THE LAST AIRBENDER – James Newton Howard
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Last Airbender, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is a fantasy adventure film based on the extremely popular Nickelodeon animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ran from 2005 from 2008. The film is set in a world where civilization is divided into four nations based on the elements – water, earth, air and fire – and the concept that, within each nation, people called “benders” have the ability to manipulate their element by practicing different kinds of martial arts. In addition to elemental benders, there is also one person who can manipulate all four elements simultaneously – the mythical Avatar of the title – and his presence brings peace and stability to the world. In Shyamalan’s film, the current Avatar, an air nomad named Aang, has been missing for almost 100 years, and in the intervening period the ruthless Fire nation has begun to dominate the other three elemental kingdoms. After Aang is discovered frozen in ice by two young members of the Water Tribe, the three set off to stop the Fire nation and restore balance to the elements.
All of this sounds quite fascinating and potentially entertaining, but unfortunately Shyamalan’s film is awful on almost every level. The acting by the leading trio of children – Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone – is uniformly terrible, while Shyamalan’s screenplay contains dialogue so stilted and unnatural as to be almost laughable. The only on-screen talents to escape with their integrity intact are Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel and Shaun Toub as the film’s complex antagonists Prince Zuko and General Iroh, and although the film looks stunning, no amount of beautifully framed landscapes or wondrous architecture can counteract the shockingly realized story, logic or performances elsewhere in the movie.
In addition to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, the only other member of the filmmaking team who manages to escape from this debacle intact is composer James Newton Howard, working with Shyamalan for the seventh time, having previously collaborated with the director on such excellent works as The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water. The creative partnership between Howard and Shyamalan is one of the most fruitful in Hollywood today, but only in musical terms: whereas Shyamalan seems to inspire Howard to write some of the best music of his career, unfortunately the quality of those films seems to be decreasing exponentially with each new project. Case in point is The Last Airbender: it is the best Howard-Shyamalan score, but accompanies the worst Howard-Shyamalan film to date.
The score is an amalgam of several recurring thematic elements, each wrapped in a fine casing of huge orchestral forces, rich and interesting orchestations, and immense action sequences incorporating lavish percussion performances and eastern flavors. One of the clever ideas Howard works into his score is giving each element its own section of the orchestra as its dominant sound: woodwinds for air, strings for water, percussion for earth, and brass for fire. Not content with simply presenting themes and variations, Howard also imbues his score with a number of distinctly Oriental touches in the orchestration, from Tibetan glass bowls and sacred chimes and gongs to tinkling metallic percussion, tapping woodblocks, and enormous Taiko drums.
The score’s main theme is a simple ascending two-note motif which seeks to illustrate the heroic nature of the protagonists’ quest, and as such features prominently in many of the score’s main cues. It is an impressively malleable motif: at the beginning of “Earthbenders” it is played choppily by the brass section, in an almost militaristic fashion, and during these moments it is clearly intended to give the score a sense of decisive forward motion, resilience and purpose. Later, in cues such as “The Four Elements Test” and “Journey to the Northern Water Tribe”, it is performed on warmer, more sensitive strings, and has a nobler feel, almost like a musical invocation of destiny. It eventually grows into an enormous manifestation of the power of the Avatar in the stunning “Flow Like Water”, by far the best cue on the album, which shimmers with a sense of power, dignity, and a great deal of thematic beauty.
The second theme is for the Avatar himself, his fate, and the re-discovery of his powers, and is illustrated by a beautiful cascading string effect that starts in the cellos and gradually works its way around the section with effortless ease. The theme’s performance in “Hall of Avatars” makes that cue one of the score’s highlights, and its later reoccurrence in the aforementioned “Flow Like Water” allows that stunning cue to establish itself as a unifying force, playing off the primary theme excellent effect.
The Fire people get their own musical motif, a mix of low, penetrating brass and brutal percussion hits, which emerge into a staccato, almost comical martial march halfway through the amazing “Airbender Suite” (which opens the score, but is actually played over the film’s end credits), and appear later with interesting variations in “The Blue Spirit” and “We Could Be Friends”. The soaring, noble theme at the beginning of the “Airbender Suite” is also one of the score’s high points, but somewhat unusually this is the only place this theme appears: perhaps it is intended to be a foreshadowing of a theme which will appear in a fuller form in a possible Last Airbender sequel.
There has been quite a bit of criticism aimed at Lakeshore Records for apparently not licensing the full choral elements heard in the film for release on CD; having seen the film, I can honestly say that whatever choral elements exist in the film are not especially missed on the CD release, and the final cue – “Flow Like Water” – sounds exactly the same here as it does in the theater. Listeners who have problems with such things will undoubtedly complain loud and long about the “missing” music, but I can honestly say that if there are any choral elements missing from the CD mix, their absence didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the CD in any way.
For all its faults as a film, the score for The Last Airbender is a triumph in every way – easily one of the best of the year – and can probably be considered James Newton Howard’s most impressive score since Lady in the Water in 2006. It’s constantly pleasing harmonics, interesting orchestrations, and powerful and heroic themes are thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, making it one of the most satisfying musical experiences from 2010’s summer season. The only downfall is the fact that, due to the universal disdain poured on the film it accompanies, it is absolutely guaranteed to be entirely overlooked come Oscar time.
Buy the Last Airbender soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Airbender Suite (11:17)
- Earthbenders (5:54)
- The Avatar Has Returned (4:43)
- The Four Elements Test (5:31)
- Journey to the Northern Water Tribe (4:02)
- Hall of Avatars (3:40)
- Prologue (2:43)
- The Blue Spirit (7:17)
- The Spirit World (5:19)
- We Could Be Friends (4:09)
- We Are Now the Gods (5:47)
- Flow Like Water (6:33)
Running Time: 66 minutes 46 seconds
Lakeshore Records LKS34152 (2010)
Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Conrad Pope, Jon Kull, John Ashton Thomas, Marcus Trumpp, Jim Honeyman and Stuart Michael Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Wiedman. Album produced by James Newton Howard, Jim Wiedman and Stuart Michael Thomas.