Review: The Last Airbender is a Bland, Over-Directed Mess
by Jeremy Kirk
July 2, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan has a lot to make up for. When it was announced he would be writing and directing an adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the popular animated series from Nickelodeon, it seemed like a reboot for the filmmaker. He has never directed a film whose story he did not conceive himself, and many were wondering if he could find his way back to the M. Night of old, the man who directed modern classics like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Put simply, he hasn't. The Last Airbender is not a train wreck on the level of The Happening, nor does its hokeyness fall to the depths of Lady in the Water. Nonetheless, the stale storytelling, the bland atmosphere, and the abysmal handling of the acting makes The Last Airbender one more notch in Shyamalan's belt of diminishing returns.
The movie is set in a world where certain people can move the elements. Known as benders, they are born into clans such as Fire, Water, Air and Earth, and they learn to hone these specific elements and utilize their powers. The Fire Nation is the controlling entity of the world, and their oppressive nature calls for a hero.
Cue the giant ball of ice that has held Aang, played by Noah Ringer, for over 100 years. He is an Avatar, a chosen being who has the capability of channeling all four elements. He is found and released from the ice by Katara and Sokka, played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone respectively. As members of the Water Tribe, they feel the harsh hand of the Fire Nation at work, and they help Aang learn his abilities that can and will bring a balance back to the world.
It's a very intriguing story, one that explains the immense popularity behind the cartoon series. Unfortunately, Shyamalan's first problem in dealing with a feature film is in cramming this story into less than two hours. Everything feels so rushed in the film to the point where it is difficult to tell what is really going on. Thank goodness we have exposition to take care of that nuisance. Shyamalan utilizes (some would say bends) exposition throughout The Last Airbender through the characters. If there is something he feels we don't know enough about or if there is something he simply cannot or chooses not to show us, he just has one of his handy characters tell us all about it. It gets tedious to the point of boredom before the end, and it makes one really wonder how much of the story we are actually shown. It becomes the cinematic equivalent of listening to an audio book. Unfortunately, Shyamalan, a man who once had a gift for telling his audience stories, now feels the need to have his characters do it for him.
It might not be such a bad thing or, more so, it might be more forgivable if the rest of the film is scattered with impressive action and adventure. It's not. He tries his best. He uses long shots during the action scenes, and he pulls back enough to show us the action. Unfortunately, he also uses slow motion and the zoom-in-zoom-back-out technique 300 made so popular. In essence, the action in The Last Airbender seems over-directed, and none of it feels organic. The lazy computer effects used to handle every aspect of the elemental bending has a lot to do with that. Once the final battle sequence begins, it all comes together in a mesh of styles and design. Throw in the fact that the good guys and the bad guys are all dressed exactly the same, and you've got a congruity nightmare.
The awful 3-D doesn't help, either. I know this is a critique on the film that won't matter to those who see it in 2-D, and it's not a critique that falls at the feet of Shyamalan, either. Like Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender was converted to 3-D after it was shot, and it is a technique that needs to cease to exist right now. Between the lack of useful 3-D (the opening Paramount logo is the only time I thought to myself, "That's kind of cool.") and the color that is sapped from the picture by the RealD glasses (scenes at night are absolutely incoherent), the notion of seeing the film as such should be tossed aside, especially if you want an accurate glimpse at how the movie truly looks.
The acting is middling to poor, as well, with Dev Patel offering up the only, genuine presence in the film as the son of the leader of the Fire Nation who has been banished and feels finding and capturing the Avatar will bring his honor back. He pulls as much sympathy as he does hatred from the audience, and, in comparison, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. This is particularly true with the kids. Child actors have always been a shaky element in films, but we know M. Night can handle their talents better than most. Unfortunately, no one in this cast is going to be viewed as the next Haley Joel Osment, and most of the line reading hits like a needle scratching a record.
Some are saying The Last Airbender is Shyamalan's worst film. Others are saying it is easily the worst film of the year. I'm not sure if I would go so far, but the film is certainly one more setback in the man's career. The CG is shoddy. The action is poorly directed. The acting is atrocious. The exposition tears through the audience like one of the small tornadoes the airbenders are able to produce. Nothing feels genuine, and, in the end, the only air The Last Airbender is able to achieve is hot, monotonous, and, unfortunately, such that it doesn't rise too quickly.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10