. Director and M. Night Shyamalan paid extraordinary and particular attention to the way movie’s visual story. The settings, across an entire world, are rich with cultures. Each group of people and place has their own clothing, terrain, and lifestyle. The differences between different places and people range from subtle to blaringly obvious.

Shyamalan’s most obvious point is that not respecting the sacred is not only immoral, but has world changing consequences. As an atheist, I spent the entire second half of the movie rolling my eyes at how evil those who do not respect the gods are portrayed. M. Night Shyamalan’s opinion about atheists is that 1: We put power first, 2: we don’t care about the world, and 3: we will take, take, take without remorse. It wasn’t enough for him to show spirits that show up for work, it was not enough to show the heroes as warriors of their spirits, no. He had to go a step further, showing those lacking a reverence for the supernatural beings of this realm as so ruthless that they are willing to sacrifice everything for power. Shyamalan can blame us evil atheists all he wants to, but he is only showing his complete inability to escape the restraints of his faith, not the truth of the matter.

The thinly veiled theological biases aside, The Last Airbender is full of lines dumped in the middle or end of a scene that make no sense. Twenty minutes will go by, I’d be lost in the beauty of the movie and the kung fu, when BAAM – a line, usually delivered with all sincerity but horrible timing, that made me go cross-eyed. In one particularly memorable scene, out of nowhere, one character waits fifteen seconds after the last line is delivered and then orders another character to do something so obvious, it didn’t need to be said. She might as well have said during a fight, “Hit that guy.” Every time one of those dump sentences popped up, I checked out for a moment, unable to suspend my disbelief. M. Night Shyamalan then had to earn my trust again, taking time and energy that should have been applied to being emotionally involved in the story.

If you are a theist who wants to watch fights in pretty places, The Last Airbender is just the movie for you. For my ten bucks though, I demand writing that doesn’t make it impossible to care about the story.

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