The Last Airbender: Well-Deserved Razzie Winner

March 5, 2011

The Last Airbender may be Shyamalan's worst yet.I should start this off by confessing that M. Night Shyamalan fascinates me, and that I have seen every one of the features he’s directed from 1999’s The Sixth Sense on. It’s not that I think he’s a good director, it’s that he seems to almost intentionally be getting worse and worse as he goes along. Beginning with Unbreakable (2000), which asked us to believe that a man in his forties was just now discovering the fact that he is invincible, each film Shyamalan has directed has been, arguably, exponentially worse than the last. After the nearly unwatchable Lady in the Water (2006), I am amazed he’s been allowed to make another Hollywood film, let alone two, not to mention the fact that his latest, 2010’s The Last Airbender, was potentially a huge moneymaking franchise for Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Studios. So they hand it to the guy who just made The Happening (2008)?

Now, I will cheerfully admit that I have seen The Happening twice, and I thoroughly enjoy it, but that is only because it is unintentionally one of the funniest movies ever made. While The Last Airbender is not quite as excruciating as Lady in the Water, it also fails to reach the sublime levels of comedy seen in The Happening. Instead, it is flat, silly and, worst of all, just boring. Also, this may be a bit childish, but knowing British slang as I do (thanks to the brilliant original Office series), I couldn’t help but giggle a little every time one of the characters was reverently referred to as a “bender.” Allow me to explain, as best I can.

The story, which has some potential, involves a world divided into four kingdoms, represented by the four elements: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. The Fire people are basically evil – which is just racist, if you ask me (I kid, I kid) – and have effectively wiped out all the Air people in hopes of thwarting a prophecy in which a young “airbender” will come forward to stop the wicked world-domination plot of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Of course, they missed one, and of course he is none other than the last airbender of the prophecy, a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer, who is perhaps the worst child actor I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot). 

Helping Aang are Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, perhaps the second worst performance in a film chock-full of them), a couple of Water people who, predictably, are out to stop the Fire people and get their freedom back. Or something like that. What follows are a series of unbelievably dull and flat battle sequences, particularly the first confrontation between the Fire people and the beaten down earthbenders, who rise up by fighting fire with, um, dirt. Maybe this first battle is meant to be less than overwhelming, in order to build to a more exciting conclusion. If this is the case, though, it is just one of many places where Shyamalan and company fail miserably, as the final climactic battle has nothing epic about it other than its length.

If the fighting scenes are boring, you can only imagine how dull and clunky the dialogue scenes are. At one point, rather than settle for the merely lame and overdone device of cutting to a flashback in order to establish exposition, Shyamalan actually introduces a new character to tell the story of how Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) was burned by his father, Fire Lord Ozai; Zuko asks some kid to recount the tragic tale to his Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), despite the fact that they were both there when it happened, and then the film cuts to a flashback of the event anyway. It is difficult to explain in words how incredibly clunky this scene feels, but it is far from alone; in fact, a good eighty percent of the dialogue is completely expositional.

Without giving away the completely incomprehensible and inconsequential storyline, I will just say that the film ends with one of the most underwhelming hero shots in film history, as little Aang struggles to make a serious face and strikes a wobbly kung fu pose, followed by an even more underwhelming scene introducing a new character in the vain hope that there will be a sequel to this silly nonsense. This is the same technique employed at the end of the execrable Twilight (2008), which unfortunately has spawned a bunch of sequels I refuse to see, all of which also star the amazingly unmemorable Rathbone. I can’t wait to see what kind of steaming pile Shyamalan will direct next, but I feel fairly well assured it will not be another Airbender.

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