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Not really sure what all this The Last Airbender business is about? Neither am I -- and neither is anyone born before 1990. Join me as a fumble my way through flash websites, Wikipedia and more in attempt to learn something about one of this summer's biggest fantasy films. I've scrummaged through the elemental nations, character, trailers, clips and more, so at least respect how much time I've put in and read.
It’s okay to admit being old. They say with age comes wisdom, but sometimes ignorance and senility. If you’re a 20-something like me, when you saw promos for The Last Airbender for the first time over a year ago, you plucked the beer bottle out of your mouth and said, “what’s this M. Night Shay-a-ma-lay-un up to this time?”
It took a long time for me to realize that the film was based on a hit Nickelodeon cartoon entitled Avatar: The Last Airbender and that M. Night Shyamalan (Shy-uhh-muhh-lahn) was actually taking on an action fantasy project and not some kooky supernatural horror thriller that he invented.
As more trailers and clips have surfaced and the action and effects for this movie have shown themselves to compare well against just about any potential blockbuster, my interest in the film grew but not my anticipation, seeing as I knew nothing about the source material.
So, without watching any of the show or exploring fan sites and all that hooliganism, I embarked on a journey of self-education and have compiled my findings into this Idiot’s Guide to The Last Airbender for 20-somethings and up.
What’s Obvious – The Trailers
After watching a few different trailers, I was able to come clean about how much I actually knew about this film. Watch the trailers below and see what you come up with. I believe I posted them in order of appearance starting with the Super Bowl spot earlier this year (and skipping the teaser from last summer). Check my summary below.
“A bald child with the ability to make an arrow of light appear on his forehead is “the last airbender,” the last of his kind who can control all the elements (according the girl with shiny blue eyes) and as such he has a destiny. He must stop the nation of fire people (which includes that kid from Slumdog Millionaire) from taking over the other nations, one of which is the water nation. The fire nation will try and stop him. This will all happen in converted 3-D will which might still be good because Industrial Light & Magic is the team doing it.”
Not a bad working base. My next stop would be what any idiot would do: go to the movie’s official website.
Digging Through The Last Airbender Official Website
I friggin’ hate overdone flash sites. Give me half flash, half html please. Anyway, once this snazzy stuff loads I’m immediately pleased with The Dark Knight composer James Newton Howard’s (remember that Hans Zimmer didn’t actually do the whole thing) score for this film, so it should have the quality epic feel as far as that goes.
Now it’s time to check out the film’s official synopsis, which reads:
Synopsis: “Air, Water, Earth Fire. Four nations tied by destiny when the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the others. A century has passed with no hope in sight to change the path of this destruction. Caught between combat and courage, Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he is the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang teams with Katara (Nicola Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to restore balance to their war-torn world.”
Okay, so the bald kid is Aang and he has some friends that “bend” other elements, but I thought Avatars were some other kind of representation of yourself in either another world or body. (I’m not dumb enough to think they’re all blue with pointy ears, okay.) Not sure how that concept fits into this at all and I can certainly understand why the word “Avatar” was removed from the title. As a result, I take a side trip to the most accurate background information site on the world wide web: Wikipedia.
Side Note: Avatar: The Last Airbender (The TV Series)
The Nickelodeon show ran for just three seasons (61 episodes and a finale TV movie, 2005 – 2008) so it must’ve developed a heck of a cult following to earn a motion picture. Created in the United States, it was an attempt to blend popular anime style animation and themes with Western styles popular with kids watching Nickelodeon (presumably). Using ancient Asian themes as in the focus on the elements as well as martial arts, of course.
The Wikipedia synopsis is actually pretty darn helpful. Turns out that Aang is an Avatar because he is actually the spirit of the planet embodied in human form. He can control all the elements, not just his native element, air. Only one Avatar can be alive at a time and when he/she dies, he/she is reincarnated as a member of another nation, which follows a seasonal order. The Avatar is preserved in this way to always preserve peace among the four nations throughout time.
The term Avatar comes from Hindu Sanskrit, which I did know, just not much beyond that. “Avatara” are divine spirits in flesh form, or those who have attained union with the Spirit and come back to Earth to assist humanity. Sounds like James Cameron was a bit off as far as traditional definition.
One interesting thing I read here as well was that the fighting styles of each nation are based on a different form of martial arts. It will be interesting to see if this holds true for the film, which I assume it would.
Exploring the Nations
So we get that fire people = bad and that air and water are good and presumably earth is too although no main characters appear to be Earthbenders. There aren’t any Airbenders left, basically, because those jerky fire guys launched a genocide campaign against them after calculating that the next Avatar (the only one who could really stop them from controlling everyone) would be born an Air Nomad (what they call air nation people). Good thing Aang was frozen in ice at the time of those attacks, at least that’s what happened in the TV show.
Anyway, the site allows us to explore every nation to get a better sense of them.
Water Nation: Waterbenders abilities are based on Tai Chi philosophy, with their mental state being critical to controlling their element. They possess healing power because, well, the body is 75 percent water. Their beliefs also come from the connection between the moon and the tides. Their power is strongest during the full moon. There are two main tribes: one at the South Pole and one at the north. Both are ice-covered lands, with the North a well-guarded fortress and the south ravaged by the Fire Nation.
Fire Nation: The fire nation is an industrial one that boasts a powerful navy. The iron-hulled ships are their pride and joy, built in such a way that element-bending prisoners cannot escape once held within. The ships can also barrel their way through the icy regions. Other military assets are the komodo rhinos used by the cavalry in large-scale attacks. Their element is so powerful because fire does damage long after a bender uses it thanks to that lovely thing called oxygen. Hate them already? Check out this short clip of Aang taking some down.
Air Nation: Air nomads are tattooed monks that meditate to be at harmony with nature. They are all born with bending capabilities, which are meant to be used purely for defensive purposes and to aid in travel. They learned their skills from flying bison that are an endangered species that used to be paired for life with monks.
Earth Nation: Screw the Earth Nation, apparently. Their section is under construction. Apparently, according to Shyamalan and Wikipedia, the Earth Benders don’t factor in until later in the saga, so you’ll have to bank on a sequel.
I took the “which element are you test” on the site and I’m an Air nomad, which makes me a bender and way more awesome than you, in 75 percent likelihood.
If you still want to explore the site there’s a pretty abundant game page. Just don’t play the Facebook game. It’s one where you just click on things to play, which of course is God awful and I don’t mean that in offense to the Asian religions the film is based on.
The Main Characters
Aang (Noah Ringer): The Last Airbender and an Avatar, meaning he can control all the elements and do things with air other Airbenders can’t such as flight and running up walls. As an Avatar, when he endures emotional stress, Aang’s tattoos glow and he enters the Avatar State, which connects him with the spirit world and makes him incredibly dangerous. Take a look at some newer footage in this TV spot, which shows off the hang glider thing and Momo the flying lemur. Noah Ringer receives his first film credit for this role.
Katara (Nicola Peltz): The female protagonist of the story who is a young Waterbender just developing her skill but known for her brains. She lives with her brother and grandmother because the Fire Nation killed her mother and her father’s off fighting them.
Sokka (Jackson Rathbone): Katara’s older brother who doesn’t bend water and as a result is cynical about it. He wields a boomerang and is a master strategist. Of course a Twilight actor makes his way into the cast of this movie.
Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel): The bright blue-eyed girl with white hair who is Water Nation royalty. Born with a sickness, the moon spirit helped save her life and as such she’s named after it. Gabriel appeared on the TV show Weeds last season very briefly as Adelita.
Prince Zuko (Dev Patel): Not related to Danny Zuko as far as I know. Anyway, here we have the Slumdog Millionaire kid! He plays the young antagonist who has been dishonored by his nation and looks to capture our young hero to reclaim his honor. He’s pretty skilled as you can see here in the clip where he fights Katara.
Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub): A retired Fire-bending master who was once army general and accompanies Zuko on his journey to offer words of advice and guide him on the right path to understanding honor.
Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi): The hot-tempered mad man in control of the Fire navy who desires to usurp Prince Zuko’s spot as second to Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), leader of the Fire Nation. Sounds like this guy’s a nuisance.
M. Night Shyamalan vs. Racism
There's been a bit in the news about people criticizing Shyamalan in his casting. The process for casting extras was apparently not a very pleasant affair. Cinematical has covered the whole to-do nicely with links to original articles. You can read about that here. As you can tell by the above pictures, most of the characters who are "good guys" are Caucasian, the Fire Nation (bad guys) are of Indian or Middle Eastern descent and Noah Ringer was born in Texas. Shyamalan explained his reasoning. Ringer was cast right away because he had a multi-ethnicity look to him. The rest of the Air nomads were cast as various ethnicities. Then Dev Patel was cast in the Fire Nation so they all had to be India/Persian/Mediterranean. The process continues from there and you can read by clicking on that link if controversy suits you.
If there’s still plenty you don’t get about this movie, that’s normal. I’m still not quite sure I learned a whole lot from writing it either. It makes sense thought; the trailers give nothing away about any of the plot points, just the general gist of the story. At least now you have an understanding of how The Last Airbender universe works, so maybe you found a compelling reason to go, or might be more inclined if your 13-year-old sibling or relative wants you to take him or her.
From the look of this film, I think I would want to see it in 3-D, which is big coming from me, a proponent of saving the extra bucks. Industrial Light & Magic did the effects and they look good like in the brief shot in the trailer of Aang battling Prince Zuko. I haven’t send anything 3-D since the other movie involving Avatars, so it might be time.
Look for my review of The Last Airbender tomorrow.