by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
by Brett Parker
The usual arc for most filmmakers shows that their films improve as their work increases. Unfortunately for M. Night Shyamalan, his quality of work seems to be digressing considerably. After the enourmous success of the horror hit The Sixth Sense, he unveiled Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village, three supernatural dramas I found to be powerhouse wonders. Shakiness began brewing for Shyamalan when he brought us Lady in the Water, a fairy tale of of creativity and ambition, yet one that crumbled under its own incoherency and absurdity. Shyamalan tried to return to form with The Happening, but it instead showcased Shyamalan losing his grip when it comes to acting and dialogue.
Now the Hollywood helmer is attempting to reclaim his glory in a genre he has never dealt with before: the fantasy epic. The Last Airbender is his adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series in which mythical people can control the four elements. From observing the cartoon's premise, we see how it can serve Shyamalan's themes of ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary and the acknowledgment of a spiritual universe and the forces it provides. What could have been a wonderful display of growth for Shyamalan has turned into something of a mess; an example of how he would probably be better off staying far, far, away from this genre for the rest of his career. It could've elevated his gift for fusing the emotional with the supernatural, but the acting, the dialogue, and the essential plot give us nothing to sink our hooks into.
The film takes place sometime in the future, where the modern world as we know it has crumbled and the Earth has been redivided among nations that represent the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. There are certain numbers of humans who have the special ability to manipulate these elements to their will; these people are called “benders” and hold the most power on the planet. It is said that a being known as the Avatar can bring ultimate harmony between the nations, for it is the only one who could master all of the elements at once. However, the Avatar has been missing for quite sometime and this has allowed the fearsome Fire Nation to rise up and try to conquer the world, Evil Empire style.
We meet two sibling waterbenders named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) who one day find a mysterious boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) unconscious below a layer of ice. It turns out that Aang is the last of the airbenders who has been mysteriously frozen in time while his own people vanished at the hands of the Fire Nation. It is believed that Aang was meant to be the Avatar before his emotions got the best of him and he ran away. Katara and Sokka make him realize that he must learn and obtain the powers of the Avatar of the world as they all know it shall be destroyed. As Aang and his new friends go off in search of his mythic destiny, a vengeful firebender named Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) furiously pursues him for his own selfish needs.
The Last Airbender shows traces of humanity but they seem impossible to engage mainly because the main child stars, our essential guides through this world, give really bad performances. I'm talking really bad! This has to be among the worst collective child star work I've ever seen in a Hollywood film. Part of the problem is that the dialogue is meant to be presented in an ancient world dialect yet the kids use their modern world voices, making every piece of dialogue sound like a train wreck. These kids show all the mastery of a sixth-grader in their very fist school play. Perhaps in a more contemporary, simplistic film, these kids could be engaging, but they come across as jaw-droppingly horrid here. Perhaps the fault for these performances could be placed on Shyamalan. Spike Lee once alluded that directors are directly responsible for any bad performances in their films. Shyamalan certainly doesn't provide any colorful dialogue or human dimensions for his characters. The most developed and most interesting performance comes from Patel as the sinister Fire Prince, but even he seems like too much of an everyman to master an operatic villian.
Shyamalan's greatest strength as a filmmaker has been to sneak supernatural elements into the everyday world of realistic characters. Here he tries to sneak realistic emotions into a supernatural environment and fails miserably. He usually presents things from a human standpoint, allowing the supernatural elements to absorb us as they would in reality. There isn't a trace of that skill here and the film suffers considerably. Shyamalan seems too caught up in this preposterous plot and its shallow genre elements to engage us with his trademark technical mastery. The alluring moods he is known for conveying feel curiously absent this time out and had they been present, we might actually care about this world. Traces of Shyamalan's earlier work can be sensed in the plot: an everyman's journey towards becoming a superman reminds us of Unbreakable while the characters unease and philosophizing about destiny and faith has the feeling of Signs. Yet those earlier films had an intimate attention to character detail and tension-building pacing that is completely non-existent here. Perhaps Shyamalan bit off more than he could chew when took on this commercial vehicle.
If there's one element of the film that does hold dazzling creative juice, it's the action scenes. As the benders shape their elements to attack their enemies in a mystical kung-fu style, the action scenes take on a kind of new-age-martial-arts-for-the-CGI-era that does, in fact, work on the big screen. Shyamalan films these elaborate effects sequences in wide-angle long-takes that allows us to actually take in the action instead of chopping it up into a frantic quick-cutting style. As these child warriors bounce around their enemies throwing glowing orbs of their forceful elements, we actually find some excitement within this fantasy muck. We realize that if Shyamalan held a more wicked sense of humor, then The Last Airbender could've been one hell of a cheesy B-Movie kung-fu flick. Kung-fu movies were founded on preposterous plotlines that served as an excuse to serve elaborate fight scenes shrouded in mythic energy. Perhaps if Shyamalan devoted more energy and screen time to the fight scenes instead of the ridiculous plotting, then we might have had some giddy popcorn fun!
Shyamalan is a director who can make the fantastical feel plausible and the ridiculous seem gripping, so it's somewhat surprising that he can't pull off that hat trick with The Last Airbender. I wouldn't so much call it his worst film yet as much as the one most devoid of his acquired cinematic gifts. I'm afraid only real young fans of the cartoon series will find any interest in the adaptation. It's almost like an M. Night Shyamalan movie for people who don't like M. Night Shyamalan movies at all. And even those people would still probably reject this movie.