The Last Airbender Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the animated series arrives in the UK. Can we bend it back again, please?

The Last Airbender is a textbook example of how not to make a big budget fantasy epic. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s first adapted work (based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender) is a staggering failure on almost every conceivable level. It is difficult to think of another recent film that is more leaden-footed, misconceived or eye-wateringly dull. Advance word from the States had been overwhelmingly negative, and to simply jump on the Shyamalan-bashing bandwagon would be far too easy. Yet there is no disguising the fact that The Last Airbender is a bad film, devoid of any excitement or emotion.

Things initially begin quite promisingly. After some fancy studio logos that reflect the four tribes of the Bending world (stay with me) – Air, Water, Earth and Fire – we are introduced to a young sister and brother, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), from the Water tribe of the south. Their hunting expedition is interrupted by the arrival of a large sphere of ice rising from the ocean, inside of which is a small boy, Aang (Noah Ringer). It quickly becomes apparent that he is an Airbender, despite the Air nomads having been wiped out 100 years earlier by the Fire nation when the then-Avatar – the Dalai Lama-esque reincarnated being who holds the four elements in balance – mysteriously disappeared (still with me?). The Fire nation has waged war on the other three kingdoms since the Avatar’s disappearance (not very well, apparently), and now various Fire parties are out to capture Aang. Has the Avatar indeed returned?

It is a lot of mythology to condense in to a 100 minute film, and Shyamalan is forced to rely on unwieldy amounts of exposition from the main characters to drive the story forward. Unfortunately, the director’s writing skills are simply not up to the challenge. Dialogue ranges from the tedious to the banal. If you thought the narrative leaps of Inception were tricky to follow, try keeping up with the stupefying exchanges on display here. Instead of challenging the viewer to use their brain though, Shymalan tries spoon-feeding his audience great lumps of story until they are about to choke.

It’s not that the source material is without potential. I’ve never seen the original animated series, yet the basics of the story seem to be intriguing enough: a manga-esque Buddhist epic blended with The Matrix. Given the episodic nature of the story, it was clearly suited to the weekly half-hour format. Rebuilding the same story so that it works in less than two hours on the big screen was never going to be easy. Something that works in one medium will not necessarily work in another, a truth born out here by a plot that feels overly repetitive even within its mercifully short running time. The presence of strange creatures that can miraculously fly also feels a little too cartoon-ish: elemental bending powers I can go with, but enormous flying rodents just look wrong in live-action.

One of Shyamalan’s usual directorial strengths is his confidence in longer takes, allowing scenes to breathe and an atmosphere to be established, as opposed to Michael Bay-style editing excess. It’s a strength that actually has the opposite effect here, a clear case of a director matched with the wrong material. His style serves to slow the pace of the action – fatal in a story based around kinetic energy like this. Action that should zoom off the screen instead struggles to come to life.

The young cast aren’t actually too bad, given that their characters are so two-dimensional and their dialogue so inane. Dev Patel’s Prince Zuko is perhaps the most intriguing as his character is the only one to have a real arc. The adult cast are generally stronger, in particular Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh, Zuko’s guardian and mentor, though their dialogue is no better than the younger characters. The technical production values are good on the whole, as you would expect from a major studio, though by no means are the special effects exceptional.

The 3D is especially disappointing. Only a handful of times did the film really make use of the technology, to the point that I took the glasses off a few times to check it wasn’t actually 2D (for the record, whole scenes went by without the need for glasses). It appears to have suffered the same mis-treatment as this year’s Clash of the Titans, as a few of the 3D elements appeared quite shoddy. If you really must see the film, and you can find a 2D presentation, you would be better off saving the extra couple of quid. Not only that, without the glasses on you might be able to see the darker parts of the story more clearly, so murky are they.

The one good thing going for The Last Airbender, besides its relative brevity, is James Newton Howard’s score, which evokes power and magic with far more success than the film itself. Shyamalan has been typically obdurate when asked about the critical reaction to his adaptation, insisting he has two further Airbender films in the works. It is almost inconceivable that, should a second film ever emerge, he will be its director.

Gavin Midgley

Updated: Aug 14, 2010

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