Movie Mechanic: Shyamalan’s Last Airbender

Make: Paramount/Nickelodeon

Model: Anime Adaptation

Year: 2010

M. Night Shyamalan was once the most renowned director in Hollywood. After The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan had proven he could draw audiences with his unique dramatic storytelling and unexpected twists that bent the minds of audiences worldwide. And then for 13 years, he released one stinker after another, though the title for stinkiest stinker may belong to this week’s entry, The Last Airbender.

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Hated by critics, audiences, and fans of the source material, Airbender suffers from a host of maladies, including terrible acting, terrible writing, terrible stunts, not enough of the source material, too much exposition, and an unclear message. So, we have a large task ahead of us this week: rebuilding the worst movie I have ever seen.

The first issue is bending is dumb. Bending is a combination of choreography and special effects, heavy on choreography, to the point of absurdity. In virtually every battle scene, benders spend an inordinate amount of time dancing to produce their elemental attacks, making bending completely impractical as a battle technique. We have to shorten the choreography and improve the effects so that bending makes sense in the context of battle.

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The next issue is casting. Shyamalan opted for a young martial artist in the lead, rather than a young actor with a stunt double. With his emphasis on martial arts dancing, I can see why he thought that may have been a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves. We also want to avoid the whole whitewashing controversy. While the nationalities of each nation are not explicit, they seem more Asian than European. We’ll have to cast someone who fits the role. I’m thinking Supernatural alum, Osric Chau.

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Finally, we need to address the tone. The source material is lighthearted adventure. There is plenty of humor in the original, but the movie was somber and dreadful. In the cartoon, the villains all took themselves too seriously, while the heroes showed a zest for life. Aang comes off as a dopey crybaby, while Zuko is possessed by shouty adolescent rage. Sokka and Katara are the chief expositors and comic relief, but their exposition is tone-deaf, and their jokes are flat. We need to have fun.

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The most important idea of a faithful adaptation is that it captures the essence of the source material, taking liberties where necessary to maintain the tone and pace. It does not have to be a 1 to 1 copy of the original.

With these three main principles in mind, we’re ready to start the rebuild.

REBUILD

No opening crawl. A movie this heavy in exposition doesn’t need it. Also, no narration, and no using words like “sphere.”

The movie opens Aang and Appa fleeing a forest city engulfed in flames. Aang looks back in sadness and guilt, and rides Appa near the surface of the ocean, where he causes the water to come up and swallow him and Appa, and freeze them both in an iceberg.

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The camera swoops up and we watch from a satellite/drone view as the Fire Nation wages war over the next 100 years. Waterbenders leave their fishing villages with spears and fishhook shaped weapons, and earthbenders set out with shovels and garden hoes. The airbenders lock themselves away in their mountain temples. Over time, the tribes are defeated, but the airbenders are wiped out. There is no need for explanation as the graphic is clear: the Fire Nation is conquering the various nations. There is a year counter in the corner of the map that ticks ahead faster until 100 years are up, the camera swoops back down on Aang’s iceberg as it crunches into the shore of the Southern Water Tribe.

A group of young water tribesmen find the iceberg and throw rocks at it. Katara, a teenage girl from the tribe, uses water bending to lift the iceberg out of the water and onto the snow. But, because she’s a novice, she nearly drops the iceberg on her brother, Sokka. Sokka gets up to yell at her and falls through the ice. They eventually crack open the ice and find Aang and Appa inside, unchanged by time.

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Aang is instantly aware that he’s done something wrong, a sadness in his eyes. His stomach grumbles, and Appa groans. He asks for food, and Katara leads him toward the village. Before they arrive, the fire nation appears and sets fire to the ice fishing huts. Zuko, the fire nation captain, goads them to use water bending to put out the flames. But, none of them can. Aang quickly summons a strong gust of wind and blows the fire out. Then he channels the wind at the fire soldiers. But, he’s weak from hunger and blacks out. Zuko’s soldiers scoop him up and take him to their ship.

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On the ship, Zuko’s uncle Iroh feeds Aang and then brings a tray with a candle, a pitcher and a stone. He places the candle on the table, pours water on the table, and sets the rock down. The flame flickers toward Aang, the water pools toward him, and the rock tips up on one end. Iroh puts his hands together and bows. “It is an honor to meet you, Avatar.” Zuko laughs and commands that the ship head toward the Fire Nation immediately. Aang sort of smiles. Zuko’s smile fades and orders Aang to be locked up. Aang blows them over and runs out on deck. Katara shows up with Appa and bends some water on deck to put out the fires on the ship. Aang flips up in the air and lands on Appa and they fly off.

Zuko orders pursuit, but they can’t keep up. “They’ll head north,” Iroh says. Zuko asks why. “It’s a hunch.”

Appa needs to graze. The three make camp and settle down for the night. They share stories. Aang reveals he’s the Avatar. Katara asks what it’s like to bend all the elements. Aang hangs his head. “I can’t,” he answers. “I got scared and froze myself in that ice. I had just started water bending, the Fire Lord attacked, I got scared and fled. Encasing myself in ice was the only water bending I learned. Pretty lame, huh?” Sokka rolls his eyes. “So what’s the plan?” Sokka asks. “I go back to the Air Temple, restart my training,” Aang replies. “Um, all the airbenders are dead,” Katara says.

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Aang whistles for Appa, and he leaps on its back. They fly off to the Air Temple alone. Katara gets up to chase after him. Sokka tells her no. He’ll come back when he’s ready. As they settle back down, an Earth Nation kid comes into camp followed by several Fire Nation soldiers. They all get captured and taken back to a prison camp full of Earth Nation members.

Sokka and Katara spend the night, nibble some rice, and get to know the earth benders. Katara spreads word that the Avatar has returned. The earth benders decide to make a move as soon has Aang shows up.

Aang goes to the Air Temple, finds the remains of the Air Nomads. He finds his old staff that unfolds into a glider, says a little prayer, and goes back to the camp. He finds his friends missing, but Sokka left a trail of fishing line for Aang to follow, which he does. He approaches the prison camp, climbs the wall. The earth benders spot him. Katara nods to confirm Aang’s identity. The earth benders start shooting rocks, just a ton of rocks, like machine gun fire at the prison guards. The fire guards fight back, scorching several earth benders before they pull shields up out of the ground.

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Katara bends some water from a nearby trough to put out the fire on the earth benders. The fire benders surround the earth benders and lay down a steady blast of flames heating the rock shields until they glow red. Katara calls out to Aang. Want flicks open his glider, then jumps up in the air. He does a superhero landing and a powerful rush of wind puts out the fire and knocks the fire benders back. The earth benders pin them down with slabs of rock. One or two escape. The earth benders cheer. In gratitude, they give Katara a water bending scroll.

Aang, Sokka, and Katara leave. The earth benders spread the word through the Earth Nation that the Avatar has returned. Bit by bit, the Earth Nation expels the Fire Nation army from its borders.

Aang studies water bending with Katara. She is clearly improving, while Aang is struggling. She pats him on the back. “You’ll get it,” she says. “Not at this rate,” he replies. “I need to get in touch with my master.” Aang meditates and his astral body goes to the Spirit Realm. He locates his master, Gyatso, who tells him to let go of his guilt. To free his heart. Aang admits his guilt. Gyatso forgives him. Gyatso then transforms into a huge dragon spirit. “Seek Pakku,” the dragon commands. Aang then snaps back into his body. He wakes his comrades and they fly north to the Northern Water Tribe.

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Zuko and Iroh have been laying low just outside the Northern Water Tribe’s territory. Iroh tries to convince Zuko to stop his quest and live a good life. Zuko admits he wishes he could. But, if he did, he would never regain his honor. He would never be worth anything to anyone. At first, he was angry about his exile, but now, he’s just determined not to be a loser. Iroh nods. Just then, Appa flies overhead. “It’s time,” Zuko says.

As Appa flies to the edge of the Northern Water Tribe’s territory, he is attacked by Commander Zhao’s warship. Aang falls off, flips his glider out, which gets burned up. Aang falls into Zhao’s hands. Zuko runs up just in time to see Aang get captured. “Dammit!” Iroh jogs up behind him. He holds up a mask. Zuko smiles and looks back at the ship.

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That night Zuko sneaks onto Zhao’s ship with a blue demon mask on. He helps Aang escape, but gets knocked out. Aang carries him to safety, then escapes to the Northern Water Tribe. Zuko and Iroh decide to infiltrate the Northern Water Tribe and kidnap Aang themselves.

Zhao returns to the Fire Nation to blame Zuko for the failed capture of the Avatar. They decide to attack the Northern Water Tribe, and capture the Avatar for their own purposes.

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As the Fire Nation readies for war, Aang meets Pakku, leader of the Northern Water Tribe, and he studies water bending with him. Pakku was a mere boy when he met Aang and Master Gyatso at the Air Temple. Aang is happy to meet someone from his old days. The connection to his past allows him to learn more quickly and at last Aang starts to make some headway in his water bending.

Pakku says that to finally complete his training, he needs to commune with the Moon and Ocean Spirits. Aang goes to a sacred pool where 2 fish are swimming. Aang meditates with his feet in the pool. He goes to the astral plane, converses with the Ocean and Moon Spirits. They bless him. His water powers awaken fully.

In the real world, the Fire Nation arrives and attacks. Katara puts orbs of water around fire nation soldiers’ faces, drowning them. Fire benders burn water benders to death. Water benders shoot shards of ice into the fire benders faces. There’s no dancing. Just water and fire and death. Zuko takes advantage of the chaos, and makes his way to the sacred pool where he attacks Aang. Aang unconsciously defends himself by encasing Zuko in ice.

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In the astral plane, the dragon spirit returns and says, “The Avatar must do no harm.” Aang wakes up. He sees Zuko, and releases his face. “This is not a great look for you,” Aang says. “I liked you better in that mask.” Aang surfaces to find chaos and blood. With a combination of air and water bending techniques, Aang stops the killing. He freezes the aggressing fire benders and pacifies the defending water benders. What Aang doesn’t realize is that Zhao has snuck down to the sacred pool with Iroh. He captures and kills the Moon Spirit. All the water benders, including Aang, temporarily lose their abilities freeing the fire benders. Just as they are about to continue their onslaught, Aang regains his senses, and goes Avatar mode, glowing eyes and everything. He blows a huge gust of wind straight down that pins the fire benders to the ground. He then freezes their hands in ice. Iroh frees Silo and they flee. Pakku leads a team of water benders to the sacred pool where they find Zhao and encase him in water, drowning him. Aang dispels the Fire Nation.

Pakku holds a funeral for the Moon Spirit and the fallen warriors. Aang and Katara leave to find an earth bending teacher, and Sokka stays to pursue love in the Northern Water Tribe.

WRAP UP

And that’s that. No dancing. I hope I never see this movie again.

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