The Last Airbender – Review


Not the worst film ever … but kind of close

One of the amusing things to do is read negative reviews of a universally panned film. It’s as if critics are competing to see who can be the meanest or have the most flowery putdown. After a while it stops being about the film and starts being about ego; The Last Airbender has brought out the worst in film critics by not being good in any aspect. While it isn’t an affront to cinema aficionados, nor is it a hate crime against cinema, it does deserve ridicule for one reason: it is a god-awful film, easily an early contender for the worst film of 2010.

Adapted from the highly successful Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name, we’re dropped into the middle of a war between four countries. The Fire Kingdom, led by the Fire Lord (Cliff Curtis) has decided to try and conquer the remaining tribes (Water, Earth and Air) due to the absence of the Avatar (Noah Ringer). Trapped in a block of ice as he runs away from his duties, he’s freed by a pair of teenagers (Jackson Rathbone, Nicola Peltz) after nearly a century of confinement. Seeing the affects of his disappearance, Aang takes off in an attempt to save the day or something.

I say “or something” because the film is a massive jumble of plots, subplots and themes. One can sense why M. Night Shyamalan is trying to do in condensing a television show spanning 61 episodes into the first of what seems like a franchise of films. But what he’s done is start with what ought to be an epic battle film into a 90 minute summer blockbuster that takes any momentum the franchise could have and muddies the water early on. There’s so much going on that the film doesn’t let it organically develop; it crunches everything into a shortened plot and takes out any of the investment into the characters or the plot. We don’t get to understand the characters, or why they’re doing what they’re doing, on anything more than a superficial level.

This is a film with enough source material to justify a hefty running time as a standalone film. Shyamalan seems to be going into the film with the notion that the sequel is right around the corner and as such isn’t in the middle of a great film that demands more. This is being made as if it is the first chapter in many, ala The Golden Compass, and it never has any sort of completeness to it. It’s half-finished and rushed. Given the material and his direction there’s a larger film with complex motivations and themes at play, which comes out occasionally. Aang is a Christ-like figure finding a path to redemption but the film has a juvenile narrative developed in handling it.

And it’s a shame because Shyamalan, for all his faults as a director and story-teller, has always been masterful at being able to tell a powerful character study no matter what the situation. His bread and butter, from the superhero film (Unbreakable) to film noir (The Sixth Sense), has been his ability to find the emotional range to engage with his lead characters. It would be understandable if he was doing this as a director for hire but he also wrote the script and was a producer on the film; this is his baby and it has a diaper loaded with something that isn’t fresh in any aspect. It’s more disappointing than anything else because even with putrid acting, which The Last Airbender is filled with, usually Shyamalan is a good enough storyteller to be able to at least get something more out of his story than the unintentional comedy this becomes.

Shyamalan may have been disparaged by some for casting white actors in roles originally intended for Asians, but people ought to be mad at him for casting bad actors period. Dev Patel seems to be the only one trying not to be completely embarrassing in the film and provides the lone bright spot amongst the film’s cast. When even a veteran character actor like Cliff Curtis is so painful it’s offensive to all five senses then one knows they’re watching a miserable film.

It makes the film’s action sequences, including the film’s spectacular finale, into nothing more than a promotional tool for the power of CGI. We have absolutely no reason to care about anyone in the film, especially its heroes. It looks impressive but there’s nothing to it besides computer magic. If one wanted to see what a completely emotionless and meaningless epic battle sequence looks like then the final 20 minutes of The Last Airbender is it.

Once upon a time M. Night Shyamalan seemed like the next Steven Spielberg in crafting genre films that had something more to say than typical genre offerings. If The Last Airbender is any clue the more apt comparison would be to Uwe Boll, and that almost might be more of an insult to the German director of such classics as House of the Dead than it is to the man behind The Village.

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Notable Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Cliff Curtis
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan based off the cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

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