There was a point in time when you mentioned the name M. Night Shyamalan and people would stand up and cheer. After writing and directing the terrific 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense and following it up with the solid Unbreakable, it seemed like the man could do no wrong. His guts to go where nobody else would and his intelligent twists promised great things to come. Unfortunately, he has been on a downward spiral ever since, attempting to recreate those successes and failing, sometimes catastrophically. Even after factoring in The Village, a travesty on any level, it seems like the once famed director has hit a new low with The Last Airbender, a movie that gets everything wrong.
The film is set in a fantasy world where certain people called “benders” can manipulate the four natural elements: fire, air, water and earth. Most live in tranquility, but one group from the fire nation wants to dominate them all. The only way to do this is to stop the last Airbender, a kid named Aang (Noah Ringer), who has been trapped in a block of ice for the last century. After being found by Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), he sets off to save the other nations, but to stop the fire manipulators, led by the shamed Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) hoping to get his honor back, he must first master the other elements.
Changing its name from its source material for obvious reasons, the film adaptation of the hit animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender is an embarrassing mess. It’s a movie that impresses in no area and, furthermore, sets itself up for a sequel, which, if there is indeed a higher presence watching down on us, will never come. To pinpoint exactly where The Last Airbender goes wrong would be like choosing the best spot to begin shoveling manure. Regardless of where you pick, you’re dealing with crap from start to finish.
This catastrophe's biggest problem is the writing. Shyamalan is one of the few, like Juno writer Diablo Cody, who struck gold in his first major cinematic endeavor only to fail to recapture that magic. The Sixth Sense had a great story that flowed well and ended with a shocker of a twist. Like a flailing fish on the ground searching around for water, The Last Airbender grasps for something to keep its story moving, but finds nothing within reach. The basic idea works—the characters go from Point A to Point B and fight the evil fire nation—but the excursions in between make for a jumbled experience. The characters jump from place to place, meet many different characters that have already escaped from my mind and Aang randomly enters a dreamlike state where he meets spirits that tell him what to do. This confusion is plainly evident from the fact that the dialogue consists of dumbed down exposition that explains what’s going on. The characters speak as if they themselves aren’t completely sure what they’re supposed to do next and are seeking explanation.
Because of this, I’m not really sure who to blame for the abysmal acting. Should I blame it on Shyamalan the writer for forcing his actors to say such dimwitted things? Should I blame Shyamalan the director for failing to properly manage them? It’s tough to say, but my guess is that this film’s awfulness was a collaborative effort. The young Noah Ringer, who plays the titular character, is one of the worst child actors I’ve seen in a long time. Not only can he not emote when necessary, he can’t even speak a line without it feeling like he was reading from a cue card.
Even Dev Patel, who was terrific in the 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, comes off as lazy. His botched make-up job, which is supposed to show how hardened he’s become from his past transgressions, only makes him look sleepy. With bags under his eyes and hair that sticks up more than Cameron Diaz’s in There’s Something About Mary, he looks like he crawled out of bed five minutes before arriving on set. His performance only solidifies that theory. He looked tired, ready to go home and get away from the inanity around him. I knew how he felt.
Suffice to say, the acting comes off as wooden. You could film a forest and you’d get the same effect. Even the action, the one thing in this movie that should be a genuine treat, is bland beyond belief. Sure, the actors are agile and the fights are well choreographed, but when you consider that the majority of the action utilizes element bending and consists of little more than special effects, you realize the lack of talent from everyone involved. There isn’t a single thing to recommend in The Last Airbender, an excruciating experience that is a contender for one of the worst of the year.
The Last Airbender receives 0.5/5