M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
The Last Airbender (2010)
M. Night Shyamalan has been having quite a troubled career. He started off so well with the innovative and creepy "The Sixth Sense" and would go on to make a couple of decent films with "Signs" and "The Village," but took a sharp dive with his recent projects, "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening," both of which turned out to be disastrously bad. Sadly, we must now add his latest film, "The Last Airbender," to that list.
It is set in a world where there are four kingdoms (water, fire, earth, and air) that were previously coexisting peacefully thanks to a being known as "the avatar". The avatar was known for having a mastery of all of the elements, whereas some people living in these kingdoms are only able to control one of the elements. These people are known as "benders."
The story begins in the Water Kingdom where we meet Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). While on a hunt, they discover a young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), buried beneath the ice. After reviving him, they bring him back to their village, where he is almost immediately snatched up by the young prince, Zuko (Dev Patel), of the warlike Fire Kingdom. Zuko is trying to find the avatar in order to bring him to his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), so that he can regain his honor. A test is given to Aang that proves he is the avatar, but soon after, he escapes. Now, with the help of Katara and Sokka, he must try to bring peace to the four kingdoms once again.
Surprisingly, the first half of the film is not all-together terrible. It sets up what could have been a somewhat interesting plot, but therein lies the first big problem: It doesn't set up the plot all that well. We know that the Fire Kingdom is all evil and such, but the reason they want the avatar is left very obscure.
We get some half-baked exposition about how there is a spirit world coexisting with the regular world and that the spirits are the reason the Fire Kingdom is afraid of the avatar, because the avatar is able to change the hearts of men. Did that make the least bit of sense to you? Exactly. That's how obscure the reasoning is and that's how it remains throughout the rest of the film.
Another thing holding the film back is that the characters never get developed. We are told little-to-nothing about who they are, which is the main reason why it's impossible to connect to them or care about what happens to them. Couple this together with some terrible performances and you get cardboard characters.
It's hard to believe that the same Dev Patel from "Slumdog Millionaire" plays the Fire Prince. Like all of the other actors, he seems unsure of what to do with the character, so he decides to ham it up, especially in the first scene in which he appears. He has shown that he's talented, so it could simply be the complete lack of development that led to bad characterization. The other actors are pretty much unknown except for Jackson Rathbone, who has starred in all of the "Twilight" films, but the less said about that, the better.
The second half of the film is where things completely fall apart. Most of this half becomes one long battle sequence between the Water Kingdom and the invading Fire Kingdom. It is here where the people of the Water Kingdom somehow suddenly forget that they are benders when the Fire Kingdom approaches their land on the ocean. That's right, on the ocean, yet they do nothing about it. They allow them to invade their kingdom for a big final battle.
This is also where another unexplained piece of the plot is thrown in. One of the commanders of the Fire Kingdom enters a sacred place of the Water Kingdom and threatens to kill a fish that is apparently a moon spirit. The filmmakers proceed with this scene as though it actually makes the least bit of sense. Meanwhile, the audience stares at it, trying to figure out what this has to do with anything.
I've avoided all talk of the 3-D until now simply because I did not see it in that format. The film was apparently "upgraded" to 3-D after filming was complete, which is usually not a good thing, plus, other critics have been saying that the 3-D for this film is incredibly bland, making the movie even worse. I haven't exactly been a big advocate for 3-D, especially when it's completely unnecessary, so I had no problem with skipping it for this film.
This film makes me wonder if Shyamalan will ever make another great film, or even another decent one. With "The Last Airbender," he has tried his hand at action, and shown that he is not that good at it. He worked so much better with stories that are slower in development, where the atmosphere and tone drive the film, and where you're never quite sure what's going on (though not in the sense where you're completely confused, like this film). Airbender's ending sets it up for an obvious sequel, one which I doubt we'll ever see. That's a terrible shame. Maybe he could have had a hit with "The Last Airbender 2: I'm Gonna Get You, Sokka." 2/4 stars.
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