When M. Night Shyamalan first broke through in 1999 with the ghostly thriller ‘The Sixth Sense’, his future could not have looked brighter. Here was a young writer and director who really knew how to tell an original story with a twist. Shyamalan gained a big following that stood by him with a sense of unrewarded optimism even as his output grew progressively worse. There was the good (‘Unbreakable’), the not bad (‘Signs’) and the downright terrible (‘The Happening.’) Certainly, the marketing people still believe that placing the director’s enigmatic name (the ‘Night’ is a mere invention) above the title will be enough to draw in those with a long memory and a forgiving nature.
‘The Last Airbender’ may see Shyamalan’s line of credit finally run out, especially as he is responsible for this botched fantasy’s fundamental weakness: the script. His new film is a would-be magical epic with kung-fu overtones, based on a generally lauded animated series produced by Nickelodeon. It is set in a mythical world divided up into four lands, each representing one of the elements. So, the planet’s occupants belong to either the Water Nation or the Earth Nation and so on. Some within each tribe possess the power to manipulate their own particular element. These people are known as ‘benders’ (yes, I know). Trouble is, the Fire Nation’, are a greedy bunch who want it all. They have already wiped out the Air Nation and now have their sights set on the frozen lands of the Water Nation.
Naturally, the place is in chaos but there is hope in the form of a legendary being called the ‘Avatar’ who has the ability to ‘bend’ all four elements and hence bring harmony to the world. Luckily enough, when two teenage members of the Water Nation (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) are out on a hunting trip they come across this missing Avatar, a Buddha like child, buried in the ice. Unfortunately, as avatars go, Aang (Noah Ringer) is a bit of a dead loss as he has forgotten how to use his special gifts. The trio set off on a quest to refresh Aang’s skills with the forces of the Fire Nation in (naturally) hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the naughty Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who has been exiled from the Fire Nation by his father, wants to capture the Avatar in order to get back into daddy’s good books.
The initial set up is simple enough but the problem is that as the story progresses so many new ideas are thrown into the melting pot that the film becomes confusing and, finally, exasperating. It seems that a new twist is added every five minutes, so watching the film becomes like playing a board game with an irritating child who changes the rules to suit his own ends. The script, instead of being used to develop character or impart emotion, is simply there to provide the latest update. The actors might as well be reading out a shopping list. Plus, there are lines such as, “ever since we first knew that you were a bender,” which are destined to produce politically incorrect guffaws from older members of the audience.
The acting is pretty poor overall, with the three leads behaving like all-American teenagers of the sort you find in sitcoms on the Disney Channel. Even the supposedly magical Avatar uses dialogue such as, “Hey guys, where are you?” Dev Patel, who was so good in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ has an interesting idea for portraying a bad guy which is to basically hold onto the same mean-looking facial expression for as long as possible. If you get bored during the film, then you could try timing just how long Patel can maintain his evil stare for.
Even in this farrago of a film there are some good points. The production designers have done a great job in creating ‘bender world’, with the oil tanker style battle ships of the Fire Nation being especially impressive. Also, you cannot help but like the Avatar’s fluffy companions, a flying buffalo and a bat-eared lemur. They just need to have a serious word with their agents.
A film such as ‘The Last Airbender’ demands great special effects but it does not really get them. Even the tsunami created during the climactic battle is more of a damp squib. Like nearly everything these days, the movie is in 3-D but this is a superfluous late addition. Whereas in ‘Avatar,’ James Cameron used the technology to add depth to even the quiet moments, in ‘The Last Airbender’ it is merely a gimmick used when the benders start throwing dirt or flames at their opponents. By far the most spectacular visuals are in the film’s closing credits but you may well have run for the exit long before then.
Ah yes, you might say, but this is a film aimed largely at children. True, there is a pre-briefed and eager young audience waiting to see this movie whose computer-trained minds will be able to process the information overload far better than that of a grumpy grown-up film critic. However, why should children be expected to watch inferior entertainment just because film studios think that they will put up with it? The brilliant ‘Toy Story 3’ proves that children’s films can be of a quality so exemplary that it can cross the age gap and delight young and old alike.
‘The Last Airbender’ is poor stuff but then I hear that there is much anticipation for Shyamalan’s next project which sees him return to the spookiness which first put him on the movie map. Alright then, perhaps we should give him just one more chance…
The Last Airbender is at Cinemas from 13 August