the last airbender: this movie could boycott itself

I have seen The Last Airbender movie. Let me be clear: I did not pay to see it. But the screening opportunity came up, so I watched it -- I've talked about the film enough, I figured I should at least see it for myself. And now I share my observations with you:

My one-word review via Twitter, immediately after watching the film: joyless. Overall, The Last Airbender completely lacks soul, and suffers from a painful inability to inspire any kind of fun or awe throughout the entire movie. I thought I'd at least enjoy the visual effects, but that fails to impress too. Even setting aside the problematic racial politics, this is just not a good movie.

M. Night Shyamalan attempts to adapt the entire storyline of season one (Book 1: Water) into this movie (the first of a planned trilogy). Having seen and enjoyed the animated series, I'm aware that this is no small feat. Unfortunately, overall, the plan fails. It's supposed to be epic, but the whole thing feels clunky, rushed and at times incomprehensible. You might not have to boycott this movie -- it's so bad, it could boycott itself.

My first WTF moment: the initial shots showing the people of the Southern Water Tribe. You've got Sokka and Katara, both unmistakably Caucasian... then you've got the rest of their tribe -- the darker, more Native American folks filling the background. I honestly thought this would be handled more subtly, but that ain't the case. It's pretty ridiculous.

There are indeed Asians in the movie, but it is as we feared: they are either the villains, or mostly relegated to background players. The people of the Fire Nation are mostly South Asian or Middle Eastern-looking. The Earth Nation is mostly East Asian. These people -- including some major characters -- will supposedly be explored more in subsequent installments (as in the animated series), but for now, they're basically set dressing.

I think Dev Patel, curiously rocking an American accent, does a pretty good job as Zuko. It's not entirely accurate to describe the movie's casting as white = good, brown = bad. Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh are two of the more interesting and complicated characters from the series, and they make a somewhat uneven attempt to reflect that here.

To be fair, Noah Ringer, who plays Aang (the titular last airbender), does an okay job. Is he the only kid in the entire world who could play Aang, as Shyamalan has so boldly claimed? Absolutely not. But he does a passable job in an mediocre movie. Could this material have been elevated by casting an Asian actor? Probably not. Like I said, joyless.

Do yourself a favor. Save your hard-earned cash -- you really don't have to see The Last Airbender. And you most certainly don't have to watch the damn thing in 3-D. Trust me, you're much better off watching the original Nickelodeon animated series (The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition) recently became available on DVD). But hey, it's your money. The movie opens in theaters on Thursday.

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