The Last Airbender

Movie | Released: 2010 | Format: CD, Download

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# Track   Duration
1.Airbender Suite11:17
3.The Avatar Has Returned4:43
4.The Four Elements Test5:31
5.Journey to the Northern Water Tribe4:02
6.Hall of Avatars3:40
8.The Blue Spirit7:17
9.The Spirit World5:19
10.We Could Be Friends4:09
11.We Are Now the Gods5:47
12.Flow Like Water6:33
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The Last Airbender - 09/10 - Review of Edmund Meinerts, submitted at
Despite the fact that the names M. Night Shyamalan and Edward Wood Jr. are now often uttered in the same breath (replace Ed Wood with Uwe Boll, Michael Bay or whoever your least favorite director is), film music fans have come to anticipate each new film he brings to the big screen; or, more accurately, the accompanying James Newton Howard score. By all accounts, The Last Airbender is an awful film (Roger Ebert gave it half a star out of four and called it an 'agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented' - enough to convince me not to see it), but the worse the film, the better Howard's scores tend to get (from the functional-at-best score for the brilliant The Sixth Sense, to the wonderfully subtle music tied to the clunker that is Lady in the Water), so that should be good news for JNH fans, no?

If there's any one genre that Howard has proven himself a master of above all else, it's fantasy. From his breakthrough action score to Waterworld via his surprisingly large-scale Disney animated efforts to more recent stuff like The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Howard never fails to deliver in this area (with the possible exception of the underachieving Peter Pan). In scope, The Last Airbender eclipses all of those previous efforts, boasting the largest amount of those extended, flowingly harmonic moments of full-ensemble grandeur (a JNH specialty) ever to be collected in a single score. If you thought cues such as 'Tarawa' from Snow Falling on Cedars, 'The Crystal Chamber' from Atlantis: The Lost Empire or 'Beauty Killed the Beast V' from King Kong were the ultimate in choral and orchestral majesty, wait until you hear 'Flow Like Water' here...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The best of the JNH/M. Night collaboration is usually agreed to be Lady in the Water, which is a ten-out-of-ten score for me due to two things: its thematic clarity, and the way its album subtly holds back its large-scale material, allowing the score to murmur enticingly before suddenly exploding into its forceful choral and orchestral climax ('The Great Eatlon'). Sadly, The Last Airbender is inferior on both counts; its themes are less obviously attractive, and its album lacks narrative flow - only one of the reasons the album represents the score extremely poorly, but more on that later. For these reasons, The Last Airbender is not quite Lady in the Water's equal, though it remains a close second.

Two obvious themes occupy the ranks of this score, with several less clearly defined motifs buried in the underscore. The first, the 'main theme' (though it doesn't really appear often enough to be called that) consists of a series of rising two-note figures and serves as a 'hero's theme' (with rather standard JNH-esque harmonic progressions). The simplistic progressions allow this theme to be manipulated much in the way the main theme from Lady in the Water was, from staccato pounding during action sequences to softer underscore to those aforementioned flowing moments of majesty; however, this motif is neither as memorable nor as interesting as that from his 2006 career highlight.

The second theme is perhaps the most obviously engaging on album and leaves the greatest impression afterwards, despite only appearing in two almost identical presentations towards the end of 'Airbender Suite' and in the middle of 'The Blue Spirit' (as well as in a disguised form in 'We Are Now the Gods'). It's a big, bombastic march, full of portentious brass and ripping snare and so over-the-top in its scope as to seem almost pompous. In that respect it might come across to JNH collectors as a darker variant on the more brightly swashbuckling adventure themes from Waterworld, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and the like. In its two extended presentations it moves into a percussion-heavy interlude of rising chromatic notes, complete with choral chanting; truly apocalyptic stuff and tremendously enjoyable. It's a shame this theme's application is so sparse, really.

Other than that, there is a third motif that appears in the score's many grand harmonic moments as an underpinning ostinato: a flowing, descending series of string notes that seems to represent the element of water (curious that none of the other three elements receive thematic attention, though). This idea actually gets more album time than the other two; despite this, a fairly significant amount of The Last Airbender transpires without any theme being played. JNH's harmonic sense is fortunately keen enough to keep interest levels high despite this, but it does slow the album somewhat.

There are two highlight moments on the album that go into lengthy exploration of thematically unrelated, but nevertheless striking melodies - melodies that could, perhaps, be further developed in a potential sequel score (though critical reception has been so poor that that seems rather unlikely). Firstly, there are the first few minutes of 'Airbender Suite', which introduces a singular theme of (what else) grandeur that recalls David Arnold's Stargate. Then there's the last two minutes of 'We Are Now the Gods', which goes into a chord progression so simplistic, Hans Zimmer could have penned it - but JNH's gentle choral arrangement lifts it to something close to exquisite.

And then there's the final cue...oh, that final cue. I'll go ahead and say it now: 'Flow Like Water' is the best single piece of music James Newton Howard has ever written. Its buildup over waves and waves of the descending string lines is so patient, so flowingly beautiful that its massive payoff, finally reached at 3:45, ranks among the most ecstatic moments I've ever heard in a film score. It packs a powerful emotional punch along the lines of the finale from Danny Elfman's Edward Scissorhands - high praise indeed. And then there's the very forceful, pounding presentation of the main theme at the end, a nice rousing way to finish off the score.

All in all, The Last Airbender is among the best fantasy scores ever recorded, certainly one of the best of the year (though I'd probably choose John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon above this one in terms of pure entertainment value). It is badly harmed, however, by its poor album treatment. Despite being sufficiently lengthy and of resounding quality, there are three major quibbles I have with this CD. Firstly, its tracks seem to be incredibly out of order, with the 'Prologue' track appearing seventh - perhaps chronological order would have made this score as enticing as Lady in the Water (though 'Flow Like Water' should remain as the last cue). Secondly, the few cues are quite lengthy, and other than the consistently amazing 'Flow Like Water', all intersperse highlights with less interesting underscore or quieter material, a James Horner-like practice that could lead some to editing together their own cues or suites.

Thirdly, and most annoyingly, the choir on this album is badly undermixed. It's there, but it is strangely muffled and usually loses the sonic battle with the orchestra and prominent percussion section - especially irritating during the choral chanting towards the end of 'Airbender Suite'. It sounds like the singers are standing too far away from the microphone, to be frank. The reason for this seems to be that the re-use fees for the choir weren't or couldn't be paid; I'm not so sure about the particulars, but whatever happened, we are left with some sort of makeshift replacement choir, and it is extremely frustrating because of the 'imagine if...' factor it creates. Imagine how much better 'Flow Like Water' would sound if the choir wasn't buried, barely audible, beneath the orchestra...This same problem would go on to also plague JNH's next score, Salt. Let's hope he doesn't make this a trend, because one of JNH's greatest assets has always been the satisfying way he uses his choir. According to hearsay, the choir is more present in the film, but is that worth an agonizing experience in every category thinkable and a few unthinkable? That is up to you.

Despite all this, The Last Airbender stands as a highlight of the year, and of the composer's career, and shouldn't be missed by any collector. The 'Flow Like Water' cue is worth it alone - just lean back, turn up the volume and let its broad waves of massive harmony engulf you. This is what fantasy scores are all about.
The Last Airbender - 09/10 - Review of Anthony Aguilar, submitted at
The prospect of a new M. Night Shyamalan film does not carry with it the weight that it once did. Shyamalan’s best film was also his breakout film “The Sixth Sense”. While he has made at least one good film since (Signs), he has sadly progressed down a path of rising pretentiousness and decreasing film quality. His insertion of himself into brief moments of each of his films is laughable, for he has not produced anything near the talent and ingenuity of Alfred Hitchcock (who was famous for doing the same thing). While Shyamalan’s film quality seems to decline with each subsequent film, the quality of James Newton Howard’s musical scores seems to rise. I’ve not heard “The Sixth Sense” nor “Unbreakable” in full, but “Signs” was a pretty good suspense score with an incredibly memorable 3-note motif. His score to “The Village” was sublime and quite beautiful. “Lady in the Water” perhaps upped the ante even more, with an addicting, beautiful main theme and a killer finale. With his score to “The Last Airbender” Howard has, quite possibly, beaten himself yet again. This is a film score that has everything a fantasy score fan could hope for: action, adventure, and beautiful dramatic writing. Unlike Alexandre Desplat (who composed the score for “the Golden Compass”), Howard seems fully capable of conjuring an atmosphere of magical fantasy appropriate for the genre. This isn’t Harry Potter or Hook, though. This is mature fantasy music on an epic, grand scale.

The film is based on a popular anime that ran on Nickelodeon for 4 years and that I know little to nothing about. The world of this tale seems incredibly simple, with all men are separated into four nations (each representing one of the four elements: Earth, Air, Wind, Fire). Each nation also has “benders” which are people who can manipulate their nation’s element. In this world there is apparently only one person who can manipulate all four of the elements and it is said that this Avatar will bring peace to the war-torn land. The Avatar, though, has not been seen in a long time but suddenly returns to set things right. Again, There is still much that I do not know of the series and the movie, but that seems to sum up the basic premise.

Rather than go for outright memorability, Howard has chosen to go the more technical route with this score. Indeed, not many of the score’s themes there are a plethora of them) are likely to become classics in that regard. This is a score that is, literally, the sum of its parts. One cannot listen to just one track and get an adequate feel for the score. This is a score that demands to be taken in and appreciated as a whole. Howard’s themes are woven in and out like the threads in a busy yet beautiful tapestry. One could step in to get a closer look at a tapestry and appreciate the technical skill with which is has been woven. But it is only when one steps back and looks at the whole thing that one can fully appreciate what the artist was trying to accomplish. Such is the case with Howard’s score. You cannot listen to just one track (like, say, the “Airbender Suite”) and get an adequate feel for the score. You have to listen to and take in Howard’s entire effort in order to fully appreciate his accomplishment.

One of the reasons for this lies in Howard’s presentation of the themes. The 11-minute mammoth “Airbender Suite” starts the album in a suitably grandiose fashion and introduces us to a couple of recurring ideas that will present themselves at key moments throughout the score. Though curiously some of the most intriguing ideas towards the beginning of this cue are oddly orphaned from the rest of the album. There is a sort of militaristic action theme later in the track that pops up at different moments of action throughout the score. The next cue, “Earthbenders”, is simply fantastic. We are introduced here to what I will call the ‘Main Theme’ (the theme which begins the seventh track “Prologue”), or the Earthbenders’ Theme. It’s given a pastoral, string-led presentation before segueing into a brilliant, punchy action theme. There are many other themes and motifs which weave their way through this incredibly intricate score.

One element of the score that was perhaps inevitable is Howard’s use of heavy percussion. Its use throughout the score is thrilling and the players really produce a ruckus at times (in a very good way). He uses it to great effect in many tracks, including the thrilling “Journey to the Northern Water Tribe” and in brisk, thrilling, yet light fashion in “Earthbenders”.

The score ends with two great cues, the final one being a highlight of James Newton Howard’s career. “We Are Now the Gods” has a moment of beauty towards the end of the track that is not to be missed. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to learn about Howard (especially with his gem Lady in the Water), it’s that he excels at writing and orchestrating some of the most beautiful melodies. “Flow Like Water” is a spectacular winner in this regard. The melody Howard has crafted here builds and reaches spine-tingling proportions at 3:05 into the track. It is one of the most epic, beautiful cues that I have heard in a long time. If you only decide to get one track from the album, “Flow Like Water” is definitely the one to get. It’s Howard at his absolute best. In fact, this entire score is Howard at his best.

As you can probably imagine, I cannot recommend this score highly enough. I encourage any and all score fans to retrieve the album now via iTunes or purchase the CD. Some purists may bark about how the original Airbender theme is nowhere to be found in Howard’s score. Given the strength of this score, though, this should be an incredibly minor gripe. Shyamalan definitely gave Howard a more broad canvas than he has ever had to write on and Howard delivered big time. Go ahead and pick this score up, you will not regret it.
The music of this soundtrack was used in:

The Last Airbender (Trailer)


This soundtrack trailer contains music of:

The Last Airbender (2010) (Track 12. Flow Like Water) (Movie)

Soundtracks from the collection: M. Night Shyhamalan Movies

Village, The (2004)
Sixth Sense, The (1999)
Sixth Sense, The (2000)
Happening, The (2008)
Lady in the Water (2006)
Last Airbender, The (2010)
Unbreakable (2000)
Signs (2002)

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