Last Airbender Review: Worst Movie of the Year

June 30, 2010


I was worried. I really was. I was worried that I'd go to see (in a press screening mind you; I wasn't going to spend any money on) M. Night Shymalan's racebending The Last Airbender ... and actually enjoy myself. After all, Shymalan has been known (once or twice) to put on a good movie. It's not inconceivable that he could've made a halfway decent ride out of Nickelodeon's children's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender -- despite the fact that he cast all white actors in the heroic roles of an Asian-inspired fantasy world, and all swarthy, middle-eastern-looking actors as the villains. So I was worried that the movie would have some aesthetically or narratively redeeming features that would muddy my hatred. I am, at heart, an honest gal, and would have had to, grudgingly, say so, if there was anything to like here.

But fear not, dear readers, there is nothing to like here. The movie has no redeeming features whatsoever. The acting was atrocious. The writing was horrific. The direction looked like a film-school final project. The CGI, around which the entire movie was built, was utterly unimpressive (but at least it didn't stand out.) The 3-D was obviously tacked on at the end and made the whole movie unnecessarily dark. The art direction was good in spots ... because it was stolen directly from the original TV series. Where the costumes didn't rip off the TV series, they were simply cliché. The action scenes were all 50% slo-mo. (Not kidding. I think it's because they did some of the fighting in CGI. Argh. What part of The Matrix Reloaded did he not understand?) The music was like a parody of a cheap film score, half DUNH DUNH DUUUHHH, and half light-hearted strings.

Even the martial arts were cheesy. Here's where Shymalan's inexperience as a martial arts movie director told a sad, sad story. He couldn't seem to avoid the rookie mistake of not knowing how to start a fight. Characters had to do, like, half a kata before anything happened. They were basically doing kata throughout the whole movie, like the tournament scene in Karate Kid III. The antagonists actually had to stop and watch while the good guys wound up. Anyone who, like me, laughed at this teaser trailer -- because of the silly/excessive arm-and-leg-waving that had to happen before any candles got blown out -- is going to die of embarrassment when they see the movie. The whole movie was like this.

And what's worse, at the press screening some genius thought it would be a good idea to get some local martial arts experts to do a little chop-socky demonstration in front of the screen while we were waiting for the movie to start. So they brought in a tiny little boy, an older girl, and a man -- presumably all part of the same school -- to entertain us. They were, however, all Asian, and really freakin' good, and underlined heavily how easy it would have been for Shymalan to snap his fingers and be inundated with Asian children who could speak good Engrlsh and also get the job done. Hello? Hello Shyamalan? Are you listening? Or are you George Lucas?

Speaking of getting the job done, did I mention how bad the acting was? The excuse for white casting usually goes "But we cast the best actors for the role and they just happened to be white!" Usually, it isn't meant to be insulting. Here, it's an insult of the highest order, one worth creating a martial arts revenge movie around. Wow. You insult my famiry! Jackson Rathbone employed the same single "intense" expression he uses in the Twilight series, only this time, without the epically bad blond wig. Nicola Peltz is twice as good an actor: she has two expressions, mostly conveyed by her pooky lips. Noah Rathbone is at an awkward age where his face is too big and full of features to mobilize. He didn't have any expressions ... but I'm sure that'll change after he gets his growth spurt. And Dev Patel? Too bad for him. His undeveloped talent could have shone against the background of amateurishness that is this movie, but he's not experienced enough to act well in the absence of any direction whatsoever. He was wooden, weak, and silly.

And that brings me to the casting of, in Shymalan's words, "a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world," i.e. the Fire Nation. I jeered when he said that, because it was so patently awful, and because he was obviously playing up to the American notion of Muslim = villain. But I honestly didn't expect the casting to have the impact that it had. All of the Fire Nation speaking parts were played by swarthy, middle-eastern-looking actors (although Cliff Curis is Maori, he plays Arabs on TV.) Every face shot in a Fire Nation crowd was of a swarthy, middle-eastern-looking extra. Unlike the other nations -- which were fairly mixed between Asian and white, with some token blacks thrown in -- the Fire Nation looked middle eastern. His race-mixing of extras and speaking characters in the other nations just served to muddy their racial element. But the casting of the Fire Nation was like a slug to the gut: Islamic world bad. What was he thinking?

I don't know if I should even bother to break down the horrible adaptation of this beloved TV series. The one thing I can say for Shyamalan is that he himself clearly loves the series ... since he tried to preserve the arc of as many half-hour episodes as he could. Of course, in a two-hour movie, that means that each of the twenty or so episodes of the first season gets about two minutes here. Thus, the first two thirds of the movie is a frantically "paced" careen through incomprehensible two-minute would-be set pieces. Some of the adaptations are laughable (such as the prison for earth benders, those who can magically control earth and rocks, which was set on a metal boat in the middle of the ocean in the series, and is set in a dirt-floored stockade full of rocks in the movie.) But most of these scenes are simply illegible to anyone who hasn't seen the TV series. The movie only starts to take off in the final third, when Shyamalan finally lets go of the episodes and starts combining and cutting plot points to make things flow more smoothly (otherwise known as adaptation.) Once the script problems have been dealt with, though, we are free to notice the other problems in all their grisly glory, not least the awful awful dialogue, and pointlessly cheesy voice-overs. A hot mess.

As of this writing, the movie has a 00% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That's the first time I've ever seen that. I'm sure that score will rise slightly over the next few days, but it's pretty telling. This movie is a disaster. Don't waste your time. Don't waste your money. Let this franchise die the pathetic death it's been begging for all along. Avatar: The Last Airbender didn't want to be a movie anyway. Let it stay a TV show and stay pure.

ETA: Charlie Anders at has written the funniest movie review I've ever read, about The Last Airbender:

The brilliance of Noah Ringer's performance cannot be understated — he is the first performer ever to convince me utterly that he is standing in front of a greenscreen. Even when Ringer is filmed on location, in front of a real-life mountain, he still manages to create the impression that his surroundings have been keyed in, and he's actually in a studio somewhere. This is a huge, crucial factor in the way the movie makes fun of its own epic-ness. And I think everybody who has criticized Shyamalan for casting white actors as Asian characters in this film should admit they were wrong. Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn't find any whose performances were lifeless enough.

Read it here.

ETA: Via Jaime, another awesome review:





One of my younger siblings is an avid fan of the original cartoon, I'll be sure to pass the message along.  It's still so disappointing that such a great potential movie opportunity for Asian American actors ended up the way it's turned out. The original show's creators must have been disappointed as well.

This is a tangential point, but has anyone else noticed something interesting about the titles of recent films associated with Whitewashing* ??  Before the book 'Bringing Down the House' was released as a movie (but when articles about the project's Whitewash casting were already being published on the internet), there was a movie released starring Steve Martin with the exact same name, causing the blackjack movie project to be named '21'. 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' had a movie come out right before it with James Cameron's 'Avatar', causing it to be renamed 'The Last Airbender' (previously it had always been referred to as simply 'Avatar' among fans of the cartoon, according to my sibling). Even a recent Jeff Adachi documentary titled 'You Don't Know Jack', about a trailblazing Asian American actor named Jack Soo (very vocal about Hollywood's stereotypes and obstacles for minority actors), has been Google-search-buried by a recent Hollywood TV show bearing the exact same name.  When one wants to read about Whitewashing of these stories, articles get Google search muddled/buried under other titles that came out bearing the same name. Interesting... probably just pure coincidence...


*I call it Whitewashing and not Yellowface since Yellowface is a Caucasian actor playing a character who is acknowledged as Asian in the story, whereas Whitewashing is taking an Asian character and turning it Caucasian and using a Caucasian actor.

That's a really interesting convergence you've discovered there, Alvin. I think we need a theory. Thee-REE! Thee-REE! You bring the blog post, I'll bring the gin. ;)

Claire, i can't tell you how glad this makes my heart. b/c of your declared love for the original series (in your early post denouncing the movie's casting), i set my netflix sights on watching it. i did. the whole thing. in 3 days. started off a little slow (the first couple episodes were too... episodic for me), but then the narrative arc really kicked in. 

so since then i've been torn between needing more Airbender -- anything! it can't be over! that can't be it! -- and despising the Sham. i have experienced real fear.

but now the ambivalence is gone.  tank, movie, tank!!!  burn, baby, burn.

Would I ever steer you wrong? ;)

nothing to add to the article (excellent, well said, rock on), but I did want to thank commenter #1 re: a book about Jack Soo. I grew up in the 70's and he was in my favoritest show at the time (Barney Miller) and I'm glad to find out there's a book out about him.
Oh well, I'm going to see the movie tomorrow anyway

PLEASE check back in with your insights when you've seen it. I wanna hear more opinions.

Here's what 1 critic from Rotten Tomatoes wrote:  "it’s a new low not only for Shyamalan, but for the craft of filmmaking in general." Hollywood may be saying good night to M. Night, for good.
I just started watching the series with my kids...are you all watching the same series I am? Maybe it's because I'm only in the beginning of book two. Maybe it will change. I'm not sure how to explain to my kids why in the series ALL of the good guys have light colored eyes and MOST of the bad guys have dark eyes. HUH? Even Jet, remember Jet in Book 1?  Yup, dark eyes.  Know how I knew Zuko would turn into a good guy? Light eyes.  Ang has Brown eyes, that lighten light brown.  Who so far are bad who also have light eyes? Zuko's family. Guess, they couldn't have his sister have dark eyes, that would be too obvious. I have yet to see a good guy/girl/love interest/hero with dark brown eyes. That to me is the same as Hollywood saying a lead character has to have blue eyes.  

Momoftwins, either you're lying about watching the series, or there is something very wrong with your TV. Either way, let me break it down for you.

Water= blue
Air= grey

Aang has grey eyes, not brown eyes. Notice how Haru and Toph are green-eyed? Notice how they wear green clothing? Fire nation tend to have gold eyes. Zuko has them, Azula has them, Ursa has them, Ozai has them. Last time I checked, Ozai and Azula are the two villains in the show.

Jet had dark eyes, so did many of the people throughout the villages they visited. Those people were good. Please get your TV fixed so you can see colors well.

Thanks for the break-down, Anonymous, but watch yourself. There are no insults on this thread, and you're deliberately being provocative.

Please note, everyone, any more insulting language and I'll delete you. And Momoftwins, please don't respond in kind or I will delete YOU.

i just wanted to put in a plug for sarcasm, since what's the fun of these comments without it, really?   :)

and speaking of sarcasm, one of our folks sent a link to another fun review/read: 


OMG! You are so accurate with your account of the movie. My son (an avid watcher of the cartoon) and I were gravely disappointed by the lack of story presented. I felt jipped, even mad that it was called a MOVIE!

Is it really that bad? I had a good feeling about the movie.

 I REALLY like the series and I'm wondering if there is book 4. I'm really hoping there is.

The Trailor and Premiere (is that how you spell it?) was quite entertaining. After I watched both the Trailor and Premiere I was determined to watch it. But, after reading this review, I'm not really sure anymore.

What do you think...should I watch it or not?


Hi Starsoul,

I feel your pain. I'm a total fan of the series myself and part of me was still hoping that this could become a good movie. But it sucks. People are pretty much in agreement (check out Rotten Tomatoes.) Fans hate it and non-fans hate it. It's just a bad movie.

In other news, there won't and can't be a book four. Think about it. He already knows airbending, and each of the three books is him learning a different element so that he can defeat the Fire Lord. He learns the three so that he knows all four, and then he defeats the Fire Lord. So why would there be a book four?

Saw the movie yesterday, and I kind of disagree with some of this.  In general, you hit the head on the nail.  The acting was pretty bad, but to be fair, when the script is as terrible as this movie's was for most of the film, there's not much you can do about it.  Aang bothered me the most because he was pretty bland throughout the whole movie.  The CGI/bending effects?  They weren't necessarily super OMG IN YOUR FACE impressive, but...they weren't that impressive in the series either, to be fair.  Zuko kicks, and fire comes out.  In the movie, Zuko kicks, and fire comes out.  I really don't know what you were expecting. Now, I didn't have any problems with the majority of the fight scenes, which, in general for fight scenes were definitely not as bad as they could have been.  BUT, it was true that they took too long "winding up."  My thoughts were "Well, it's a good thing everyone trying to attack Aang is doing so from really far away, otherwise, he wouldn't be able to execute any of those attacks he's doing."  Though I DO think that calling them "Kata" is inappropriate, since Kata is a Japanese term used in Japanese martial arts, and none of the bending is based on Japanese martial arts (they're all based on Chinese martial arts).  On top of that, the "winding up" was inconsistent!  Sometimes they would wind up for about 30 seconds just to move a small rock or blow out candles as you mentioned, and then other times I quick hand gesture was enough to blow someone away...   The thing I take the most issue with in this review is: "But most of these scenes are simply illegible to anyone who hasn't seen the TV series." THAT I disagree with completely.  Not having seen a single episode of the series before seeing the movie, I have to say that everything made perfect sense to me, and there wasn't a single instance in which I did not understand what was going on, or why it was happening.  So I'm not really sure why I keep hearing those kinds of comments, especially as they always seem to come exclusively from people who have seen the series before...   I honestly WOULD like to see the franchise continue.  This one may not have been an oscar contender (/understatement), but I think it's reasonable to say that given the critical bashing it's getting from everywhere, they might actually listen to some of these legitimate complaints and make a better movie next time.  At the very least, the movie probably has gotten more people interested in the series, I know it did for me.

I went with a group of people, two of them reviewers as well, who hadn't seen the series. And they were all confused. Where they weren't confused, they often had misinterpreted what was going on -- or misinterpreted it based on the series, but who knows? Maybe they got it right for this one.

I read a bunch of reviews of this as well (in a spirit of schadenfreude) and most of the reviewers who hadn't seen the series also said that they found it hard -- or impossible -- to follow.

So that's why.

I'm sorry but this is the worst movie ever I'm a huge fan of the cartoon and it did not live up to the hype the dialogue was horrible they totally changed key factors that was in the cartoon. the seen with the imprisoned earth benders made no sense.  in the cartoon there was no earth to bend that is what rendered them helpless in the movie there is earth all around them.  I mean the writers and directors of franchises like harry potter and twilight know to stick with the idea of the original in which it became popular in the first place. a total let down never been more disappointed !!!!!!!!!!!!! oh and by the way the people that are commenting are doing so I'm guessing with never having seen a episode of avatar the last airbender.

I bummed myself out today by googling "Airbender opening weekend gross."  Apparently, despite just DISMAL reviews, people continued to plop their recession dollars down for this meltdown.  Why, oh why??  This was our chance to send a whopping clear message to the movie studios that Night himself might actually understand -- but now we're probably doomed to get him again for Neverending Airbender Abuse.

I didn't want to hear that! Just goes to show how incredibly irrelevant reviewers are.

Thanks to Night Shyamalan I'm sure this will be the last airbender. OMG the acting was so bad it was painful to watch. The person who did the adaptation for the movie must not have ever saw the cartoon. The casting was a big miss, it is truly sad when a cartoon character has more charisma than their lave action counterpart. The special effects even bored my 11 & 12 year old, who lived for the cartoon. I think Mr. Shyamalan needs more practice using the special effect blue screen. My husband and 2 nephews (14 & 16) left 3/4 into the movie. Save yourself the money and rent the cartoon.