Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: "The Last Airbender"

It has become increasingly clear with each new film that M. Night Shyamalan needs to stop writing his own scripts. Watching his oeuvre from when he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense until now, it is readily apparent that Shyamalan is a man of big ideas and a keen visual sense, but is completely unable to write believable dialogue or depict natural character interactions.

Shyamalan is a man much more at home in the spiritual world than the human one, be it in the realm of the supernatural or religious mythology, his ideas are far grander than his ability to channel them into a coherent screenplay.

His latest film, The Last Airbender, is a bit of a departure from his usual supernatural thriller, moving him into an epic fantasy territory that is somewhat out of his element, despite some familiar themes. It's awash in Christian and especially Buddhist symbolism, putting the film squarely in the middle of Shyamalan's thematic comfort zone, if not necessarily in his stylistic frame of reference.

Based on an animated Nickelodeon television series called Avatar: The Last Airbender (the Avatar was stricken from the title to avoid confusion with James Cameron's film of the same name), The Last Airbender is the story of Aang (Noah Ringer), the last of a nation of air "benders" (or those who can magically manipulate their element) from a world divided between the four elements, Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Once united in peace by the Avatar, who could bend all four elements, the world has descended into chaos after the Avatar disappeared, leaving the corrupt Fire Nation to take over the world and suppress the other three elements.

That is, until Aang is discovered frozen under a sea of ice after hundreds of years by two young warriors of the Water Nation, Katara (Nicola Peltz), and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). Aang, it turns out, is the reincarnation of the Avatar, and is being hunted by agents of the Fire Nation, led by the evil Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who want to suppress him in order to maintain their grip on the other nations. But before he can lead the other nations in rebellion against the Fire Nation, Aang, the last Airbender, must first learn to bend the other three elements, and bring peace and harmony to the world once again.

There is a lot of exposition to get out of the way here, and even though it's clear that this is the first in a planned series of films, The Last Airbender is filled with endless set-up that doesn't really add up to much in the end. It doesn't help that Shyamalan's penchant for awkward expository dialogue is on full display here, cramming as much information in as stilted a fashion as possible, resulting in almost uniformly bland performances. The actors all seem trapped by Shyamalan's stiff screenplay, delivering wooden performances across the board. Shyamalan is either a very poor director of actors or his dialogue is just so atrocious that actors can't possibly make it sound good, but it is a strange phenomenon about his films that all the actors tend to sound like extremely concerned valley girls. It was at its most glaring in The Happening, but with such a young cast the performances seem especially shrill here.

Everything about the film just seems wrong. Some beautiful imagery and a gorgeous score by James Newton Howard can't make up for the sheer ineptitude of the direction. Shyamalan seems totally lost, crafting an aimless and convoluted narrative that doesn't work on any level. Perhaps if someone else had written the script, or if someone else had taken over completely, it would have been a much better film. But the epic fantasy coupled with tired messianic cliches is the wrong territory for someone more at home with supernatural thrillers, and who as of late isn't particularly good at that either. The Last Airbender is an endless parade of wrong choices and just flat out bad filmmaking, and a missed opportunity on a staggering scale.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE LAST AIRBENDER; Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; Stars Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Taub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis; Rated PG for fantasy action violence.

1 comment:

Kerwin said...

Excellent review.

Your fine prose dosn't make the disappointment hurt any less. If anything it's like salt in the wound. I really wish they would have given this movie to any one else. Sam Raimi would have been a much better choice. Honestly I'd gave been happier with Uwe Boll.