At The Picture Show
The scope of 'The Last Airbender' may be there, but there's nothing to support it
The Last Airbender
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan, based on the animated series created by Michael Dante
DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Seychelle
Gabriel, Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi
Rated PG / 1 hour, 43 minutes
(out of four)
Say what you will about the racially insensitive casting decisions in The Last Airbender, you've
gotta at least give the cast this much: They sure are terrible actors.
While most of the pre-release attention was focused on the presumed "whitewashing" of the
film's characters, what ultimately matters is not whether the actors are Asian, but whether they
can act. And, friends, they cannot. They are curiously bad for an M. Night Shyamalan-directed
film. He's had success with actors in the past, but his Airbender leads are more in the spirit of
Mark Wahlberg's unfortunate performance in The Happening. You know the kind - endearingly
earnest, but lacking in any nuance whatsoever, expressing "surprise" or "anger" or "confusion"
as if they're laymen taking the first acting class of their lives. To call it Amateur Hour would be
In a way, I don't know what to make of this fact. I don't know
what to make of a movie this bad, and performances this bad, coming from a filmmaker of such
talent. I know, I know, it's easy to dismiss Shyamalan now because he's become such a
punchline - but even watching the unsuccessful Lady in the Water, his creativity and command
of visual language are striking.
Oddly, it's in those two areas that The Last Airbender seems most lacking. What I see on screen
is an utter absence of energy. Where is the imagination, where are the beautiful visual strokes,
that made even a failure like Lady in the Water so promising? Where is the sense of character
that elevated his masterful Unbreakable? This film requires that Shyamalan, and instead it gets
a version that seems, sadly, uninvested. I cannot doubt his apparent enthusiasm for any of his
projects, even this one. But I have to wonder why this one feels so banal. It's not just that it's a
bad movie, it's that it's relentlessly uninteresting.
Even when he made his worst film, the indefensibly misguided The Village, we felt a conviction
for the material, even if the end result was monotonous and, ultimately, cheap. Lady in the
Water may have been similarly misguided (if, in my mind, fascinating), but we certainly felt a
filmmaker's presence. Perhaps the real cracks came with The Happening. I wrote then that
Shyamalan seemed to be hedging his bets by trying to force his somber, apocalyptic mood and
his attempts at campy, B-grade horror to co-exist. But moving from that movie to this one -
where he doesn't really seem to be trying anything of note - I'd much rather have the former. I
don't know if I can come up with a single scene in Airbender that piqued my interest.
I've heard very good things about the animated series upon
which this film is based, and I look forward to eventually sitting down and plowing through it
all. (Certainly the best way to watch a series, no?) But then again, I can't imagine a worse
advertisement for the show than this movie. Like Prince of Persia earlier this year, this is a film
that wants its audience to be dumb, or young, or both. This is not an insult to young moviegoers,
who aren't given nearly enough credit (which is why it's so frustrating when films are
unnecessarily dumbed down), but an indictment on the filmmakers' respect for those
moviegoers, or lack thereof.
Consider: Early in the film, a huge iceberg emerges from underneath the icy terrain. From the
iceberg, an almost blinding light shoots deep into the sky. Moments later, one of the two
characters who witnessed this event asks the other, "Did you see that light shoot into the sky?"
Or how about a character declaring, "There's something out there!" - when it's painfully clear to
everyone, character and audience member alike, that there is, in fact, something out there. It's
the kind of thing you'd expect from a filmmaker who doesn't have confidence in his material, or
in his ability to communicate visually. Before this movie, I never would have used either
description on Shyamalan.
I don't mean to pick on the man, because people have done
enough of that already the last couple years. Too much, really. Just look at this review, for
instance. Hundreds of words, and I haven't even told you that the movie's about a war being
waged by the Fire Nation against the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, and the messiah - or
"Avatar" - who is meant to end the war and save the world. Like the Dalai Lama, Aang (Noah
Ringer) was identified as the Avatar as a boy. With the rest of his people having been wiped out,
Aang is now the world's last airbender. He can bend air, you see. The abilities of the Fire, Water
and Earth tribes should be self-explanatory. With their powers combined, they can summon
Captain Planet. . . .
No wait, I'm getting things confused.
Anyway, with the help of his allies, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), an
initially reluctant Aang tries to master his unique gifts while eluding capture from the Fire
Nation's exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and the calculating Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi). And
it all boils down to . . . well, nothing, really. This has been clearly planned as a trilogy, so there
is no real conclusion to The Last Airbender. Which is fine. Except Shyamalan has managed to
make the first leg of the series so lifeless and ham-fisted, there's really no reason to worry about
what happens next.
Read more by Chris Bellamy