The Last Airbender
It goes without saying, directors, especially those that write as well as direct can be a contentious breed, attracting criticism from every corner. Many will recycle old ideas or concepts, with the worst case scenario being the consistent abasement of their own output with each new installment. M. Night Shyamalan in particular started off strongly with both “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, movies that were not necessarily universally liked but had a vision and execution few could criticize in their entirety yet since then, he has continually resorted to cliché, abandoning that which he had once made his name with in favour of nonsensical hodgepodge. The poster-child for the naive fallen director.
With his newest feature, the feature adaptation of the beloved Nicktoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” Shyamalan further digs the grave for his own relevance, reducing the adored source material into something altogether irrelevant and uninteresting.
Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last of the Air Nomads, slaughtered by the Fire Nation in order to break the cycle of the Avatar, a being so powerful he or she can control all four of the elements. Running from his newly anointed role as the Avatar, Aang is accidentally frozen in suspended animation for almost a century only to be freed by Katara (Nicola Peltz), a fledgling waterbender and her warrior brother Saaka (Jackson Rathbone).
On the run from the disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) who hopes to capture him in order to prove himself to his father Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), Aang realizes he must master the remaining three elements so that he may one day live in a peaceful world once again, a fact that threatens the very existence of the Southern Water Tribe.
The TV series has a rather complex mythology behind it and in attempting to simplify it, “Shamwow” has reduced it to points incongruent with the values it stood for. Yes it might take further explanation but if a 30 minute cartoon aimed at young children and pre-teens can do so with little trouble, how a major Hollywood director could miss out on every front is laughable. Key concepts such as the importance of the Avatar, his role and the scope of his abilities, the nature of bending in general and even the genocide of an entire society are left dangling for all to see. These are not merely to appear open-ended, free to interpret but glaring omissions never given a moments thought.
Dialogue is impotent and ineffectual, containing the sort of repetition you would find in a first year’s essay about what he did over the summer holidays. Key points are introduced so clumsily, it’s impossible not to recognize that within the next twenty minutes it will become of grave importance.
With the announcement of the cast a significant amount of negative attention was drawn to the whitewashing of the major cast, a fact supposedly addressed in the end product but only in how gratuitous it is; they have ethnic diversity, so long as you’re a villain or a non-speaking secondary character. Saaka and Katara for example come from an Inuit village yet are two of the whitest people you could find. Saaka’s later romance with the Water Tribe’s Princess also contains an age gap illegal in many parts of the world.
Their acting is no better, failing to validate their existence even slightly. Everyone speaks with a mixture of confusion and frantic energy, I fail to see where there was any direction given.
Attempting to immerse myself fully in the experience, I chose to see the 3D version which only hinders it further. Shot in conventional form, the conversion is only evident in the opening titles, at least from a positive point of view. One can see the lines surrounding scenery and characters, attempting to rip them away from the confines of the screen yet it has no impact, instead reducing any shot that contains it to something unnatural and wholly other. In the corners lie the hazy colours seen without the glasses with no effect other than to distort, the process introduced but not followed through.
Not even the action sequences littered throughout can save this film from its shortcomings, the 3D effect cheapening the special effect used to the point that one would question where the money was spent. Worse still, so little “bending” takes place, large portions could easily have been lifted from elsewhere. Choreography and shooting are rendered redundant as disciplines, cumbersome to the point that one can imagine where the wires were painted out of the shot.
So little is right here, there is no way to put a positive spin on it. In one fell swoop, Shyamalan has removed all chance of himself producing a sequel through sheer incompetence along with alienating previous fans. Inevitably it might make money but nothing can removing the stain and bad will he has created to turn this into a viable franchise.