Bright Lights Film Journal

The Last Airbender: The Most (Incomplete) Fantastic Journey

Talk about wish fulfillment for kids – the Airbender mythos has it nailed. As a child dreams of gaining superpowers, he may wish for them all: i.e, the numerous abilities of Superman. If his wishes grow darker, he may desire fangs and a cape, and the ability to fly by night in darkness – or perhaps shapeshift into fur, four legs, and quadruple his own size. But wishing for the ability to pull forth wind and throw it about is elemental, grounded in the everyday. Gathering winds would be like seeing a storm as your own work. We hardly need to re-see the world as fantastic to imagine such.

The mythos of The Last Airbender, originally appearing as an animated series and now M. Night Shyamalan’s new venture into myth, was made for the big screen.  In this children’s fantasy, youthful desire meets classical protoscience. Different peoples have mastered “bending” each of the four elements. The film’s visuals reflect the flourish of such an imagined conceit: earth rises to stop the heat of the Firebenders; the Airbending swirls in patterns much like those of water (though Waterbender – a word never mentioned in the film – sounds less powerful, more like an American surname).

With the bending elements clashing, so comes war. The film posits the different “tribes” warring with one another. We first meet two young members of the North tribe, one of whom is learning to bend water into beautiful power. They’re soon besieged by the dominant Firebending tribe, whose form of power fuels the aggression of Zuko (Dev Patel), a prince who’s been exiled as punishment. Just prior to his arrival, the waterbenders discover Aang (Noah Ringer), who falls from a frozen orb – through some hazy (though hardly distracting) logic, he’s been lost for centuries. It turns out he’s an Airbender, seemingly the most powerful of all the types, since his mastery of the winds also allows him to jump through space. With legend suggesting that he may have mastered all the elements, no wonder Zuko is after him.

Ringer shows the confused innocence of one about to come to such absolute power. The golden child motif usually works off layered mythology, and here he has a strong universe to uphold him. This archetype, be him at the center of religious or fantastic mythos, arrives as a form of salvation; Aang’s initial refusal of the call resulted in his extensive time wandering. The fiery rage of villainous Zuko recalls that of Anakin Skywalker, Chapter III, while the former hasn’t something like Sith knighthood before him, but permanent banishment. The contrast of this Shadow from the most influential version in American cinema hints to Zuko’s character development.

Aang, the hero, appropriately serves as an inspiration. Conflict has left the Firebenders marginalizing the other movers. When Aang arrives to a village of listless Earthbenders, they are soon snuffing out the oppressors’ flames with supersonic earth. Airbender thus highlights the theme of balance inherent in both the four elements motif and Eastern philosophies. Here we have a strong foundation of ideas, with the Star Wars influence running through much of the new film’s DNA. (A Lando/Judas-who-makes-good shows up soon after we’ve spotted the Vadar.)

The weak narrative sinews hold to the mythical nervous system, making the organism seem strong even if Shyamalan loses grip on his epic narrative. Fantasy works best off linear narrative clarity, while many scene transitions whirl like air in the hands of Aang. Yet, Night ignites the separate moments with visual magic worthy of his mythology. The kinesis is organic to the imaginative yarn, unlike a tacked-on cliffhanger that makes Airbender seem even more incomplete.

Dev Patel as the “shadow” who tosses his fiery rage.