When I first heard that director M. Night Shyamalan was taking on the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender I was perplexed. I wasn’t so much surprised that The Last Airbender was being made into a major motion picture, after all everything is getting turned into movies these days but it was a licensed work and Shyamalan for good or ill (depending upon your perception of his films) created his own work. After I thought about it for a bit though the prospect of Shyamalan, a director I have been highly critical of in recent years, working on something that already had an established story might actually get him back to being the director I once thought he was capable of being.
The Last Airbender, which quickly shed the Avatar name due to the James Cameron juggernaut featuring the same title, is a story with epic design, a fantasy tale with a reluctant hero who must unite the world to fight against the dark evil threatening humanity. The world of Avatar is split into four nations which represent the elements of fire, earth, water and air and each nation has special individuals that can bend the element of their nation to their own will. Every generation one bender is born that can master all the elements and he/she is called the Avatar. As the title indicates, The Last Airbender is about the last of the air people.
A water bender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her fisherman brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) stumble upon a boy frozen in ice and Katara releases him from his icy prison. It turns out the boy in the ice is Aang (Noah Ringer), the last of the airbenders, and as luck may have it the Avatar. The seemingly evil fire nation wants him captured alive so they can go about their business of enslaving mankind.
For a film based on a cartoon aimed at kids there is a lot of political intrigue at play between the nations. There is also a lot of political strife at play amongst the fire kingdom itself with assassination attempts, backstabbing and all out treachery taking place on a head spinning basis. There is so much plot jammed into such a short span of time (the film runs 103 minutes) that I found it hard to follow along with the bevy of moves that each character made and I do not see how the target demographic for this film would understand the half of it. Maybe I am being to judgmental of seven year olds and condescending to fans of the series that are older than that, if I am I apologize but this film had my head spinning and not in a good way.
The idea behind The Last Airbender is one that has a lot of promise, sadly Shyamalan delivers a film that is an epic failure in terms of film making. The dialog is hands down the worst dialog I have heard in a film this year and the acting performances are borderline atrocious. Peltz and Ringer could probably have gotten a pass at their lack of chemistry mixed with their terrible deliveries and personifications of their characters if they were not the two main leads for the film. I was actually cringing at times with them on screen. But while the two of them are the biggest issue with the acting, everyone else in the film seemingly got a memo that the film was a joke and that they should overact to the point of ridiculousness. Not everything is awful though, if there is a saving grace in the film it is the set design and special effects both of which can be quite breathtaking and almost make the film tolerable to watch.
The Last Airbender is a tragic mess of a film. It is plagued with terrible dialog, atrocious acting performances and direction from a director that has lost his way and may never find it again. I am not going to lie, the hope I had for Shyamalan to re-track himself with this film was minuscule from the outset but I was pulling for it. I wanted to like it but instead Shyamalan delivered the worst piece of cinema I’ve seen in theaters this year, but then again I missed my chance to see Jonah Hex, so maybe it’s only second worst. Who knows?
1 out of 5.