MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Airbender


-- 1 STAR

What has happened to M. Night Shyamalan?  Has there ever been a writer/director with such a colossal amount of both success and failure in such a short period of time?  Is he an imaginative genius or the biggest tease of an entertainer there is?  Each of his movies generate buzz, open strong from the curiosity factor, yet fizzle so incredibly quickly from being terribly bad movies.  His entire filmography can be called into question, including his latest effort, the truly dismal The Last Airbender. 

With The Last Airbender, I thought M. Night was going to break his losing streak.  The previews looked promising and didn't emphasize his usual weirdness.  I thought by taking on and adapting a name-brand project from a place like Nickelodeon that he would shake off the rust.  I thought that doing essentially a kid's film he didn't obscurely write himself would ignore both his signature tendency to drop scary twists for the sake of twists and also the itch to create an R-rated picture like 2008's The Happening. 

Boy, was I wrong.  M. Night still writes the screenplay and it's a clunker combination of vague softly spoken speeches of odd metaphors and meanings and loud shouts of laughably bad meaninglessness.  It's a string of "I must...!" and "I have to...!" lines by characters with misplaced and under-explained destinies and goals.  While I'm not a watcher of the Avatar cartoon series it's based on, from what I'm told, he murdered its creativity and youthful wonder. 

The Last Airbender follows a mythical world of four nations, each representing dwarves, elves, men and halflings (oops, wrong fantasy) the vital elements of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth.  Special individuals in each of those nations, called Benders, can control and wield their respective element to either lead, protect, or defend their people.  The Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai (dependable character actor Cliff Curtis) and his rival Admiral Zhao (the improbably cast Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi), have massacred all of the known living Air Benders, the pseudo-monks of their world, except the most special of all, the hidden "Avatar," a 12 foot tall CGI blue person with a fiber-optic hair tail (oops, my bad) who has been missing for a century.

The Avatar is reincarnated every generation into a specially-chosen Air Bender and has the ability to learn to control of all four elements through video game combo moves of martial arts, making he or she the key to controlling the world and bringing balance to the Force (oops, wrong fantasy again).  The latest Avatar, the child Aang (first-time actor Noah Ringer), turns up, after a hundred years protected in ice, in the South Central Water Nation.  He is guided back to the world to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (dang, it keeps happening) with the help of a brother-sister team of Water Benders (another first-timer Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone of the Twilight series) to combat the Fire Nation's growing control in hopes of liberating the other nations.

The problem is, with his century-long absence, Aang has not learned to control the other elements outside of Air and needs those to be able to help.  At the same time, he is hotly pursued by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel fromSlumdog Millionaire, doing his best to yell his lines, but not yell "Latika!" instead), the disgraced son of Ozai who is hoping that capturing the Avatar will put him back in royalty picture. 

Does all that sound stupid and pointless?  Well, it is.   I already mentioned the writing, but the action scenes, even with the somewhat dazzling effects, are badly staged and feel like that they have no purpose.  The wannabe teenage romance subplot is downright dumb.  The flashback/meditation scenes all feel like the bad "All-Autobot-Primes-go-to-heaven" scene from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  You will be yawning, groaning, and rolling your eyes several times by the end of this.

The Last Airbender is the first film of an intended trilogy and it's not going to make it to the next two films without a lot of help.  Dumping the dull and moody Shyamalan is a start.  Go get a fantasy director like Mike Newell or Chris Columbus (both from the Harry Potter series) for better ways to stage fantasy and use child/teen actors.  It tries so hard to tell a grand, multi-chapter story like The Lord of the Rings trilogy but fails miserably.  It wants to be a ethereal and natural like The Chronicles of Narnia series and little spiritual like Star Wars, but doesn't have a chance to come close with its bad storytelling.

One thing the movie is missing is the gravitas acting, even despite the bad writing.  The Lord of the Rings sought out non-big name, but talented performers like Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortenson, and Sean Astin.  The Last Airbender can't pull that off with Dev Patel (who deserves better), untrained first-timers, and a Daily Show news correspondent trying to play your big bad guy.  It lacks the child-like wonder that makes Narnia so good because our Aang character is just so uninteresting as a solo act.  The idea of using the natural elements is "green" of Hollywood to try and making "fire/pollution" the bad guy might inspire Avatar comparisons, but even the final ten minute ending of elements in The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich is better than the entire 103 minutes of The Last Airbender. 

LESSON #1: WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY-- Oops, that's Spider-Man.  I guess there are no original ideas in Hollywood.

LESSON #2: PAPER BEATS ROCK, SCISSORS BEATS PAPER, AND ROCK BEATS SCISSORS--  Wait?  Those aren't the elements in The Last Airbender?  Are you sure?!

LESSON #3: ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES-- My bad, or at least "bending" air and water can.  There are no trees in this movie.

LESSON #4: THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME-- "Dorothy, my dear, you've always had the ability to go home.  Just close your eyes, click your heels, and say there's no place like home."  Well, you'll at least meditate in "Autobot Heaven" and meet a meaningless dragon that sleeps in a studio apartment of a cave and speaks without moving his mouth to give you none of the answers to the questions you ask it.