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The Last Airbender

In no way do I consider myself a cynic or skeptic when I sit down in a theater to take in a film. I want the best experience possible. I want the movie to be good, maybe even surprise me and be better than good. That being said, it really saddens me on many levels to report that the worst movie of the year (so far) is here.

As if M. Night Shyamalan’s streak of recent flops and misfires weren’t enough, he had to go and make this mess. Now, I knew going in that Shyamalan had the odds stacked against him, which is a shame since I was among the few who still had an interest in his work. I hadn’t given up on this writer and director who had at least attempted in the past to deliver unique, interesting and thought-provoking films….until now.

Maybe he thought that putting off any original work and tackling a much beloved cult animated series would guarantee a sure thing. If that’s true, he’ll find out just how wrong that line of thinking is during opening weekend of this disaster. Brace yourself M. Night, this will be the worst weekend of your life.

If Shyamalan and the producers of this film had any respect for or inspiration from the source material, you just won’t find it in this big screen adaptation. The Nickelodeon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a colorful, charming and clever adventure series built like an ancient fable set in the future with an attractive fun and funny tone to it.

Absolutely none of that can be found here. Instead, they give us a boring and bland movie that is both visually and thematically dark. No amount of fancy special effects here can ensure the fun and thrills that should come with it. When the action sequences are not repetitive, then they’re indecipherable.

Most of that has to do with the annoying 3D that was slapped on this 2D film in post-production. That should sound familiar. Shyamalan and Paramount clearly wanted to ride the slap-on 3D wave that earned box-office success for Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans earlier this year.

Like many of you, I often wind up lifting up the 3D glasses while watching the film to see just how different the screen is without the third dimension.

Well, in this case what I saw on-screen was brighter and more clear than it was with the glasses on. In fact, the colorful and vivid TV spots you see actually look cool, nothing like the dark and unidentifiable 3D that brings this beloved series to a live action blur. They might as well hand out night vision goggles at the theater instead.

Describing the story might make it sound more interesting than what you’ll witness on-screen. Three nations representing natural elements, Air, Water, and Earth, are under attack by the evil Fire Nation after centuries without their Avatar, a being that would bring peace and hope to the land.

Two young siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) happen upon a young boy frozen in an iceberg. Katara frees him and they soon learn his name is Aang (Noah Ringer) and he is a monk. They befriend the bewildered boy and learn he has amazing “bending” abilities, the power to harness natural elements at will. All three discover he is the last Avatar that all have been waiting for, and as Aang practices these powers, he discovers his purpose is to unite the four forces to get ready for the Fire Nation.

The Fire Nation has its own problems, though, with all their bickering and shouting, the least of which is banal dialogue. Led by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and enforced by Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvii of The Daily Show), who leads an armada of enormous steel battleships that have an indistinguishable purpose.

It is unclear why Ozai’s perpetually angry son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire), is disgraced and feels that capturing Aang would restore his reputation. It’s also unclear what that reputation was to begin with. These three actors have proven themselves to be talented in previous work, but Shyalaman gives them one emotion to work with, anger, and provides them with a script with stiff exposition lines that no one can breathe live into.

Zuko would do well to listen to his patient and wise uncle, Iroh (Shaun Toub), who acts as a surrogate father. In the animated series, this character injects lively humor balanced with sage wisdom. Here, he comes across like a hybrid of Gandalf and Mr. Miyagi, helping out wherever he can. He’s yet another stock character in this film that feels like so many others we’ve seen before.

Usually an actor can rise above vapid material or can stand out as the best part of an awful film. There’s no one like that here as we see the entire ensemble cast caught up in Shyamalan’s net of incoherence. Amid the crude delivery of over-the-top intensity that steadily drag the film down are droning monologues and generic reactions that deliver dullness.

As the Avatar, Ringer has a believable physical presence yet his work put me to sleep and made me hope that the film’s title is true. Jake Lloyd’s work in The Phantom Menace is like Daniel Day-Lewis compared to this kid. Why am I so harsh on a child actor? Well, he is the title character and if the title character doesn’t absorb or interest an audience, then what hope does the movie have?

The Last Airbender is final proof that is Shyamalan is lost and creatively deflated. Up till now, viewers could pick up on the style of M. Night Shyamalan in his films. Here, the film centers so much on spastic acrobatics, rote dialogue and fuzzy visuals, that it really could’ve been directed by anyone. Shayamalan has jettisoned the appeal intact in the series, resulting in a boring waster of time. It’s such a let down since the series is so much fun.

Shyamalan isn’t the only one to blame for this cinematic travesty. Producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy should have known better. After all, they were involved in such classics as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as well as the Jason Bourne movies. Where were they in the making of this film? How could they even condone removing anything that is endearing and enjoyable in the series and give this lazy feature to fans? That’s insulting.

But Shayamalan will take the fall for this failure. Although he already has more films in the pipeline, I would be amazed if anyone showed even a slight interest in them.

It’s hard to believe that the title was changed to distance itself from James Cameron’s last film. As if it would make any difference whatsoever. Cameron’s achievement seems like the greatest film ever compared to this. The final scene, hinting at a sequel that would adapt more of the series, is the final insult.

Really, please….no more, just quit while you're behind.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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