Does anyone remember when the name M. Night Shyamalan generated interest for a movie rather than ridicule? It seems so long ago now, when the writer/director was being heralded as “The Next Spielberg” due to his successes with “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs”. However, after those three initial films Shyamalan apparently misplaced his talent for writing and directing, or allowed his rise to fame to get in the way of his creativity and talent. Whatever the case may be, this once acclaimed director has been on a downward spiral career-wise for several years now, and his latest film is easily his worst yet.
“The Last Airbender” chronicles the discovery and rise to power of a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) who is destined to become the Avatar that will save his world in its darkest hour. However, accepting his destiny will place himself and those he loves in grave danger as two opposing forces within the dreaded Fire Nation, the despotic Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and the outcast Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), seek to eliminate this prophesied threat to their power. With time running out and the Fire Nation closing in, Aang and his fellow allies in the Water Nation must stand united or all hope will be lost.
Before I go any further, please let me take a moment to say “Thank You” to M. Night Shyamalan for allowing myself, and everyone else unfortunate enough to have watched this dismal wannabe blockbuster, a front row seat at his career hitting rock bottom. It is an honor, after all so many of us were there when you rose to success with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, and now just a mere eleven years later, we’re front-and-center for what could be your final bow.
I must say that it has been a journey Mr. Shyamalan, and one that I wish I had abandoned years ago after the crap-tacular “Lady in the Water”. I’m not sure what that says about me, other than I’m an apparent glutton for B-movie punishment, but I digress.
So, how did this movie go wrong for not only the unlucky moviegoers (or renters as the case may be), but M. Night Shyamalan and company as well? For starters, the story is nothing more than a series of bullet points gleamed from the show’s first season. I understand that when a television series is being adapted into a feature film that some distillation must occur, but come on, M. Night, show some restraint in the process.
Every scene in this movie feels like someone is just marking them off a list of events from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” season one. Resulting in nary a shred of true character development, other than Aang’s increasing control of his abilities. Relationships between characters are introduced and handled as if they were merely afterthoughts, rather than being central to the story. Then there are the various character motivations, which are sketchy at best. Nothing within the movie is allowed time to breathe or develop naturally, and the film suffers miserably for it.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the plot holes and contradictions scattered throughout the entire duration of the film via editing mishaps. Numerous times characters would refer to situations, character details, or events that either had not occurred in the film yet or the person had not learned. This was typically followed shortly thereafter by the event or knowledge being presented to the person that had just been speaking of it moments before. Which prompted me to wonder, did anyone watch this film to make sure it made sense before releasing it to the general public? I’m guessing the answer would be a “no”.
Regarding the overall failure of the story, a majority of these issues could have been avoided if M. Night had been more judicious in his pacing, editing, and plotting. Attempting to adapt an entire season of a television show into one single two hour movie, and do so without oversimplifying the story, is an impossible task.
So, why is it that M. Night didn’t try to break some of the events apart to make for a series of movies comprising the story of the first season? Who knows? If he had done so, then there would have been time for plot, character, and relationship developing. I’m not saying those developments would have happened, but there would have been time and perhaps a better movie as an outcome.
Now, anyone that has ever seen the show “Avatar: The Last Airbender” knows that to adapt such a show requires an abundance of visual effects work. This shouldn’t have been a problem with today’s technology, along with the film’s sizable budget; however, something went horribly wrong along the way and the visual effects were yet another casualty of this ill-conceived, lackluster production.
The most glaring issue from the visual effects aspect of the film rests with the various displays of water-bending. Every time a water effect was being employed, the water always looked too gel-like and fake. This was even more obvious if real water was shown alongside the CGI-created water, because the consistency and color between the two would be completely different. This should be Special Effects Work 101, if you are mixing a real element with a CGI one then there should not be an easily discernible difference between the two. This is simply shoddy effects work and nothing more.
As a side note to how horrible the water-based effects work truly was, CG-animated water has been employed since James Cameron’s “Abyss” in 1989. How is it that 21 years later, M. Night managed to find a visual effects house incapable of mastering something that James Cameron’s crew had nearly mastered all those years ago? It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?
As for the other elemental powers on display, they were a mixed bag between ho-hum and decent. The fire powers looked alright, although M. Night never really let the members of the villainous Fire Nation really cut loose with them, so that was disappointing. The air powers used by Aang were standard fare, nothing groundbreaking. And the earth powers were fairly blah and typically felt overlooked in the proceedings.
After seeing the various visual effects on display in this movie, one has to wonder what was done with the 150 million dollar budget this movie was granted? Did M. Night pocket most of it? Because he sure didn’t use big name actors and his visuals didn’t seem to show that kind of financial backing?
If all of those complaints weren’t enough to illustrate the horrendous nature of this movie, we now come to the actors and actresses bringing these characters to life. In his first acting role Noah Ringer semi-resembles Aang and definitely fits the wide-eyed wonder of the character; however, that’s where any praise for the young man ends as his acting is often forced and amateurish. His line delivery was painful almost every single time out of the gate, and any conveying of emotions was even worse. I know this was his first acting gig, but come on, you’re starring in a big budget film, try to appear to know what you’re doing. Seriously, how did he make it through the casting process?
The supporting roles weren’t much better, despite the fact that most of them had had previous film or TV experience. Actor Dev Patel, fresh off the critically acclaimed “Slumdog Millionaire” should have taken a second look at the script before signing onto this epic misfire. Dev showed in his previous movie that he has definite acting chops, but his work here goes from being completely uninspired and flat to over-the-top and laughable at random. Dev made Prince Zuko seem bi-polar and at times childish, rather than a rightful heir to the throne of a nation, driven to prove himself worthy to a distant father.
Actor Aasif Mandvi (TV’s “Jericho”) is comical, although I’m not sure it was intentional, as the film’s primary villain Commander Zhao. I don’t know if M. Night instructed Aasif to overact in virtually every scene like some cheesy, scene chewing stereotypical villain or if that was just Aasif’s interpretation of the character? Whatever the case, the end result was more absurd than evil.
When all is said and done, there is not much of anything to be found worthy of praise in “The Last Airbender” other than the fact that the movie does end. That was probably my favorite part in this movie, as it has been in several other duds before it. No matter how bad a movie gets, I can always rely on the fact that the end will eventually arrive. Sadly, with this film, that moment didn’t arrive soon enough.
“The Last Airbender” is rated PG for violence.