Critics have hailed “The Last Airbender” as a disaster and as an end of the career of director M. Night. Shyamalan. And while the movie does boast of terrible acting and very poor scripting especially when it comes to dialogue, it also features a tranquility and an originality that puts this film in the realm of something worth seeing.
Based on an animated TV series, “The Last Airbender” takes viewers to a mythical place, not unlike earth, where some people are born with the ability to manipulate or “bend” the elements. The inhabitants of this world, which on a map does not look unlike east Asia, are divided into four tribes, based on the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The plot of the film centers around the fact that the central figure to the world’s spirituality, a figure who can manipulate all four elements and communicate with the spirit world in order to maintaining peace between the four tribes, the Avatar.
As the movie explains through a series of rather incoherent flashbacks and disjointed narration, the Avatar disappeared 100 years ago. In his absence, the war-like Fire Nation has attempted to subjugate the other tribes. Knowing that the next avatar would come from the Air Nomads, they slaughtered the tribe before oppressing the Earth Nation and banning the practice of “bending” in across the tribes.
Into this strife, a brother and sister are born in the Southern Water tribe. Though their stories are perhaps unique and intriguing, the acting and dialogue is not. Whatever the viewer learns about these characters comes by accident, not by virtue of the script or casting. Thus, scene after scene of awkward acting and lines crafted so poorly as to make one want to cry, the siblings discover a unique and intriguing child trapped in a globe under the ice sheets that surround their home.
Ang, as the boy is called, is the last of the airbenders, and the lost avatar. The prestige of his character does nothing for the quality of his lines either. Nevertheless, Ang must learn to bend the other three elements, save the world, and communicate with the spirits before the Fire Nation captures him.
M. Night Shymalan’s film is both creative and imaginative. The story is compelling, and as much as the bad acting and poor scriptwriting detract from the film, the visual effects in creating the manipulated elements, the unique settings, and the strange technologies are pretty stunning. Perhaps the best part of this movie is simply that it is not recreation of a typical theme with typical scenes. Much thought was put into making the setting unique.
The film contains a particular gracefulness to it as well. From the soundtrack that features the diverse and compelling voice of the violin to the synchronized and smooth motions of the martial arts forms, “The Last Airbender” enthralls as it pulls the viewer into a new and original story in a world full or unoriginal blockbusters.
The film does present an interesting concept of diversity and identity. Each tribe is comprised of members of only one ethic group. The Fire Nation seems to have originated in India, the Water Nation could easily be mistaken for a group of Alaskan Inuits, and the Earth Nation resemble China both in their physical characteristics and the style of their buildings. Being born into a specific tribe predestines the “benders” to the manipulation of that particular element. Such physical and cultural distinctions are a blatant rejection of the relativist notion that equality equals sameness and diverse unity creates strength. But one wonders how a mainstream movie could exalt such racial differentiation, until you realize that none of the tribes are white.
For the detail-oriented analyst, this Oriental world filled with its nature spirits may have a message of pantheism. However, to those familiar with the basic tenets of Taoism, the film is not at all preachy. IF anything, the film bespeaks the recent cultural fascination with all things non-western. But for the average viewer, the film is a tribute to the strength of Oriental patience, the fortitude of the Oriental idea of duty and obligation, and the beauty of the martial arts. Some combat scenes and an ominous but indistinct dragon spirit may be frightening to younger children. However, the movie is blessedly free of sexual innuendos, excessive violence, blood and gore, and offensive language and is recommended to families and those who look at movies for more than dialogue.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.