It’s difficult not to view a film without prejudging it at the best of times, and The Last Airbender is a more difficult movie to watch without prejudice than most. This is largely thanks to the unusually vocal critical derision Airbender was met with on its stateside release, not least by veteran film writer Roger Ebert, who uncharitably referred to director M. Night Shyamalan as “an idiot” on his Twitter feed.
And considering director M Night Shyamalan’s previous two movies, the tepid Lady In The Water and the downright risible The Happening, were similarly panned when they appeared, it’s hard not to sit in a screening of The Last Airbender without a faint sense of dread.
Even so, the quality of Shyamalan’s earlier work shouldn’t be forgotten. From his name-making The Sixth Sense, to the almost-as-good-but-not-quite follow-up, Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s initial movies showed genuine imagination. I even stuck with his next pictures, Signs and The Village, and found much to admire despite their blatant flaws.
So, while it’s difficult not to prejudge The Last Airbender, there’s at least the possibility that this once respected director could break his recent run of bad movies. Or so I thought.
Based on the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the movie is a fantasy set in an alternate world where certain people are blessed with the ability to manipulate fire, air, earth and water. Aang (played by the athletic young Noah Ringer) is the Airbender of the title, a young boy capable of whipping up tornadoes with his fleet-footed kung fu skills.
If this were Star Wars, the people of the fire element are the Empire, oppressing the rest of the planet and banning the practise of bending of any kind. It’s therefore up to Aang, along with companions Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to master the manipulation of the universe’s other elements and overthrow the fire people.
Airbender‘s script has a distractingly strange, disjointed atmosphere to it, as though it’s been translated from another language using Babel Fish, with characters providing listless, strange chunks of exposition. The line “I always knew you were a bender” provoked a ripple of guilty, puerile titters at the screening I attended.
Matters aren’t helped by the film’s equally lethargic cast, which must rank among the most charisma-free collections of actors I’ve seen in many, many years. Shyamalan has, for some reason, cast a group of doll-like child actors in lead roles, none of whom have the ability to blink. The director also has a curious penchant for filming star Noah Ringer with the camera positioned millimetres from his nose, his staring eyes filling the frame for uncomfortably long stretches.
Then there are the villains, who include Slumdog Millionaire‘s excellent Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi. Of these, only Dev Patel acquits himself with any kind of dignity, and is inarguably the best actor in the film by a considerable margin.
Ringer, meanwhile, makes for a blandly ineffective lead in his spoken scenes, but his fighting skills are almost beyond reproach. Fluid, expressive and fast, his style and movement recalls a younger, thinner Sammo Hung.
Unfortunately, his considerable prowess is undercut by Shyamalan’s directing, which lacks the energy required to bring the movie’s incessant combat scenes to life. In fact, the larger in scale the fights become, the worse they get, and the mixture of live-action footage and CGI doesn’t always come off. Characters fling fireballs and spouts of water at one another, but the net results are muted and fail to convince. In Airbender‘s universe, fireballs seldom set things on fire.
In fact, there’s evidence everywhere of a troubled production. The film feels as though it’s been edited down considerably, with oddly disjointed moments followed by distracting voice-overs explaining gaps in the plot. Then there are the inconsistent character motivations and abilities, where its players seem all-powerful one minute and helpless the next.
Shaun Toub’s character, the enigmatic Uncle Iroh, spends much of the film doing nothing. In the final act, he’s revealed to have the unique ability to generate fire out of nowhere, and then proceeds to do nothing of use with it again thereafter.
Then we come to the film’s 3D, which is a mess. Added late in production, the process has muddied the film’s colours while adding little depth of note in the process. In many scenes, the 3D is scarcely distinguishable at all, and only a late moment, where a Fire kingdom ship thunders out of the screen, creates any notable impact.
The Last Airbender is the kind of film with enough PG-rated violence and fireworks to keep very young audience members happy, and its surprising box office numbers in the US suggests this is indeed the case, but for everyone else, it’s a tiresome misfire of a film, and the fact that the most dramatic, engaging moment of the film comes when an antagonist stabs a fish is surely a bad sign.
After the disastrous Lady In The Water and The Happening, Shyamalan’s latest movie was surely intended as a studio-pleasing return to form. Instead, The Last Airbender is the third in a hat trick of awful films. It may not be the financial catastrophe that many were predicting, but Golden Raspberries undoubtedly beckon.