“The Last Airbender“, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan is tortuously lethargic, uninvited, abysmal, and uniformly atrocious (in every aspect). And that’s me being nice!
Based on Nickelodeon‘s beloved animated series (to which I am only vaguely familiar and thus can’t compare) is set i a world in which the population is divided amid the four elements (Earth, Wind, Water and Fire) and some skilled practitioners whom can “bend” these elements to their will. Since the elements are naturally at odds with each other, an overall controller is needed to maintain order among the kingdom. This role is played by the Avatar, who can manipulate all the elements and thus can keep balance and peace amongst the tribes. Only problem is this Avatar has gone missing for 100 hundred years.
“The Last Airbender” follows a brother and sister from the Water Tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), who discover a 12-year-old monk-child from the Air tribe frozen in a block of ice and his gigantic furry steed (that resembles the luck dragon in “The Never Ending Story“).His name is Aang (Noah Ringer), and he, of course is the missing Avatar. Now freed, he finds his home air tribe are all dead and the rest of the world in turmoil. All at the hands of the tyranny of the dreaded Fire Nation. Aang, who never wanted to be the Avatar in the first place (thus why he ran away) must step up, lead a resistance and bring peace back to the Kingdom. However, he must first learn how to control the elements other than air (was imprisoned by an ice storm before he could train). The Fire nation led by Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) wants none of this of course and seeks to capture and subdue Aang (they would just kill him but he’d just get reincarnated). Rounding out the plot is Ozai’s son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), living in exile with his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), who also wants to capture Aang and bring him back to his father to win his honor back.
Sound like a lot? It is, but surprisingly not as convoluted as it sounds. The scope of the plot, which attempts at mysticism, politics, religion and a whole obvious Jesus angle isn’t the problem. It’s how the story is told that makes it unbearable. It throws a lot at you with no effect. It fails definition and lacks resonance. Everything is rushed. Characters and story elements are given no development. Take the Fire Nation for example. We are told they are the scourge of the once unified kingdom but we arn’t shown this. They travel the globe in their ominous, menacing, iron ships and have a mightier than though attitude but all in all nothing that establishes their evil-ness; albeit a later incident with a glowing pond guppy. Because of this we have nothing at stake, no reason to root for the good guys to triumph. Another example would be a big part of Aang’s journey. Which involves him letting go of his anger towards the genocide of his people (a scene depicting said genocide would have helped sell the fire nation’s douchey-ness) but we never see him get angry enough to make “letting go” have meaning.
Void-ness of emotional moments are what really plague this film. I would blame this on the script but the performances are what make it not work. (Though, the script is certainly not with out its problems either. It’s an excersise in exposition) Every actor in this film (minus Shaun Toub) delivers dialogue as if they were reading it for the very first time. Not one thing anyone says carries any weight, none of it resonates emotionally. To say the actors suffer from wooden acting would be an insult to wood.
Shyamalan seemed much more interested in the visuals than the narrative (or the dialogue, which is shoddy at best). M. Night manages a few striking images, most of them involving otherworldly landscapes and ornate set design. There are strong special effects and action sequences which are fluid and vivid. Particularly with the fights involving element-manipulation. Winds gusts slamming people around like rag dolls, earth barricades, globs or walls of water and so on are eye popping. The effects are top notch. The hand-to-hand, Kung-Fu fight sequences are well choreographed as well, but a bit too extraneous. Should also mention that this movie is available in 3D and lets just say it’s a wasted element (pun intended), an unnecessary afterthought. It wrecks whatever visual grace that might have been (and will give you a massive headache).
Though, relatively successful in cinematic aspects Shyamalan, overall fails to capture the sense of adventure. There are a signs of a beautiful journey but it ultimately falls flat.
Underwhelming and joyless Avatar: The Last Airbender is sure the be the final nail in the coffin of M. Night Shymalans stunted career.
M. Night Shyamalan: Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me four times? “The Sixth Sense” was clearly a fluke.