The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan can count me as one of his supporters, and since he hit it big with THE SIXTH SENSE, he has had less and less people he can count as such. He shot the moon with that movie, and since then he has made movies whose twists or plot have sustained a lion’s share of scrutiny, especially his latest efforts LADY IN THE WATER and THE HAPPENING. Now he is focusing on the Nickelodeon series “Avatar” and thanks to James Cameron naming it THE LAST AIRBENDER, a fantasy epic concerning the mythology of people who can control (or bend) the four elements of earth, water, fire and air…apparently through interpretive dance. Having never watched the Nickelodeon series I was simply excited to see Shyamalan taking on the blockbuster summer genre, imagining that since he can do such great things with a simple village or with Mel Gibson on a farm, giving him buckets of cash to film a multi-picture epic would yield a great story, well acted, with grand themes that touch the viewers to an emotional degree. Sorry, Night, all we got was poorly delivered lines by child actors in over their heads and adults who seem lost in a muddled story that might do better in the future films, but the first one fails to deliver.
The story starts with a brief but effective description of the mythical aspects of the world we are about to watch, though we have to stomach more explanations delivered by actors or voice-overs that don’t deliver them well at all. An Avatar, who can control all elements and bring peace and balance to the world, has been missing for a hundred years. Cut to: a brother and sister from a small village find the Avatar in ice, and apparently finding someone in ice and saying two words to them means you’re responsible for them in this world. The villain in this world, the evil empire not unlike that of the STAR WARS universe, is the Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai (an underused good actor in Cliff Curtis) who want to be the strongest nation and prevent or imprison all who know how to bend the other elements, including killing all but one of the Airbenders…hence the title. The Airbender, Aang (Noah Ringer – who delivers no lines with any gravitas), has difficulty accepting his role as the one who must bring balance to the world, and the sacrifice that comes with that responsibility, and ran away all those years ago to get away from that responsibility…running away before learning how to master all the elements. As he trains to learn them, he starts a rebellion against the Fire Nation. The leader of the Fire Nation has banished his son, Prince Zuko (SLUMDOG’s Dev Patel), and the only way his son can get back into father’s good graces is to collect the Avatar, while other commanders (comedian Aasif Mandvi) throughout the Fire Nation also wish to capture Aang as a prize for the King. There are a few fight scenes, but even at fighting it is more like something from Michael Flatley rather than Yuen Wo Ping, too much dancing. Meanwhile, every occasional real fight, not using fire or water or air or earth, looks weak. There is a side plot about the spirit world, a character put into the mix and taken out in furtherance of this side plot, unnecessary as a balloonist on an aircraft carrier. This all culminates in a battle between an attacking Fire Nation armada and an army of Water benders teaching the Avatar in a fortified city in the Northern Water provinces.
The actors used are weak and deliver their lines poorly, which is the fault of the actors, but the lines they are given seem to force movement of the story with no motivation given behind them, which is the fault of the writer. The actor that does the best job is Dev Patel, but his character only seems to sometimes know what he’s doing. The brother and sister, Katara and Sokka, teeter between main characters and side characters, so we don’t know if we’re supposed to care about them or not. And though the Airbender is given flashbacks and side stories to describe his conflict at being the Avatar, when he speaks about it, he sounds like a child actor dumped into a big role by a stage mom, when he obviously wasn’t ready for it. This is a disappointing movie and not worthy of the Shyamalan cannon. But then, neither was THE HAPPENING. Advice…get back to working with Bruce Willis, Night. Get your groove back.