REVIEWED: THE LAST AIRBENDER

The Last Airbender

A good concept is entirely wasted here.

When M. Night Shyamalan shot onto the Hollywood scene a little over a decade ago with the hugely successful supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, few would have expected that such a prodigious and assured talent would nosedive quite so quickly. Aside from his solid Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan has since spewed out dud after dud, and now, with The Last Airbender, his no-hitter streak reaches number four (after The Village, The Lady in the Water and The Happening). Evidently on this basis, Shyamalan isn’t even trying, for The Last Airbender just might be the worst film of 2010 thus far. Yes, worse than Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.

In this film’s world, four key elements – earth, fire, air and water – can be manipulated by those with the spiritual capabilities to do so, thus each element has its own faction of “Benders”. Aang (Noah Ringer) is a 12-year-old boy and also the titular Airbender, but more importantly, he is the much sought after Avatar; a person capable of wielding all four elements, and whose responsibility it is to maintain balance between the four factions. However, when it appears that the Fire nation, led by the evil Commando Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), is looking to enslave and destroy the other groups, Aang must reluctantly step in, even if he’d rather be doing the things normal kids do. He must be particularly wary of Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a disgruntled, dishonoured Fire nation heir who must capture Aang in order to clear his own name.

Much like last year’s calamitous Dragonball Evolution, Airbender is a bungled effort to adapt a much-loved animated TV series, though by these shaky standards, Dragonball suddenly doesn’t seem quite so horrible. How a director of Shyamalan’s apparent calibre can so consistently and ineptly produce insipid shlock is one of our great mysteries, for he is capable of so much more than this lazy and amateur dreck. The concept itself is workable, and the source material frequently receives positive notices, yet under the weight of horrendous performances, awkward dialogue and Shyamalan’s most cack-handed direction to date, this is an aggressively, painfully bad film. Though often unintentionally funny, it would be deluded to suggest that irony can in any way excuse how literally, unforgivably poor a piece of filmmaking this thing is.

Rather than believe the uncomfortable truth that Shyamalan got lucky a few times and is now a certifiable hack, one would prefer to see The Last Airbender as some sort of postmodern deconstruction of mainstream cinema; a sly, subtle satire, perhaps, in the vein of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. From the poorly cast child actors, who mumble woodenly through their lines with all the verve of a high school play forced upon them by their teachers, to the dishearteningly matter-of-fact and charmless, self-serious screenplay – which has the stench of scripting-by-committee, yet is in fact Shyamalan’s work alone – it is as though everything is an inside joke on Shyamalan’s part because, simply, it is unfathomable that anyone with $150m at their disposal can accidentally make a film this fundamentally shoddy. In that regard, people might cite Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, yet they’d be wrong; at least Bay understands the basics of effects-driven action.

Short of being a sadistic exercise in scolding summer audiences, there is very little to recommend. The visual effects are solid yet sullied by murky 3D crassly frog-marched through post-production in order to bump up box office receipts (ala Clash of the Titans), while the few actors who dare show signs of life – namely Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel – can make nothing but scraps out of the excruciating script. Shyamalan, along with what is likely to be a boardroom full of producers and yes-men, has also forgotten to factor in localising the product for other English-speaking territories, for phrases such as “Get her! She’s a bender!” have a very different, far more humourous meaning in the UK, as disgruntled critics and giggling teens have already noted in very different ways.

Fans of the source cartoon and admirers of good films alike are liable to find The Last Airbender at best a dead-on-arrival adventure failure, and at worst, a far more sinister, cynical example of Hollywood’s unerring quest to sap our minds and drain our wallets. Fight back by walking past the marquee and sighing with relief that you didn’t waste two hours watching this one.


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