Summer Blockbuster Preview: The Last Airbender

Can M Night Shyamalan recapture his finest form? We take a look ahead to his upcoming summer blockbuster, The Last Airbender...

What Is It?

A live action adaptation of the US animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Avatar prefix was understandably dropped to avoid confusion with a certain mega-budget blockbuster directed by James Cameron. Influenced by Japanese anime and folklore, The Last Airbender is set in a fantasy universe governed by the mythical elements Fire, Air, and Water, and introduces central hero Aang, the titular Airbender who must use his elemental powers to save the planet from the dastardly Fire nation.

Part one of a planned trilogy, The Last Airbender is a big-budget (around $100 million, we’re told) family blockbuster, with its release date coinciding precisely with Disney’s similarly effects-laden fantasy The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s also, arguably, one of the toughest sells of the summer, lacking a major recognisable franchise or big star names to fire it out of the proverbial gate.

Who’s Behind It?

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Director M Night Shyamalan directs, and after a string of poorly received pictures, culminating in 2008’s hypnotically awful The Happening, he’s a Hollywood player in desperate need of a critical and financial hit. He’s also, as usual, penned the script for his film.

The Last Airbender follows an increasingly common trend in big budget movies, featuring a cast consisting largely of newcomers and hard-working character actors rather than relying on expensive, big name stars.

Karate champion Noah Ringer makes his screen debut in the lead role of Aang, supported by Jackson Rathbone, most famous for his role as Jasper in the Twilight movies. Dev Patel, who plays the fiery antagonist Prince Zuko, is arguably Airbender‘s biggest star, having played the lead role in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Why Should I Watch It?

Despite Shyamalan’s run of unfortunate movie choices (though some, including 2004’s The Village, aren’t necessarily as bad as many critics would have you believe), The Last Airbender could prove to be a pleasant summer surprise. It should at least excel in the visual department. It’s shot by seasoned cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose CV includes sumptuous-looking pictures such as King Kong and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

The three trailers released so far suggest a film awash with CG and fantastical combat, and what we’ve seen so far looks promising, more convincing, we’d argue, than The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which boasts a far bigger budget and a starry cast including Nic Cage and Monica Bellucci.

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Shyamalan has clearly made full use of Ringer’s martial arts skills, with the latest trailer displaying the kind of prowess with a staff that recalls Samo Hung’s legendary work in classics such as Close Encounters Of The Spooky Kind.

The current craze for all things three-dimensional, meanwhile, has seen The Last Airbender converted to 3D in post-production. Let’s just hope it’s a better transfer than the murky and largely extraneous conversion of Clash Of The Titans (we’re assured, somewhat inevitably, that it is).

Perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over The Last Airbender, though, is Shyamalan himself. While it appears that he’s remained faithful to the original animated series in terms of setting and plot, it remains to be seen whether the dialogue and pacing will be up to the quality of his early films, such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, or whether they’ll sink to the dire excesses of The Happening or Lady In The Water. This is the same writer who gave us such unforgettable pieces of dialogue as “We have to outrun the wind!” after all.

Given the director’s uneven track record, The Last Airbender could prove to be a spectacular return to form or yet another disastrous misfire,¬†and if it proves to be a misfire of The Happening‘s magnitude, Airbender could at least provide the greatest number of unintentional laughs of any movie this summer.

Right now, it’s hard to read the early signs, though. The Last Airbender is clearly a risky project, and one that could go either way. We’ll get an idea of how it’s fared in the next couple of weeks, as the first reviews begin to seep through…

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US release date: 2nd July 2010UK release date: 13th August 2010