by Mel Valentin
M. Night Shyamalan ("The Happening," "Lady in the Water," "The Village," "Signs," "Unbreakable," "The Sixth Sense") continues his long, slow slide into abject incompetence with his latest film, "The Last Airbender," the adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (“Avatar” was dropped from the title to avoid confusion with James Cameron’s science fiction/eco-actioner). "The Last Airbender" is, sadly, maybe even pathetically, Shyamalan at his worst, Shyamalan channeling George “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones” Lucas. That Nickelodeon gave Shyamalan, a director with a spotty track record and zero experience with effects-heavy filmmaking, a $150 million budget has to be one of the most perplexing decisions made by a Hollywood studio in recent memory.Throwing away everything he once knew (or seemed to know) about storytelling, story structure, and character development, Shyamalan dumps exposition via a Star Wars-style opening scrawl to introduce The Last Airbender universe to moviegoers unfamiliar with the animated series. The Last Airbender occurs in a mystical realm influenced by Eastern culture and philosophy where element manipulation exists, but only for a select few. We then meet Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, Jasper Hale in The Twilight Saga), siblings and members of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara can bend water, but she needs training and experience to fully exploit her talent. On a hunting trip, Katara and Sokka discover a 12-year old boy frozen in a ball of ice. He’s Aang (Noah Ringer), the last Airbender of the title.
"M. Night Shyamalan continues his descent into ineptitutde."
As the last Airbender of the title, Aang can bend air and use it defend or attack his opponents. He’s also the Avatar, the one bender who, through training and discipline, can bend all four elements, air, water, earth, and fire. His training incomplete before he disappeared, he can only bend air. His one hundred year absence as Avatar, chief protector and bringer of balance to his world, has allowed the Fire Nation to become the most powerful kingdom. The Fire Nation’s current ruler, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), has banished his son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), for a long ago, barely explained insult. To return to the Fire Nation and his rightful place as Ozai’s heir, Prince Zuko has to find and bring back the Avatar to his father, a seemingly hopeless task.
While Iroh (Shaun Toub), Prince Zuko's benevolent uncle, acts as mentor and companion during the search for the Avatar, Commander Zhao (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi, implausible in a non-comedic role), Ozai’s second-in-command, jockeys for power and influence. As both men pursue the Avatar, Aang occasionally tries to tap into his mystically powered talents, often inconveniently, via meditation. Meditating allows Aang to access the mystical realm where he encounters a cave straight out of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back and a non-threatening dragon spirit. Following the first season’s story arc, Aang, Katara, and Sokka, head for the Arctic home of the Northern Air Tribe and the training Aang needs to master waterbending, the Fire Nation's armies always in pursuit.
The Last Airbender throws in a woefully, underdeveloped romantic subplot involving Sokka and a white-haired, Northern Air Tribe princess, Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), a convoluted, confusing subplot centered on Zhao’s plan to kill two bending-giving spirits, and the obligatory Hero’s Journey for Aang (someone owes Joseph Campbell's estate money). In case you weren't paying attention, Shyamalan uses the word “destiny” several times in reference to Aang. Although Shyamalan gives Aang a good reason for his intense dislike of the Fire Nation, the genocide of the airbending tribe, it’s impossible to care for the lost airbenders when Aang can barely muster a frown of indignation.
Aang's shallow, underwritten Hero's Journey isn't helped by Noah Ringer's painfully awkward performance. It's clear Shyamalan chose Ringer for his martial arts skills, not his acting ability Likewise with Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, and, surprisingly given his credible performance in Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel. Either Shyamalan chose badly or, tripped up by directing an effects- and CG-heavy film, directed their performances badly. It’s probably both. Shyamalan doesn’t help any of his young performers by giving them banal, faux-profound dialogue. And that’s not including the overabundant exposition delivered by The Last Airbender’s actors, young and otherwise, through dialogue or, in the case, of Katara, via exposition-heavy voiceover narration.
Hopes were high in some corners of the movie-related blogosphere that Shyamalan would break out of his self-imposed slump by adapting a work from another medium, rather that directing an original screenplay. Adapting someone else’s work hasn’t made him a better director. Early in his career as a filmmaker, Shyamalan seemed more suited to direct, rather than write and direct, but hubris, in part caused by the critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense eleven years ago, convinced Shyamalan that he could do both. He can’t. He shouldn’t. The weaknesses in his previous films were usually script-based, not direction-based. Adapting, compressing, and condensing a season-long story arc (the equivalent of eight hours of television) was, in hindsight, beyond Shyamalan’s screenwriting talent or skills."The Last Airbender" often looks impressive visually even if, as with too many Hollywood directors, Shyamalan overcompensates by cramming every frame with CG. Credit there, however, shouldn’t go to Shyamalan, but to the production designer, Philip Messina, the cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie ("I Am Legend," "King Kong," "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), and the innumerable visual effects technicians at ILM and other effects houses for creating the Airbender universe. Unfortunately, studio-imposed post-production conversion to 3D, which looks dim and grim, detracts and subtracts from any positives associated with the visual effects or production design. But even in 2D, the visuals can hide Shyamalan abysmal attempt at storytelling.
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originally posted: 07/01/10 04:52:21