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May 26th, 2018

All the CGI in the world couldnt save the Last Airbender

There are four kinds of movies, at least in my world. My world happens to be one in which there is not a lot of spare cash floating around at the moment, so the list runsthusly:

  • Movies that I pre-book tickets for, so I can see them as soon as they come out
  • Movies that I wait for my friends to go see first, so they can tell me if it’s worth it.
  • Movies that I go see on Monday night (R10 night…about $1.50, I guess.)
  • And finally…. The usual 3-for-R10 DVD special at Video Spot

Usually I’m pretty good at telling which movies fall into what category, but ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ had me confused. I am a HUGE fan of the series, and I really really wanted to see what the bending powers would look like in a live-action setting. So that put it squarely in the first category. But I was hesitant; could 46 hours of plot and excellent character-development really be squeezed into a two hour movie? And would it retain the same zest and wacky charm of the original? I wasn’t sure, and so I relegated it to category 2. Eagerly I awaited the verdict.It wasn’t promising; everyone I know, fans of the series or not, could muster nothing more than a ‘Meh…it was ok.’ Usually that causes a movie to skip down a step to 4, but in this case the pull of fandom was too strong, and couldn’t wait another couple of months. Cautiously, the boyfriend and I reckoned that a Monday night viewing could count as an acceptable mid-month date, if we smuggled in our own popcorn. And so it began……and ended roughly 15 minutes later, when we realised that M. Night Shyamalan has made the final and unacceptable balls-up of his career. I was going to rant on a bit about that for a while, but instead here is a link that sums up my sentiments exactly:

Instead, I have another point to make. M. Night can do what he likes in the future, but he would do well to remember the golden rule: good CGI never EVER makes up for sloppy writing. The series was excellent in part because of the bending premise: an epic adventuring world where people can manipulate the very elements themselves, but good fantasy settings are ten a penny. What held the show together was its excellent control of pacing and tension, and most of all: a sense of humour. It explored serious issues without ever becoming ponderous or forced, and the characters were lively and three-dimensional.Not so Avatar the movie. We stayed to watch the whole thing, but only out of a sense of loyalty to the show, and in the vain hope that it might get better at some point. Yeah right. It was like hearing a 7-year-old read out the story of What I Did on my Summer Holidays: ‘…and then we went to the beach and it was fun. And we swam in the sea and we had ice-cream and then some Firebenders came and destroyed our peaceful village. That was bad, and I didn’t like it.’

The movie cuts back and forth in a frenzied style, banging out the character motivation and plot in clumsy exposition. I understand the need to condense the series for movie format, but the job was done badly here. The characters could have appeared more rounded and relatable if the writing had allowed things to be implied by dialogue instead of explained by voice-overs. I mentioned the other ‘Avatar’ (a la James Cameron) in my previous article, and since it shares the same problem with this one, now might be time to coin the phrase ‘Avatar Syndrome’: a condition whereby a massive CGI budget and gimmicky special-effects are used to cover a multitude of writing-related sins. And I will say this: both ‘Avatars’ are visually stunning.

‘The Last Airbender’ captured the look and style of the series perfectly, and the bending effects were indeed awesome. I love that I’m living in an age where the most strange and fantastical worlds can be brought to the screen in a way that looks so utterly convincing. But it can’t save bad writing, and ‘The Last Airbender’ has that in abundance. It seems that next two are definitely going on my ‘wait-till-it-hits-the-video-store’ list, but until then here is a handy guide to the ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ oeuvre:

One Comment

  1. Fazziv

    Generally agree but feel the CGI in Last Airbender was actually underwhelming along with a very bad screenplay.

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