By DAN VINTON
If there’s one thing The Last Airbender does well, it proves any mystique surrounding M. Night Shaymalan is gone. With this coffin-bound nail, all residual goodwill The Sixth Sense director retained from followup successes like Unbreakable, Signs and even the creepy but fatally flawed The Village has been throttled by his is own hands.
Shaymalan’s latest, (based on the 2005-2008 Nickelodeon cartoon series I’ve never seen), builds a likable, tactile, genuinely fascinating and lushly art-directed world of mishmashed fantasy/Asian mysticism where unique, element controlling tribes seek Aang, a lost kid who must find himself before he can bring them all together. Along the way, Aang is aided by a couple white kids and and an unexplained floating Wampa-thing that looks like Falcor‘s fat, lazy cousin– all while being pursued by angry members of the warmongering, machine-making Fire Clan.
The story follows a traditional theme undermined and sabotaged by offputtingly miscast high school amateur hour “actors” (including Twilight‘s awful Jackson Rathbone and Slumdog Millionaire’s still-wet-behind-the-ears Dev Patel) who force ear-punishing dialogue in cringe worthy combos in story progression unseen since Barney & Friends. And while a third act showdown between armies of fire and ice picks things up a bit and the action is kinetic and interesting enough to warrant some moderate thrills, the movie collapses against the traveshamockery of its mutton-fisted, amateur and ultimately uninvolving first 70 minutes.
That said, the failure of The Last Airbender isn’t any fault of its source material. Beneath all the missteps, The Last Airbender still hints at a larger narrative backdrop. There’s something genuinely thoughtful, new and thrilling in its mythology– almost enough to like– but a plodding screenplay continues an attempt to explain the story/backstory/future story up to the last frame, a kitchen sink approach that belabors the tedium when it lost virtually every adult in the theater from the first scene.
I don’t mean to turn this into a critique of M. Night Shyamalan, but as a director who showed so much restraint and skill in his previous works and as a guy who takes credit as Director, Writer and Producer, the failure falls on his shoulders. It’s a mess that also sets up a disconcerting revelation that maybe, all along, we were duped; that Shayamalan was able to conceal the flaws in his previous directorial work thanks to casts composed of skilled actors who could pick up nuances and create characters instead of talking dialogue at a camera. Without the trappings of a solid cast and a “twist” device, the once heralded “Next Spielberg” has recently shown– and here virtually seals the deal– he’s a once-proud Emporer now standing naked in the mirror. To put it mildly, comparing the skills shown in his first four films to the directorial failures on display in The Last Airbender is like comparing an ice cold glass of spring water to a warm bottle of piss.
Introduced as the setup to an obviously planned trilogy, The Last Airbender may force distributor Paramount Studios eat its lunch. It’s a 150 million dollar movie made for the very narrowcast segment of 6-10 year old kids. Viewing The Last Airbender with that in mind may help, but any other enthusiasm is all but guaranteed to be voltage free. Which is kind of heartbreaking– there’s some really interesting stuff trying to make a break for it.