For those unversed in the world of The Last Airbender (like myself), this is what I roughly figured out from the film. The movie is based on a Nickelodeon animated TV series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. The world is very multi-racial with a heavy-Asian theme as it takes place in a world of four nations based on the elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. The Fire nation has basically been wreaking havoc for the last hundred years, stomping on and repressing the other nations. This has been going on because there is no one to stop them. In the past, there was a Dalai-Lama-type person called the Avatar, a sort of chosen one with great powers to “bend” all four elements.
OK, “bending” is pretty cool. Other than the Avatar, some lucky folks are skilled enough to bend their own element, though the skill is extremely rare. If you can bend water, you can lock someone in ice, make a bunch of fog, or throw a ball of water on someone’s head. If you bend fire, well, you can of course throw cool fireballs at others. Earth? Voila! Instant wall of brick! Basically, these groups fighting each other is just a big war of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
So, anyway, the Avatar suddenly reappears after 100 years out of a block of ice, and is discovered by two kids in the Water nation. The siblings, Sokka and Katara, are played by Jackson Rathbone (too old for his teenager-y role) and Nicola Peltz, who can’t act her way out of a paper bag. They are the only white kids in the village of Inuits, and she can bend water. The Avatar, it turns out, is a kid named Aang (Noah Ringer). They soon figure this out when a boat from the Fire nation, led by cranky Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) shows up and grabs Aang.
Well, turns out Aang, because he prematurely fled his Avatar-dom, hasn’t actually learned to bend all the elements (just Air), so he has to go on a quest to each of the nations to learn the bending skills and help liberate them from the repressive Fire nation. He escapes the Fire nation’s clutches… gets caught again… escapes again… gets caught again… In the meantime, Sokka and Katara pretend to be helping him on his quest, even though their contribution to his survival is rather minimal.
Now, there is a LOT of controversy about this film as fans of the original series has accused the film of “racebending” and “whitewashing” the leads into white kids instead of Asian kids. They have a point, in the big scheme of things, but more distracting than the leads’ whiteness is the wretchedness of their acting. Worst offenders are Nicola Peltz as water-bending Katara, and Seychelle Gabriel who shows up as Princess Yue (…who, in her first appearance, has a hairstyle that looks JUST like a large penis! And no! It wasn’t just me who thought so!). If the actors’ wooden line readings weren’t bad enough, the script is horrible. The only young actor that makes it out of Airbender with dignity intact is Dev Patel, who is at least trying to emote.
To the kid’s credit, Noah Ringer as Aang is an extremely elegant physical actor with his martial arts moves (just please, don’t speak!). And did I say this film looks absolutely fantastic? Seriously. It was filmed on location in Greenland, Vietnam, and New Zealand, and it shows in every possible good way. The costumes look great, and the CGI is fine (though the tacked-on 3D is throwaway). And I was surprised that for the most part I wasn’t bored. There was enough pretty for me to look at, that I found myself reasonably entertained (even if my friend wasn’t). Sure the acting sucks, and the screenplay is even worse, and there are some action scenes that could have been filmed with a more deft hand than M. Night Shyamalan could provide… but still. The Last Airbender is getting some of the worst reviews I’ve seen in a long time. But you know what? I was *this* close to giving it a recommendation.