M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is not a good movie. By all standards—but especially when compared to the animated series—it’s a waste of time. But even the worst cinematic experiences will usually have something about them that works.
The Last Airbender is not only reviled by nearly everyone, but Netflix’s live-action adaptation is in trouble after the original creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender left the project. This might be the only live-action ATLA we get for a while, so we’re going to point out the one thing that works about it. Even if it’s just in comparison to the rest of the garbage that is this movie.
What is a scene or moment you like in a film that’s otherwise considered awful? We may discuss more at a later date. There’s so much bad in the world, let’s try and find the good. Even if it’s in teeny, tiny, oh-so-minuscule doses.
A standout moment in the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender is when Zuko, disguised as the Blue Spirit, rescues Aang from the Fire Nation because he doesn’t want anyone else to get the credit for the Avatar’s capture. It’s the first moment of connection between these two characters, who are sworn enemies, and hints at how their similarities are much stronger than their differences.
It should come as no surprise that this scene is not nearly as evocative in the live-action film—and even though I’m calling it the “one good scene,” there are still plenty of problems with it. The guards just stand around instead of attacking as a group, and the amount of firebending is worse than a stint on Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride. But in spite of its flaws, it stands out as the best scene in The Last Airbender for a couple of reasons.
1. Aang Is Using His Environment
Airbending is sometimes considered one of the weaker bending forms. Sure, Aang can whoosh people away and fly around on a glider, but airbending can’t make lightning, move mountains, or control someone’s movements from the inside using their own blood. One of the things that made airbending stand out was the discipline required for it. The monks had created elaborate trials that tested each airbender’s ability to be quick with their reflexes, something that helped them center their minds as much as their bodies.
Here we see Aang (Noah Ringer) at the Northern Air Temple using the trials and environment to his advantage. He activates some wooden panels to trap guards and blow them away. He’s jumping over beams to escape his pursuers. He even pulls out the glider. The choreography is not the best, but you can get what they were trying to do...and in that sense, it works.
2. There’s Bending—at Least There’s Airbending
As previously mentioned, there’s a noticeable lack of firebending in a fight scene featuring hundreds of firebenders. But we do get to see more creative versions of airbending from Aang as he and Zuko (Dev Patel) work together to ward off the attack. The choreography and special effects stand out, and Shyamalan even goes hard on the slow-motion so you can see the action in fine detail. I especially want to give props to young Ringer. He may have struggled to play Aang, but he was a practitioner of Taekwondo and you could see that he cared about trying to do the choreography the best he could.
3. No One Is Talking
For me, the Blue Spirit scene starts after that one random guy shouts “The Avatar has escaped!” and ends right before Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) orders the other Fire Nation guys to not kill the Avatar (for plot reasons he explains in detail because that’s how this movie works). As a result, that means during the scene no one says a goddamn thing. One of the worst things about The Last Airbender is the stilted dialogue and character performances, and it’s admittedly a much better movie when no one is talking. That’s because you need to let characters (and actors) show how they’re feeling, instead of having them explain everything. When you step back and trust the audience to fill in the pieces, you wind up with a more enjoyable film.
There’s one moment in this scene where we see Aang run toward the edge of the Northern Air Temple and pull out his glider. It’s clear he’s getting ready to run. But then he turns around and looks at Zuko, the man who risked everything to save him, and without a word, Aang jumps on his glider and turns around to help. It would’ve been so easy for Aang to shout: “I can’t just leave him!” because that’s what you’d expect from this movie. Thankfully, it was one of the only times in this whole thing that Shyamalan trusted the actor to say it with his face instead of his words. And it was one of the only times I felt Ringer came close to embodying Aang.
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