Looking at The Last Airbender is very instructive. It shows just what kind of things can go wrong in the art of storytelling. I’d like to talk about some basic elements of storytelling: plot, character and motivation. And how the film horribly fails in all these categories. It’s a fascinating case study, and I invite you to join me in the dark side. I mean, analysis.
The basic flaws of The Last Airbender are apparent after about 10 minutes. I’m not talking about the casting of the characters. I know people get enraged about Westerners playing characters who were Asian in the animated series, but I am looking here at the level of storytelling, and what happens in the first 10 minutes is a basic lack of storytelling insight.
Now, there isn’t much wrong about the first few scenes. Katara and Sokka are established as characters. Katara is thoughtful, Sokka is goofy but passionate. They find Aang the Avatar in a sphere of ice and it looks suitably impressive. Then, the narrative starts breaking up as they take Aang to the village and the prince arrives and takes Aang away.
Basically, the movie makes it really hard for the viewers to follow the motivations and get invested. Some examples: Prince Zuko gets no proper introduction, but simply arrives and starts yelling. They find Aang and take him away, but it isn’t clear why until Katara has to explain to the audience that they saw Aang’s tattoos. Zuko and his soldiers don’t talk to each other, and neither to the villagers, they just give glances and awkwardly go through the motions. What happens is that we as viewers are suddenly lost in a storytelling swamp instead of guided through it.
Take for another example the giant bison creature of Aang. In the first scenes we do not see its face; we do not see the villagers interact with it; we do not see anyone care about it, and then suddenly it is there when the plot needs it. There are so many ways to utilize a giant bison creature to make any kind of good scene. You could use it to introduce character motivation properly. You could use it to show more of the village; you could use it to create more mystery about Aang, and so on and so forth… It is like the story skips ahead every two minutes and loses out on a good scene of character/world building, and we’re left scratching our heads about what happened.
There is a backstory going on too about the fire nation discovering hidden knowledge, and Aang having visions, and it is all thrown into the story without any impression of whether these are important plot elements. There is also an attack on Prince Zuko, but I only realize this after I am told about it in a later scene, because the event was so confusing. Were there essential scenes cut from the film, perhaps? If so, those must number in the dozens. Imagine a director’s cut of 4 hours, from which all the good connecting scenes are removed.
The second basic flaw is the treatment of Aang as a character. He isn’t one. The film doesn’t care about his feelings, his desires or his journey at all. He just bursts from that ice sphere and walks around, thinking god knows what. His worries and memories are narrated by Katara instead, and the camera doesn’t show his face at important moments, so we don’t see his reactions. So, whenever he has a sudden idea or a plan, we don’t really understand him and it isn’t explained what happens.
The camera in general makes strange choices. The worst scene is a conversation between the Fire nation king and his general. We only see the back of the head of the king, and the general is out of focus, but when the general speaks, he stays out of focus. This scene literally gives us no information and nothing to look at.
There is an incredible clumsiness in how the plot is driven forwards. The scene where Aang and his friends arrive in this random village and start calling out to people is just awkward because it isn’t how people behave. The camera then blows up Aang’s face when he talks about his worries with Katara and Sokka, and there is no direction behind their acting. There is no play of emotions. They force their faces into an expression that is hold constant, while all their lines are said in the same tone, robotically. As a viewer, you can’t follow the thoughts and feelings behind what you get on the screen.
At other times, Katara narrates what is happening, instead of the film showing it. “Aang is practicing with the scroll I gave him, and Sokka is worried that we are being followed.” We are told this, but the characters don’t talk to each other at all, and we don’t feel involved and don’t get a sense of who these people are. At one point, when the trio flies to Aang’s former home, the narration and the special effects of the landscape overlap and I miss what is said, because I was looking at the effects.
A third flaw is that there is no clear driving force behind the actions of the trio, Katara, Sokka and Aang. One moment they are in the air temple where Aang learns that his home is gone, and next they are somewhere else, some other nation, but why? What were they doing? What is their plan? We move between nations, hopping between east, west, north, south, water, earth, fire and air nations and their permutations without any sense of time or space.
The basic insult is that time and again, the film makes it hard for the viewer. There is no sense of creating a film for a viewer, no sensitivity about the basic steps of leading a viewer through a story, as if the director, M. Night Shyamalan, was simply not able to transport himself into the shoes of a filmgoer and think about how the film would be experienced.
Now, the film isn’t all bad. The music is good, the landscapes are pretty, and the basic plot elements are intriguing. It’s just that the basic directing is absent. There is no directing of actors (and quite good actors, like Dev Patel), they are just kept floundering. There is no directing of storytelling, and no directing of camerawork. Shyamalan was either at home while his crew tried to make something out of it, or he cannot put himself in the shoes of his audience. Either way, that doesn’t make for a good director, and a lousy film.