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(Avatar) The Last Airbender (Movie 2010)
by Kevin Conner
IMDB Entry and source image credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938283/
images are copyright their respective owners, and are used under fair use.
The Backstory and Behind the Scenes Production
This movie is the epitome of everything wrong in Hollywood. It exemplifies the racism from people who think they are progressive and liberal, it exemplifies the elitist mentality that condemns creators while rewarding those who are undeserving of any kind of funding or attention, it exemplifies overvalued CG “artists” who give other real CG artists bad names by taking money for little product. This movie should be burned with fire – as it is deserving of total annihilation at the hands of the comet empowered Phoenix Lord Ozai. Don’t worry if you don’t get the reference, it’s a reference to the cartoon – a work which is far superior in every way and form. Yes, a children’s cartoon on Nickelodeon makes a movie headed by Hollywood’s darling “M. Night Shyamalan” look like the worst production put to film since “Manos: The Hands of Fate”. Everything about this movie, the production, the casting, the pre-production, the marketing, is more racist than “The Birth of a Nation”, only the vast majority of the people probably didn’t realize it because they weren’t paying attention. No, I’m not talking about the “race bending” movement which claimed the Inuit tribe was slighted by not giving an Inuit actress the role of Katara (a character who, in the cartoon, is arguably more closely related to the Polynesian line of Peru than Inuit), I’m talking about EVERYTHING ELSE.
The first thing you need to know is that M. Night Shyamalan turned the entire project into a platform from which he could express his own racial identity. His actions were in an unforgivingly racist and condescending manner, and unlike other reviews (where I like to stay away from the off screen drama), I must discuss them, because they directly affect what you see and hear on screen.
For years after the cartoon first graced the little screen, M. Night Shyamalan campaigned for a movie. Despite my own reservations, I thought that he couldn’t do a terrible job and it might be worth it…. oh, how I was wrong. The first warning signs came from his campaign where he kept likening himself to Aang. A man, who was born to two highly educated doctors who raised him in one of the richest neighborhoods of Pennsylvania. A man, who literally had his entire life handed to him on a silver platter with every elitist benefit you can imagine (including movie deals right out of school). This man likened himself to Aang, a 12 year old boy raised by monks sworn to poverty, who had his entire family and life stripped away from him in a moment of fear, followed by 99.99999999999% complete genocide of his people committed by an opposing nation. That would be like Bill Clinton likening himself to Batman, or George Bush likening himself to Wonder Woman. It wouldn’t be until later that his reasons for likening himself to Aang would be revealed.
Shyamalan got his wish during the tidal wave of Bollywood promotion and acceptance. This coincided with a huge media based push for India during our operations in Pakistan. Part of this due to the fact Indian officials were pushing against us giving any funds to Pakistan, despite our prior arrangement with Pakistan. All of this is a perfect example of “racial equality” gone wrong in the media. Shyamalan was Hollywood’s way of saying: “Look, we love India! In fact, we love India so much we have our own Writer, Director, Creator who is Indian! Ignore the fact he was born and raised in America with privileges 90% of Americans will never even see in their lifetime. Ignore all of that because he is our Indian Superman, an Indian Stephen Spielberg! Applaud us for our racial diversity!”
The first thing Shyamalan did, was that he removed the ACTUAL CREATORS of the cartoon series from the project. The second thing he did, was that he destroyed their script and wrote one himself. All of this done while professing his kinship to Aang.
The third thing Shyamalan did, was to insure that he hand picked casting for the movie, and nearly everyone he cast into parts was white. This gave birth to the Race Bender protests. Now, I’m ok with races being recast for certain parts. I can buy a Black Nick Fury (in the comics he was White Nick’s illegitimate son, a son White Nick kept secret to protect him from HYDRA, before retiring). I can kinda sorta buy a Black Johnny Storm being White Susan Storm’s brother (Edit from 2019 – that movie was a failure, but I could’ve accepted it if they had done a decent job with the script). I can even chuckle at a Black Rapper being cast as a god in Thor who is known as “The White God” (because, you just know Marvel did it to make fun of white supremacists). I can even stretch my imagination to buy the entire Fire Nation being replaced by those of East Indian descent (Hindi, Sindhi, etc…). I cannot buy the insertion of white people into cultures that are so clearly depicted as amalgamations of Asian and Pacific heritage, not in the year 2010. If this was the 1960s or before, I could buy it, that was a time during our nation where the majority of the audience couldn’t accept non-whites on screen. As a result, filmmakers were forced between a rock and a hard place. It would’ve been nearly impossible to do this movie back then with a non-white cast. But, that was then, this is the year 2010! There is NO EXCUSE.
The fourth thing Shyamalan did, was destroy the fictional universe created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. He did so by first systematically removing everything about the Fire Nation that the Fire Nation represented – unbridled rage, unrestrained anger, overt chaos and deliberate violence – and replaced it with an Indian bureaucracy – restrained, calm, conservative and patient violence. Everything that the Fire Nation represented, the fear, the loathing, the unpredictability, was removed and shattered in this unredeemable act. He could have retained his Indian based casting, if he had retained the explosive and unpredictable elements of FIRE ITSELF! For the love of all that is holy, THEY ARE CALLED THE FIRE NATION FOR A REASON! In fact, the one nation which is practiced, calm, steadfast and reserved is the EARTH nation. There are important psychological and storyline contexts that DEMAND these roles be played out in these ways for the story to work! This is not an idle complaint! It is at the core of the plot development for the entire epic! He followed this reprehensible betrayal of the source material by re-inventing each character into a shadow that barely represented what they should be: Sokka is now a despondent emotionally detached and depressed monotone trainwreck; Katara is a scared rabbit who lacks any and all emotional strength, as she shakes like a frightened child throughout most of her scenes (no, it’s not from the cold); Aang is a robotic and emotionless pull string doll who regurgitates something he’s supposed to say without any spirit or free will behind it – spirit and free will being the hallmarks of a true airbender. I have seen these actors in other roles, and it is more than just “poor acting” that gave us their performances in this movie, it was abominable direction and script. He even went so far as to change the music and pronunciation of the names to reflect Asian (specifically Indian) music and pronunciation guidelines.
Keep in mind, these characters, locations and music are ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. Their PROPER pronunciations are what the CREATORS dictate they are. While aspects of the production are made to resemble events and people through Allegorical Storytelling, they do NOT directly represent them, because this is a FICTIONAL WORLD with ITS OWN PRONUNCIATION AND CULTURES that are mostly autonomous from our real world.
The fifth thing Shyamalan did was hire Industrial Light and Magic’s “B-Team” to handle the excessively expensive, and disastrously ugly, special effects. How these artists stay in business is a testament to the Hollywood system of hiring people because of the school header on their application, and not because of their talent. I have literally seen better computer graphics and stage effects in videogames of the same era. A prime example is Appa, whose cartoon appearance is one of an animal, and they gave him a human like face because, according to the ILM F/X director, they wanted the children to identify with him. How anyone with any amount of intelligence or integrity can honestly say children will better identify with a well known and beloved cartoon animal by changing its face to look more human is the epitome of elitist ignorance.
All of these changes were made because Shyamalan “identified” with Aang, and why did he exactly identify with Aang? Because, and I quote Shyamalan from his Nicktoons promotional special:
“[Aang’s] Asian, and so am I”
– yes, he said that. For those who are familiar with the last 150 years of Asian based genocide, you need no explanation. For those who aren’t, let me enlighten you as to why this is a terrible thing for him to say. For over 150 years, there’s been rampant genocide in Asia. It has run from India, up through Korea, and made its way around Japan, and it hasn’t stopped. The genocide, which include multiple holocausts, is always justified with this phrase “I’m Asian, you’re/they’re not”. By saying “[Aang’s] Asian, and so am I” Shyamalan immediately evoked the history of a saying that directly resulted in more deaths than had there been 10 Hitlers. He evoked that justification and saying, as he practiced his own brand of racism, changing everything to fit his ideals and his “race” as ‘the Indian Director of Hollywood’. I don’t care if he did or didn’t know what he was saying. He said it, and he acted like he believed it – that because he was Asian he was entitled to changing, altering and raping the source material because two white guys wrote it and included a mixture of Asian elements. He was also active in casting, “forgetting” about Chinese actors in Hollywood until after being reminded of them through a massive series of protests, replacing parts they would play with white guys. It has got to be the most bizarre form of racism under that justification I have ever seen in my life. He appeared to prefer white guys to non-Indian Asians in his film, while also appearing to wipe the names of two white guys off the credits because they weren’t his kind of Asian.
Nickelodeon received countless complaints regarding his racially tainted statement, enough so that they immediately cut the planned showings of that promotional special. How do I know? Public posts, and a sudden absence of the promo from the channel during planned broadcast times.
What compounds all of this, is the way the studios kept this movie in the theaters for weeks until it made all of the production costs back with minimal profit (Shyamalan spent $150 mil on production + 130 mil for marketing + $unknown$ for portions of the movie which were deleted and taken off budget). This movie literally pushed other movies out which were receiving MORE PEOPLE PER THEATER ON AVERAGE, just because the production companies responsible for this abomination couldn’t stand to lose face over this atrocity. How they managed this vulgar abuse of distribution is beyond me, because it did not deserve this special treatment. I have a strong suspicion that Shyamalan was somehow involved in this act as well, given some of his interviews at the time.
There is nothing respectable about this man, how he treated others, and how he used his race as a tool in orchestrating the publicity and production of this movie. All of these actions he took were in the years 2008-2010. All of them. It’s one thing to partially defend a Hollywood mogul whose lifespan and career operated during a time where all of America was exceedingly sexist and racist, it’s another to operate on that level during a time where society had evolved beyond those actions. There is more that he did, but I think the point has been made.
The movie begins on a bad foot. All music and introductory presentation is absent, except for a slapdash live action version of the cartoon beginning. In the cartoon, you hear Katara narrating the four elements, before describing the world political situation. As she does this, a bender of each element performs their kata, while bending their spoken element. It is done in silhouette, as their actions fully cover the screen in all of their glory – it has a powerful impact. This movie? Ha! You are given no narration. You are shown live action people do some movements, without any bending, while grunting, as if you’re watching a staged show at your local college theater. It is weak, and pathetic, a testament to the poorly choreographed martial arts in this movie; but, it is hardly the worst portion of this movie, for now you are treated to Shyamalan’s version of the story.
The story is about a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), who happens to have the immense power of the Avatar. The Avatar, in this universe (and I stress – IN THIS FICTIONAL UNIVERSE), is a person who cycles through lives, reincarnating after each life into a new gender, person, and nation. The Avatar is capable of manipulating the four elements of the world – Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. He is the most powerful of all the benders. Now, what is a bender? No, benders are not robots from “Futurama”, they are people who can manipulate the elements around them. In the cartoon: a firebender can create fire by superheating the air around them (breathing fire that can engulf a garrison); a waterbender can manipulate the water around them or in another person’s body; an earthbender can manipulate the ground (such as by creating entire walls 2 feet thick and 10 feet tall with one stomp); while an airbender can make the air bend to their will (enough so to pilot a ship)!
In this movie? Benders are weak, powerless, they can barely move anything, taking 5-20 people to move a 20 pound rock, while fire benders need to dance around for 30 seconds beside a well-tended fire before they can shoot a single fist of fire smaller than a burst from a cookout flame. Supposedly, the Fire Nation was planning to use their massive abilities and power over fire to wipe out all of the Airbenders. In this movie, Aang ran away from home because he was scared, but he’s alright now that he spent 100 years in an iceberg. How do we know? Because he says he is, in a fashion befitting a 3rd grader reading from a history textbook. It is his destiny to stop the Fire Nation, and while he was afraid of them before he got frozen (from his perspective, that 100 years lasted 2 minutes), he’s all too eager to wipe them out without any trace of fear or concern. He says this to a scared rabbit Katara (Nicola Peltz), and her brother – the new emo depressed depressive Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) (That wasn’t a typo, I intentionally wrote ‘depressed depressive’, because you would give your right leg to make Sokka manic, an emotion he never once displays in the movie, but does so all the time in the cartoon. In fact, there’re maybe 6 episodes in the entire series where he is even remotely despondent, and rightfully so, but I digress). In order for the Avatar to accomplish this goal, Aang must learn all four forms of bending (and he already knows airbending), and so he (and friends) must travel to the Northern Water Tribe in order to learn waterbending.
Enter Depressed Emo Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his uncle, Iroh (Shaun Toub), as they search for the Avatar. Why? So Zuko, who was banished from his kingdom by his father, can regain the honor he lost in a battle with his father over a war planning meeting. How you can believe this depression induced Zuko could have the strength of will or fire of personality to oppose his father is beyond me, and that’s compounded by believing this movie incarnation of his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), would be willing to sully his hands in open combat of ANY KIND. His father should be called Fire Bureaucrat Ozai, as you’ve a much easier time believing that Ozai burned Zuko’s face by using his business quality magnifying glass, instead of through an actual act of firebending. His challenge – beat Aang on his quest to learn all four elements, and capture him. He must do all of this before rival, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi – yes, that Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), captures the Avatar and secures his place in Ozai’s favor, while insuring Zuko remains banished. Why does Zhao want this? Because he hates Zuko. No other real reason. You wouldn’t need one in a properly written script, unfortunately this isn’t written properly.
Enter the end of the movie with the land of phallic images. There is a scene, which is so inappropriate that it made every top 10 list of inappropriate scenes in a children’s movie. It involves a back shot of the rulers of the Water Nation, rulers who have layered bobbed haircuts with one of them having a tuft of white hair poking straight up at the top of their heads. It is disgusting that nobody saw this during production.
The script is beyond unacceptable, and there are so many examples of absolute failure, but I will only concentrate on three. Throughout the movie, Aang says his name over, and over. I literally stopped counting the 12th time he said it. He would say, “My name is Aang, the Avatar”. Why he said it and how he said it relates to Shyamalan’s innate racism and behavior toward the creators of the show. Instead of “My name is Aang” pronouncing ‘a’ as in ‘say’, he would say “My name is Aang” as in ‘ohng’. Now, as I said before, it may be appropriate in India to say Ohng, but this is a fictional world where the language was defined by the creators, no one else. The word ‘Avatar’ is pronounced as you would pronounce it in India: ‘Ahh-Vahh-Tahhr’. Once again, the creators defined this word and its meaning as autonomous from the word as spoken and defined in India, because this is not India. You may think this is a minor complaint, but after hearing Aang say it over, and over, and over, it must be mentioned as a major complaint. Shyamalan turned this sentence into a knife which he plunged into the backs of the creators every time he had Aang say it. Every single time it was said as a gratuitous attack against the creators. It had to be, because he says that line when he doesn’t need to say anything! It’s like having a waitress walk up to you to take your order at a fast food restaurant and the conversation goes like this:
“HI! My name is Wendy, the Cashier, and I am here to take your order! What would you like to order from me, Wendy, the Cashier ?”
“Hi, uhh… I’d like three tacos–,”
“So, you are telling me, Wendy, the Cashier, you wish to order three tacos? Is that all you would like from me, Wendy, the Cashier?”
You get where this is going. Yes, there are places in the movie where the script reads very similar to the above. It is unbelievable, and unbearable. You wind up wishing that Zuko not only finds the Avatar, but that you are treated to a special torturous death scene of Aang at the hands of Fire Bureaucrat Ozai.
One of the two other failures, I am choosing to mention, belongs to a scene where Zuko discusses growing up, and how Azula was favored. It is the best literal example of Shyamalan’s hubris. It was a scene taken straight from the cartoon, only instead of using the cartoon script (which was well done, and decent), Shyamalan has Zuko speaking as if he is a six year old boy who has difficulty articulating his feelings and emotions. The same scene written by two different creative productions, and it was the MOVIE VERSION which sounded simplistic and childish in construction. I don’t mean appealing to children, I mean it sounded like someone who had failed highschool was trying to re-write Shakespeare. Reading the following will only give you a touch of how poorly he blew it, as you have to see both scenes in action to appreciate the depths to which this movie had sunk:
(to an unconscious Aang)
“My father always thought my sister was a better firebender.”
(to an unconscious Aang)
“I finally have you. But I can’t get you home because of this blizzard. There’s always something. Not that you would understand. You’re like my sister. Everything always came easy to her. She’s a firebending prodigy and everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck, though. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”
And you know what? You don’t even need the full quote from the cartoon, you can reduce it to just one line, and it says everything in ways that Shyamalan cannot even begin to fathom:
“My father says [she/my sister] was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born.”
You can even add the following sentences if you want for added strength, and full character development and explanation of Zuko
“I don’t need luck, though. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”
The differences between the two scenes is night and day. This scene is a testament to Shyamalan’s inability to write, and fully exposes him for the fraud he was in all of his previous movies. No one who is a real and true writer can make the choice he made above, let alone the choices he made throughout this entire movie. It is so very clear from the example above that none of his other successes were accomplished without someone carrying him on their backs, giving him success as he took credit for their skill and aptitude.
Finally, Katara narrates everything. Granted, it’s difficult to condense a 20 episode Emmy award winning season into 3 hours without some narrative exposition, but it would be possible to specifically highlight 6 great episodes in order to balance transitional periods during those 3 hours. Unfortunately, no attempt was made for an honest condensation. Instead, we have a series of narrated sequences with very little to show for it. She simply does not stop speaking. You see no development, just narration. When you see a chance for them to explore a critical area, she narrates it. When they stop at another area which may be critical, Shyamalan blows it with poor direction, leading directly into poor acting. These scenes broken from Katara’s narration typically center around either Aang or Sokka speaking like talentless high schoolers doing a dry read from a fifth grader’s script for a C+ lit project. There is no soul to this writing, just a desiccated corpse where something great once thrived, before it succumbed to a parasitic beast; a beast which sucked out all that made it good and holy for the sole purpose of furthering its own lifespan.
In regards to the cgi and live action sets, there are pieces of sets that move, when they should be stationary. There is cgi that looks like it belongs on the set of “Ice Station Zebra”, in fact, the entire opening scene where Aang appears is lacking of any snowy quality. This is NEARLY 10 YEARS after Lord of the Rings did the snowy pass of the Redhorn Gate in the Caradhras mountains, and Shyamalan had the budget to make the snow look real. Instead, we get a staged play that looks fake. The clothing looks fake, and that’s while overlooking the overweight white men underneath, men who pretend to be martial arts masters of waterbending.
I am convinced those who like this movie have never experienced either real cinema, the television show on which this movie is based, or they suffer from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after sitting through Shyamalan’s previous failures as a director and writer. There is nothing I can say that is commendable about this production, outside of the decent editing, sound and the three performances by the lead ‘villains’ (three actors out of the entire production). It takes a true lack of talent to take a masterpiece of children’s writing and beat it into the ground to a point of no return. Avoid this movie at all costs.
Acting: 1 1/2
Sound: 2 1/2
Overall (rounded up) 1 1/2* out of 4
*The production failed, miserably, on nearly every level (especially the race level), while the writing was childish and clumsy. A far cry from writing for children, as he destroyed a script and concept that had done better as a children’s cartoon than he could ever hope to accomplish if he were given an entire lifetime. The only reason this production is above 1 star for overall rating is thanks to three actors, the editors and slightly above average sound.
Cast and Production Information
(with many, many, too many, more)
Based on the cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” by:
Michael Dante DiMartino
(The above is a NONEXISTANT credit in this movie)
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Paramount Pictures (presents)
Nickelodeon Movies (presents)
Blinding Edge Pictures
Kennedy/Marshall Company, The
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)