CD Review: The Last Airbender

The collaboration of James Newton Howard and director M. Night Shyamalan has often brought out the best in the composer, if not the director. And by all accounts, their latest, THE LAST AIRBENDER, based on the hit Nickelodeon animated series, is a particularly excruciating cinematic experience. Though I personally think Shyamalan is a one-hit wonder (with “wonder” being the key word), Howard’s score for his films have always risen above the self-indulgent material. So, even though I had no interest in the film, I was looking forward to Howard’s score.

Things start out promisingly enough with an extensive suite that covers most of the highlights of the score. The problem is that the rest of the soundtrack doesn’t match the level of excitement of those opening 11 minutes.

The main theme is a four-note motif that soars in the strings and forms the basis for a later staccato theme in the brass. The score could have benefited from further use of this sweeping theme.

The Asian elements are weaved well into the music and on full display in “The Four Elements Test” and in the extensive (and at times overbearing) use of drums. Howard provides some beautiful, soaring string lines in “Hall of Avatars,” and there are some interesting percussion licks and lovely string and choral harmonies in “Journey to the Northern Water Tribe”.

Journey to the Northern Water Tribe
Click Track: Journey to the Northern Water Tribe

But if epic Howard is what you’re looking for, then look no further than “The Blue Spirit”. Part of that epic feel comes from what seems to be multiple cues cobbled together with often sloppy editing (you’ll be able to hear the abrupt changes in style and recording levels in the track). The French horns toll a dramatic clarion call and the strings churn in fury before morphing into some rather pedestrian martial music and settling into some of the generic mysticism that plagues the score.

The Blue Spirit
Click Track: The Blue Spirit

The score worked so hard at trying to involve me that by the end I was exhausted. I’m sure it’s all very mystical, but it’s also not particularly interesting much of the time. My one goosebump moment occurs in the opening suite with a lovely string phrase (around 3:24) that only happens that one time. I would have preferred to hear it grow organically out of the score proper.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The ordering of the tracks on the album don’t make for a very cohesive listening experience. The choppy editing and presentation of the tracks (or maybe that’s just the score itself) lacks any musical flow in the music’s storytelling ability. And by putting the suite at the beginning, it ruins any natural development of the themes, blowing its wad immediately and leaving the album nowhere to go.

Overall, I found the score to be well-crafted (as to be expected from someone of Howard’s talents) but ultimately a big disappointment. Like the Earth, Fire, Water and Air of the story, all of the elements are there (albeit briefly in most cases) for a wonderful listening experience. But those disparate elements never work in harmony to provide a satisfying whole.

14 comments

  1. I agree with you, Jim. This is an extremely well written score but for me the lack of solid, fully developed themes is the scores undoing. Not every film score needs themes and motifs but if there was any score this year that was calling for some sort of over the top in your face memorable THEME it was this score. In past Howard has written some exceptional thematic material for action/adventure/fantasy films – Waterworld and Atlantis come to mind – so I’m curious as to why they are lacking in this score? Such a disappointment!

    -Erik-

    1. I agree, Erik, though I think we’re in the minority on this one. The whole experience left me cold. It took me weeks to get through the whole album and each subsequent listen felt like a waste of time. Disappointment indeed.

  2. What does help the listening experience A BIT is playing the “Prologue” first and leaving the “Suite” until the end. But that still does help the fact that this score is lacking in the theme department!

    -Erik-

  3. Wow, you may not know this, but i have really wanted to hear what you thought of this score for since it’s release LOL. You bring up some interesting points about the thematic material (or lack thereof); generally, that is very off putting for me, but it seems like what he went for on this film was orchestration as a sort of leitmotif in itself, as opposed to actual thematic pitches recalled throughout the film. As opposed to Twilight, where the music didn’t seem to serve the film well, but made for a better listening experience, the opposite is true of this score. James Newton Howard actually elevated the film (as always). The cue “Flow Like Water” gave me goosebumps in the theater, and as such, i love it more as a listening experience than i would have. And i completely agree with the terrible editing done on this album, as well as the brief passage that appears at 3:24 of the 1st track. I really wish he had developed that idea more. Great review Jim

    1. I’ve heard that the score helps the movie, which is great (though I have no intention of finding out). I was surprised at how detached I was from the music. I knew I was supposed to be awed and excited, the music practically screamed “epic”. But I didn’t feel a thing. The biggest problem for me was that I was bored; I couldn’t keep my mind on the music. That’s why it took me so long to write the review.

      As for TWILIGHT, I’m not sure what would serve those films properly. A lit match perhaps? ;)

  4. Two opinions diverged in the Click Track woods and I, I took the opinion less traveled by.

    You do make some valid points about a lack of thematic muscle and cohesion, but for me the strengths of this score far outweigh any weaknesses. Yes, I heard it first in the context of the (awful) film, and it did indeed elevate and transcend the movie. It intrigued me and whetted my appetite hearing it against the picture, and I was poised to listen with interest when I got home.

    I have barely stopped listening to it since. (Only Zimmer’s INCEPTION has given it competition for my ears.)

    I love the way the suite opens the album, taking us around the Airbending world in 11 minutes and preparing us for the rest of the score. I know it’s simple (and maybe even a little Zimmerish), but his cellular 8-note theme is so catchy and so versatile, that by the time he really soars to a climax with it in the last two tracks, I am as hooked as I’ve ever been on a JNH score. He is so incredibly skilled at taking short phrases (SIGNS, for example) and doing a million interesting dramatic things with them.

    I think Shyamalan has—in some Faustian bargain, perhaps—stimulated the absolute best work out of Howard, and this score only continues that trend in my opinion. It is, as you say, quite epic. But to me it is also lush, beautiful, emotional, and it takes me on an emotional journey during the course of its running time (all unlike the film itself).

    1. I get the muscle part. (How could you not?) Yes, some of it is lush and even beautiful. But I didn’t find one shred of emotion anywhere in the score. I found a lot of what I’ll call emotional “posing,” but nothing that smacked of genuine feeling. Perhaps that’s a failing on my part. I dunno. If I didn’t feel like I needed to review it for this site, I don’t think I would have made it through the soundtrack once, much less the numerous times I listened to it, vainly searching for something, anything to stimulate my senses.

      Finally we totally disagree on something. It had to happen sooner or later. :)

  5. There are some great standout moments in this score and the whole thing is technically very good, but it doesn’t seem to function very well as an album.

    Newton Howard is a highly skilled composer and knows exactly which buttons to push, but the music comes across as a little ‘clean and clinical’ with no real emotion.

  6. I absolutely love this score. JNH’s equal best with Lady in the Water in my opinion. I don’t think there is a single weak track on the album, I love the percussion, the strings, everything. Everyone has there own opinion though.

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for commenting…even though you don’t agree with me. :) Even though I’m not a fan of the score, I’m glad others are enjoying it. There’s nothing worse than film scores that nearly everybody dislikes. That’s a drag on the industry.

      1. Very true. Sorry if I sounded rude by completely disagreeing with your review, I just meant to give my opinion but after re-reading it I realised I came across like I was criticising your review. This just happens to be one of my new favourites so I thought I should voice that opinion.

        I can see where you are coming from, on my first listen I wasn’t entirely blown away because it didn’t have a strong thematic identity and also moments of really obvious beauty and emotion seemed few and far between. However even by only my second listen I came to appreciate the awesome and rarely interrupted harmony of the whole orchestra. Also, more impressive individual moments of brilliance became apparent as I continued listening, and the themes present throughout the score began to become more obvious and grew on me.

        It is also the first score that has totally blown me away by the use of percussion, I think it is magnificent in that regard.

        Well I still can’t say I agree with you on this one but if it makes you feel any better I agreed with your review of Inception :)

        1. Michael, it wasn’t rude at all. And even if it was, that’s okay, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I certainly don’t mind people disagreeing with me. You can even criticize the review itself or my writing in general. I may not agree with it but I’m always open to listen. :)

          In a perfect world, we’d all love every score. LOL But since that ain’t gonna happen, disagreements come with the territory. I’m glad others like you are enjoying the score. I don’t get it, but I’m happy nonetheless.

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