“Don’t worry,” advises the villain, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi). “I’m not going to kill you because you would just be reborn again.” Though he’s surrounded by an army, the captive, a mysterious 12-year-old called the avatar, doesn’t look perturbed. And when men of that army hang the boy from a ceiling, he escapes mere minutes later. Fuming now, Zhao sends his army out to get him… with the very caution they’ve heard just minutes before: “Do not kill the avatar. He will just be reborn again.”
Got that? Again? Welcome to the wacky world of The Last Airbender, where the dialogue is both sloppy and over-explanatory, and the plot seems run through a blender. Here the bad guys ride around on dark, smoke-chugging ships and the good ones, well, they have a Sky Bison (a huge, furry, flying creature modeled after the Catbus in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). This mode of transportation belongs to the avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), also known as the Last Airbender. He’s last because his fellow Air Nomads were all massacred while he was absent for 100 years: when he emerges from a giant ice sphere at film’s start, Aang says he “ran away” last century. Perhaps he was afraid, perhaps he was petulant, or maybe he was just confused. The movie doesn’t explain, and really, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Aang’s emergence is occasioned by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), siblings who belong to the Water Tribe, Southern Division. She’s practicing her waterbending, using Sokka as her test subject — which leaves him either soaking wet or encased in ice, as she’s not yet mastered her element. All the benders in this world — based on the Nickelodeon cartoon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender — are assigned an element, except Aang, who bends all. Or at least, he will, once he completes the training he ran out on 100 years ago. In this movie (planned as the first of three), Aang and Katara take lessons in waterbending, which means they spend long minutes practicing a version of tai chi chuan, indicating their essential fluidity (and, more broadly, their hyper-organization: each of the four populations here is associated with an element, a season, and a form of martial arts).
Small and pale as well as fluid, Aang insists more than once, “I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Instead, following a couple of visits to the Spirit World, where a dragon offers cryptic instruction, he bends air and water to do the hurting for him. In a series of scenes, he commands water or wind to shudder and shake as soldiers clash in the foreground, their motions slowed and dimmed (by the egregiously bad 3D- conversion, done after the film was shot in 2D), so you can’t tell who’s doing what to whom.
This mishmashy visual effect is hardly helped by the exceedingly muddled plot. When they first hook up, Aang, Katara, and Sokka decide to encourage the fearful Earthbenders to rise up against their Fire Nation oppressors (that is, they throw rocks at the bullies). But the kids and film soon lose interest in this part of the story, abandoning the Earth Kingdom to pursue their water training and be pursued by Zhao. He is in turn sent by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), whose interests are defined narrowly: he wants to control all populations and to punish his wussy son, the currently exiled Firebender Prince Zuko (Dev Patel). The poor kid actually frets that his father thinks, “I’m like my mother,” hinting at some gender-role anxieties the film never quite addresses.
Indeed, Zuko is confused throughout The Last Airbender. His face scarred by one of his dad’s fireballs, the prince travels with his morally inclined Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) and feels haunted by his conniving sister Azula (Summer Bishil). As dad favors her, Iroh urges Zuko to see bigger pictures and even Aang suggests that if only Zuko took a breath, “We could be friends.” Alas, Zuko’s identity dilemmas are not only unresolved here, they’re compounded by the film’s utterly clumsy efforts to sort out the race anxieties swirling since its beginning.
Director M. Night Shyamalan has been trying hard to explain the controversial casting choices, namely, Caucasians as heroes who were more or less (in an anime way) Asian in the TV series, and Asians and other “others” as villains and extras. His defense — “The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good. The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing” — depends on the franchise reaching a second episode, when Zuko is revealed as “the actual hero of the series,” and ignores the concerns over Aang, Katara, and Sokka’s bright white faces filling close-ups in the current film.
More vitally, if viewers are missing this “irony,” the major reason is that The Last Airbender is fundamentally inept. Whether Zhao is repeating a basic plot point or Katara is explicating her brother’s love life, the dialogue is continually a few steps behind the audience, just as the crosscutting between action scenes jumbles rather than develops connections between plots. When Aang at last is ready to bend some water, the world around him has long since dissolved.