The Last Airbender (2010) (part 4 of 10)
Elsewhere, Zuko is spotted by the Fire Nation’s General Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, from The Daily Show, definitely the weirdest casting choice in this whole thing), who decides to invite Zuko over for lunch. This quickly degenerates into Zhao mocking Zuko more and more openly, in a transparent attempt to get the beginning of his backstory into the movie. And all it cost the film was any sort of sensible characterization for Zhao.
In the show, Zhao is just as big of a jackass, but there’s more to the character than that. He’s a skilled firebender, and his hatred of Zuko comes from their rivalry in trying to capture the Avatar. But this scene shows us pretty much all Zhao will be in the movie: an insanely petty man who likes kicking Zuko while he’s down for no reason at all, and never shows any kind of military skill to back it up.
Eventually, Zhao’s speech degenerates into him saying he’s allowing Zuko to wear a Fire Nation uniform “like a child wearing a costume.” You know, I just came off recapping a movie that didn’t know when to stop letting us know who the bad guys were, and I am in no mood for more of the same.
Zuko marches out, and we cut to him briefly glancing at a picture of himself with his family, not that the newbies have any reason to know that’s who they are.
Suddenly, four guys just appear around him, and a fight breaks out. It’s really hard to tell what’s happening in this scene: Is this combat training, or are Zhao’s men genuinely attacking him? Its placement directly after that last scene suggests the latter, but we also see Eeroh watching the fight, seemingly without a care in the world. Context, please?
Meanwhile, our heroes arrive in the Earth Kingdom, where Katara brings up the whole Ah-vatar thing. But before this can go anywhere, a boy runs up to them, followed by a group of Fire Nation soldiers. They say the boy’s under arrest, because “He was bending tiny stones at us from behind a tree. It really hurt!” And that line is given exactly the whiny, childish delivery you’re imagining. Though I really can’t blame the actor too much; how the hell else are you supposed to deliver a line like that?
They argue a bit, until Katara makes with the waterbending… and only succeeds in freezing Soak-a. After all, what else can you expect from a girl? One class act, our Mr. Shyamalan.
Everyone is led into a prison camp (with Ong in handcuffs—told you they existed in this world!), and the earthbending boy hugs a man and calls him “Dad”. He then tells the others, “This is my father.” Uh, yeah, I think we got that much.
Dad explains that when the Fire Nation captured their village, all the earthbenders were imprisoned here. I think you see the problem here. In fact, odds are you already knew about the problem, because this scene quickly became one of the most derided scenes in the movie among fans and newbies alike.
You have all these people who can weaponize the very ground under their feet, and they’re put into a regular old prison camp. And I know what some of you are wondering, and yes, the show did handle this much better: in the episode this sequence was inspired by, the earthbenders were imprisoned far out at sea, in a building made entirely of metal, giving them nothing to work with, so that their spirits were completely broken by the time our heroes arrived.
So it’s hard to say who comes off worse here: the Fire Nation for not seeing the flaw in their plan, or the earthbenders for not taking advantage of that flaw. But whatever the case, this is definitely one of the movie’s most laughable scenes. Though you should hang on, because it’s about to get even worse.
Oh, and all the earthbenders are Asian. I guess that’s okay, because none of them have names and they all look like idiots.
Ong shouts to everyone that he’s the Ah-vatar, and points out that, you know, they’re surrounded by potential weapons as far as the eye can see. And this gets them all to start fighting, giving the distinct impression that all these Asians really needed was a white kid to come along and inspire them.
And even if you put aside the racism, this moment still continues the sexism, because Katara was the one who made the equivalent inspirational speech in the show. Okay, okay, enough stalling. Let’s get to the Great Internet Meme of 2010.
The battle starts with Katara pushing a soldier, and then just standing there doing nothing, a moment that got a bit of the meme treatment itself as the “Ka-tackle”.
But that’s just the warm-up, as we soon see what many of you have probably already heard spoken of as the “Pebble Dance”: Five earthbenders do a Macarena-esque dance routine in perfect unison, which does nothing but cause a football-sized rock to slowly float up in the air, so that another earthbender can toss it at the soldiers.
This is probably the best time to talk about the film’s bizarre use of the titular bending, which I hinted at during the opening sequence. In the show, each bending art was based on a real martial art, which made the elemental powers look like a natural extension of the bender’s body.
Here, bending consists of doing a bunch of completely random half-martial arts and half-krumping moves that don’t appear connected at all to what the element in question does afterwards. Shyamalan explained this by saying he viewed bending like pumping up an air cannon, where the bender builds up their chi before releasing it in one burst. I have no idea what gave him this idea, but it’s just one more piece of idiocy on top of everything else, especially when all that dancing around accomplishes as little as it does here.
And to any British people reading this, you’re welcome for the cheap laughs.
But you know what the worst part of all this is? In spite of the idiocy of this whole scene, it’s actually well-directed. The entire battle is done in a single take, with the camera swooping around the area, making sure we see everything important to the ebb and flow of the fight. It shows that Shyamalan really does understand the physical moviemaking process, and if he’d just become a hired hand director without being saddled with his own terrible scripts, he’d probably have a far better reputation.
Oh, and Ong also mysteriously loses his handcuffs when the fight starts. And when that’s the least objectionable part of a scene, you know you’re in trouble.
Once the soldiers are defeated, the locals show our heroes a shed, where everything related to bending was locked away. Katara finds an instructional scroll on waterbending, and props to the, er, props department, because it looks fantastic and deserves to be in a better movie.
And that’s it for any goodwill from me, because next they show Ong a statue of Avatar Kyoshi, who you’ll remember from my “Avatar Day” recap. Apropos of absolutely nothing at all, one of the locals tells Ong that she “loved games”. And that’s the sum total of what the newbies get to learn about her. And once again, I’m forced to conclude that Shyamalan has issues with women that would rival Neil LaBute’s.
Soak-a gets the idea that they should free more villages from the Fire Nation, but Ong says that he ran away before learning anything besides airbending. And the reason for that? He was told that he could never have a family of his own, which is a sacrifice every Ah-vatar has to make. And why was this so upsetting, given that he was raised by monks?
Plus, this is one of the weirder scenes, due to both pronunciations of “Avatar” being freely tossed around in the same conversation. How the hell did that even happen?