A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2010



2010, PG, 103 mins.


Aang: Noah Ringer / Prince Zuko: Dev Patel / Katara: Nicola Peltz / Sokka: Jackson Rathbone / Uncle: Iroh Shaun Toub / Zhao: Aasif Mandvi / Fire: Lord Ozai C

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan


If Ed Wood Jr. were given nearly $300 million to make a fantasy then I am quite sure that THE LAST AIRBENDER would have been the end result.  This film is joyless, misshapen, confusing, dull, incomprehensible, and incompetent…a family/fantasy effort of mammoth awfulness.  It's based on a very popular and critically appreciated Nickelodeon anime series of the basic same name (prefaced by AVATAR, removed from the film version for obvious reasons) and one that I am largely unfamiliar with.  What I am familiar with is how punishingly crummy this adaptation was during it entire 100-plus minute running time.  This is the kind of festering disaster that begs the viewer to ask whether or not the person at the filmmaking helm had a pulse.  THE LAST AIRBENDER feels like an effort (a) made by a very, very incompetent director and/or (b) made by a director that was comatose throughout principle photography. 

The film was written and directed with a startling ineptitude by M. Night Shyamalan, almost as if he never wished to be hired for another project for the rest of his career afterwards.  Shyamalan was once a passionate and prominent filmmaking voice that I truly believed – incredibly in hindsight – would be the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg.  Combing equal parts Spielberg, Kubrick, and Hitchcock to effective levels, Shyamalan’s 1999 THE SIXTH SENSE was one of the most exemplary thrillers of its decade.  He followed that up with 2000’s UNBREAKABLE, perhaps one of the more intriguing super hero films I’ve seen.  After that he made the crowning achievement of his young career in 2002’s SIGNS.  After three solid efforts like that, things could not possibly go wrong for this guy…right? 

Then came 2004’s laughable and shamefully putrid THE VILLAGE, but I was willing to forgive Shyamalan for one directorial indiscretion.  Yet, what shocked me more was that he followed up that indiscretion with one right after the other: 2006’s THE LADY IN THE WATER – a “bedtime story” filled with a silly and convoluted plot involving narfs, scrunts, tartutics and…ah…skip it – was an embarrassment and potential career killer.  However, I still remained hopeful that he would rebound, but then came 2008’s THE HAPPENING, a preposterous and inanely amateurish parable about post-911 paranoia and how the earth's ecology wanted to seek...revenge against humanity (ooookkkaay).   At this point I was getting very worried.  How could one of the most inspiring and talented filmmakers to emerge in decades follow up three great films with three straight turkeys?  After THE LADY IN THE WATER I remember thinking that Shyamalan would have to come out swinging at the plate to save his career.  THE HAPPENING was a strike three pitch that he never even bothered to swing at. 

One would think at this point in his very checkered and tainted career that there must be a morsel of hope that he would not possibly sink to new levels of wretchedness.   Wrong.  I am not sure what is altogether more chilling about THE LAST AIRBENDER; that Shyamalan is still allowed – suspiciously unchecked by the studio – to direct his own scripts, especially since the stories for his last movies were horrendously dreadful or that studios still have enough confidence in his abilities to forked over more than a quarter of a billion dollars to back a film that is borderline unacceptable as a finished product.  Hollywood must have and endless supply of money to burn. 

The screenplay and overall story to THE LAST AIRBENDER is a total, uncultivated fiasco and an unfathomable mess.   It fails miserably at introducing us to a mythology and magical universe; there is rarely a point during the film where you have a clear delineation of what is actually happening and how all the characters relate to one another.  What’s perhaps ever more appalling is how Shyamalan makes one of the most unacceptable rookie errors as a screenwriter here.   Good films show you what it’s about, whereas bad ones just blandly tell viewers what’s transpiring.  THE LAST AIRBENDER adheres to the latter: it contains a never-ending onslaught of expository dialogue and voice over narration delivered with teeth-grating awkwardness by the actors.  The characters state things about the story and characters for no other reason other than to explain what the images can’t.  They explain and explain and explain with a tedious and somber enunciation.  This film is a cure for insomniacs. 

The film stars Noah Ringer as Aang, a rather young, reluctant, Dahlia Lama-looking, Christ-like messiah that lives in a mythical world of “benders’ – sorcerers that can manipulate the world's four elements (water, earth, fire, wind) by performing agonizingly long bouts of what appears to be Thai Che.  Somewhere in the world is an "Avatar"…not a Na’vi…that can control or bend all of them, which is cool because only the Fire Tribe can control fire and only the Earth Tribe can control earth, and so on.  Yet, the Avatar does exists, but he has been missing for 100 years.  Two Water tribers, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover the Avatar, which is Aang buried under ice, but they don’t know that he is the Avatar.  The boy knows he's the Avatar…but he can’t bend all of the elements, which makes him a very crappy Avatar.  He must be taken by his new friends to the North Pole where water bending masters live so that can become a true Avatar, that is being able to bend water alongside everything else.  He is the Avatar…but just kind of, sort of. He can enter the Avatar-dreamworld state of his subconscious for guidance from a dragon.  The dragon wisely tells Aang that he needs to use water to defeat the Fire Tribe.  Gee, thanks a pantload.

Still with me?  Good.  The evil Fire Tribe is led by the rebel Prince Zuko (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s Dev Patel, oh so wrongly cast here for oh so many reasons) whom learns of the Avatar’s existence and wants to capture him, without knowing that he is not really a perfect Avatar, just one that needs training in the North Pole so he can become the Avatar...even though he is the Avatar.  Zuko captures Aang, but since he’s the Avatar (kind of, sort of), he escapes and soon a Fire Commander named Zhao (THE DAILY SHOW’s…yes…THE DAILY SHOW’s Aasif Mandvi, horribly miscast as the heavy) wants to capture the Avatar for his dad, the leader of the Fire Lords (Cliff Curtis).  Meanwhile, Katara, Sokka, and Aang journey through the world and inevitably to the North Pole, so that Aang can become the true Avatar…even though he already is the Avatar…but just kind of, sort of.  The Avatar is good...and so are Katara and Sokka…and so is rest of the Water Tribe…and Air Tribe…and Earth Tribe…but the really bad ones are the Fire Tribe…because they want the Earth, Water, and Air Tribes vanquished.   Not to worry, because the dragon in Aang's Avatar dreamstate tells him to use water to save the world, but only when he is a true Avatar...not just kind of, sort of.

I stopped caring about understanding the plot within the first five minutes of THE LAST AIRBENDER.  If the aforesaid preponderance of stilted expositional dialogue were not horrendous enough, the actual dialogue exchanges between characters unleashed even more unintentional groans and eye rolls.  Everyone in this film (with the possible exception of Aasif Mandvi, who seems to understand that he’s in a bad film and hams it up) enunciates every line of pretentious and joyless dialogue with a soul crushing solemnity.  This has the calamitous effect of distancing us from buying into the characters: they all sound so serious – so very, very serious – that you never once develop a rooting interest in anyone here.  The way Shyamalan's writing and direction sucks the very life and personality out of all of his characters here is astounding: Even the young, pint-sized hero Aang is a protagonist of total emotional detachment.  There’s just no portal for us to invest and understand these people. 

The young actors don’t help either.  Considering the way that Shyamalan garnered terrific performances out of young actors in films like THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS, it’s mind-numbingly incredulous just how putrid the actors are here: they are bland, stiff, and generic cardboard cutouts, so bad that you are left wondering whether or not they are just the real actors' stand-ins.  Of course, this is not assisted by the film’s usage of the worst 3D this side of CLASH OF THE TITANS.  Shyamalan was apparently so impressed with the results of the hasty upconversions of TITANS and ALICE IN WONDERLAND that he was convinced that it was an artistic necessity for AIRBENDER.  Outside potential profits from back end box office receipts in his pocket (don’t get me started on the sham of the $3-4 surcharge for half-baked and not-ready-for-prime-time 3D fare) , Shyamalan’s insistence on using 3D is not the sound rationale of a filmmaker with all of his faculties in check…these are the thoughts of a filmmaker dangerously detached from reality and their own integrity.  The upconversion here – which essentially desaturates the image and distracts viewers from the visuals themselves – apparently cost $10 million.  Dear...Lord. 

There has been some controversy surrounding the film’s casting of the main heroes with Caucasian actors (the original anime series feature Asian influenced characters), which is founded to a degree…if not a bit odd seeing as Shyamalan is Indian.  That does not really taint THE LAST AIRBENDER in the slightest; it’s just a minor bit of trivia when compared to the overall artistic train wreck it is.  I just despised this movie.  I despised how drab, boring, convoluted, and lacking in magic it was; I despised how it dishonored the loyal legion of devotees to the source material; I despised that it was in 3D; I despised that I didn’t understand it fully; I despised that the studio thought there was a releasable product here worthy of a near $300 million budget; and I despised the way Shyamalan once again – four times in a row! – has completely eroded and wasted his once promising talents.  There is not one single instance during THE LAST AIRBENDER where his stylish and capable esoteric fingerprints can be found (that were there in spades in THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS) .  THE LAST AIRBENDER is simply a disastrous and depressing experience at the movies: disastrous for how unforgivably awful it is, but also depressing because I honestly don’t think its director knows just how far from grace he has fallen.  

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