Plenty of movies come with a built-in fan base these days. This week, we are reminded of such things with the two major releases: Twilight: Eclipse and The Last Airbender. Both have a long line of fans who yearn to see their favorite books (or in this case animated series) given a proper Hollywood treatment. And for the most part, I don’t give the connected end of a rat’s tale about these people. I mean no offense, but my job isn’t to be an avenger of fandom. I’m here to talk about whether or not the movie is good, from the most objective place possible. But this time I can’t help it. It’s just too much to bear. To the fans of the original series: I am offended on your behalf.
As you might imagine, the offense was committed by the director, M. Night Shyamalan, but that’s not where it ends. On the whole, Paramount’s The Last Airbender is perhaps the most well-rounded failure of 2010. Whether it’s the wooden performances of its young cast, the action sequences, the community theater-level dialog, the story’s pace or even James Newton Howard’s score, nothing works. It’s as if Shyamalan of 10 years ago is playing a sick joke on fans, a joke with no punch-line and no room for laughs. For anyone wondering if, like The Happening, it’s so bad that it’s funny — it’s not.
The one thing that struck me, as someone who remains unfamiliar with the original toon, is that there’s plenty of story here. Only about one third of which has ended in the movie, and all of which feels rushed. It begins with rushed narration by Katara, played by Nicola Peltz. She tells of special people with the ability to “bend” or manipulate the world’s elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air, and the one special Avatar who is said to be able to bring peace to the world with a mastery of all four. That Avatar is constantly reborn so as to keep balance. The only problem is that he’s been missing for over a century. That is until Katara and her brother Sokka (Twilight dreamboat Jackson Rathbone) find him locked away underneath an icy glacier. His name is Aang, he’s played by Noah Ringer, and he is the timid, but agile young boy who will bring peace to the world — at some point.
I can tell you this: I’m certain that there’s a beautiful journey here somewhere, Shyamalan simply fails to capture it. Relationships are rushed, stripping away any weight from the film’s climactic emotional moments. Details are glossed over with painful amounts of exposition and narration. And everything in between the film’s few action sequences is simultaneously tedious and meandering.
Lets address the acting, the subject of some controversy for a while now. Yes, the Asian-influenced story was turned into something different when a predominantly Caucasian cast was chosen. None of that matters. What matters is that Shyamalan failed to choose actors who could bring the characters to life in an interesting way. That, or he has lost his touch in working with other humans. Not one single performance from any of the principle actors — even Dev Patel, who was wonderful in Slumdog Millionaire — can be described as anything but wooden or stale. It’s a boring, emotionless affair every time two characters meet for a conversation. Even worse — there are plenty of expositional conversations. It brings me to a point of looking at these actors with a sense of pity. Some of them might have a bit of talent, but they were given no opportunity to show it here.
It makes for a tortuous 103-minute run time, one that should be spelled periodically by action beats. Sadly, Shyamalan’s action beats are few and far between. And when they do hit, they are poorly choreographed and lack the “wow” factor that you’d expect from a big-budget summer tentpole. The computer generated “bending” effects get a few moments that impress, but on the whole the action falls flat. It’s one thing for a film to trade substance for spectacle, and another entirely for it to miss the mark on both.
Of course, there’s also the issue of the 3D conversion. Like Clash of the Titans before it, The Last Airbender was converted to 3D in post-production, leaving it a fuzzy, dark, eye-straining affair. Much of the film doesn’t even register in three dimensions, allowing the viewer to remove their glasses for much-needed breaks (you can also close your eyes and take a nap). And the moments that do register in 3D are a combination of blurred out scenery and muddled movement. The film moves to fast for 3D in some spots and runs away from it entirely in others. It’s wasteful, and the least of this film’s problems.
As you know, dear reader, I’m not a fan of the expectations game. I try to enter into every cinematic experience with a fresh palette. But in this case, I was excited. Every ounce of marketing fodder that Paramount released made The Last Airbender look like M. Night Shyamalan’s saving grace. Big action, sweeping landscapes and a tried and true story filled with wondrous and intriguing characters. As it turns out, the final result is shockingly bad. Not just because it doesn’t meet expectations, but because it wouldn’t meet even the lowest expectations. Nothing that was promised — whether it’s by the source material, the marketing or the pedigree of its director — is delivered in the final product. The end result is a movie that is wasteful and hurried at the same time, exceedingly listless, packed with disastrous dialog and performances, and full of unnecessary exposition — it’s a new low not only for Shyamalan, but for the craft of filmmaking in general.
The Upside: This is normally where I’d make a joke about it being in focus, but the 3D conversion has robbed me of my chance to be funny.
The Downside: The most well-rounded failure of the year, missing the mark on just about every level of craftsmanship.
On the Side: Yes, The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi is in this movie, and he’s one of the least out-of-place actors to boot.