Title: The Last Airbender
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel
Everyone deserves a second chance and when you’re the guy responsible for films like Unbreakable, Signs and The Sixth Sense apparently you deserve a third. After M. Night Shyamalan clearly lost his touch in the supernatural, twist-packed department, why would someone think he’d miraculously redeem himself if given piles of money and an overdose of CGI? Pairing Shyamalan with the film adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender is like asking my mother, a frozen food, microwave and take-out expert, to put a homemade meal on the table. It may be edible, but it tastes like garbage. (Sorry mom.)
The Last Airbender takes place in a world in which the people are divided into four categories, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the Air Nomads. Each section has some particularly talented individuals who are able to bend their elements. Basically, they do this interpretive dance that enables them to manipulate fire, earth, water or air. Actually, there are no more air benders left because the oppressive fire nation wiped them out.
You see, there’s this thing called the Avatar, the sole person on the planet with the ability to control all four elements and the individual responsible for keeping the Four Nations at peace. It’s a guarantee that this Avatar is born into the Air Nomads so the evil leader of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Sozin (Cliff Curtis), decides it’d be best to just exterminate them all so he can control the world. His plan might have worked had the Avatar, a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), not fled his people before the genocide and got himself frozen in an iceberg. One hundred years later, Katara (Nicola Peltz), a water bender and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), come along, dethaw Aang and accompany him on his journey to master the four elements and thwart the Fire Nation’s quest for total domination.
Complicated enough for you? If not, don’t worry because The Last Airbender is packed with all of this nonsense about The Great Library, fish spirits and a talking dragon. The film actually starts off in a sensible manner introducing us to the very likable Katara and Sokku, but from the moment Aang and his flying beast thing, awfully reminiscent of The Never Ending Story’s Falkor, come out of the ice, the plot transforms into a desperate attempt to cram as much information as possible into a 103-minute film. The worst of it comes in the film’s final act, which is a combination of an epic battle sequence and mad dash to toss in whatever it takes to set up a potential sequel.
Had the erratic plot been the film’s only fault, The Last Airbender could have passed as a mere guilty pleasure in the action and adventure genre. But, considering the only memorably enjoyable moment in the movie is a 30-second action sequence, that’s clearly not the case.
Weak character development and dialogue ruins any chance the cast has at putting on a notable performance. Patel and Rathbone both have instances during which they can break through their one-dimensional roles and show a little heart, but for the most part, just about every performance is entirely inexpressive. This isn’t completely the cast members’ fault for Shyamalan’s ineptness when writing this screenplay destroyed any chance they have at making a connection with the audience. The only cast member that can be blamed for his poor performance is Aasif Mandvi. Mandvi is overacting to the max when portraying the man in charge of hunting down the Avatar, the Fire Nation’s Commander Zhao. It’s as though he learned the ABCs of fantasy villainy, took it a giant leap further and still genuinely believed he was acting evil.
As for the visuals they’re not all that bad. There are a large handful of distracting cuts, a bunch of awkwardly long shots and sloppy choreography, but there are also a few action-packed moments that distract you from the overall shoddiness. One in particular involves Aang engaging in a slo-mo/fast-mo battle scene that puts the kid’s physical abilities and the power of CGI to good use. If only more attention was paid to details as in this instance as opposed to the more grandiose moments. Rather than come across as mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, Aang’s flying thing, Appa, a shot of an army of Fire Nation ships and sweeping landscape shots are nothing spectacular and in turn become massive letdowns.
This one is on Shyamalan’s shoulders. He’s never worked with a story that wasn’t his own nor has he directed a fantasy epic and it shows. He took the beloved source material, stripped the characters of all emotion, threw in intrusive and insultingly simplistic narration, doused it in CGI and tried to pass it off as a viable effort. Sorry, M. Night, we can see right through it all. You’ve completely lost your touch.
By Perri Nemiroff