M. Night Bottoms Out With 'Airbender'
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
The actual title of the incomprehensible, pretentious, dramatically inert new movie written, directed and produced by M. Night Shyamalan is "The Last Airbender," but I prefer to think of it as "The Last Chance." As in, his last chance to convince me he has any skills as a filmmaker.
It's the story of a little boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) who has been chosen, sort of like the Dalai Lama, to be the world's Avatar, the reincarnated being who creates order among the four peoples of a world we will not call Earth. Wherever it is, they've got their own global warming problem. The Fire people are world dominators. They've taken control of the Earth people (who use their chi and dance moves to throw clods of dirt, also known as bending) and the Water people (who do the same but with ice, waves and giant raindrops). Aang is the only Air person left, and he has the gift of swishing, blowing and, occasionally, functioning as a fog machine.
Aang never wanted to be the Chosen One, the rotten brat, so he sailed off on his giant furry cockroach -- the movie's coolest piece of CGI -- and hid himself in a ball of ice for a hundred years, until a pretty pair of teenaged siblings in furs, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, just as stilted and stiff as he is in the "Twilight" movies) found him. Only the Avatar can restore balance and put the brakes on the various nefarious plans of the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), his right-hand man Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, who has the distinction of being the worst actor among many candidates) and his son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who has been banished to sail the seas, with the warning that he's not to return home without the Avatar.
It was painful just to write that synopsis, because it meant I had to revisit my notes, which are mostly filled with locations. Shyamalan drags us to a head-spinning number of places, stopping briefly in, say, the Southern Earth Kingdom for a slow-motion fight, then tripping off to the home of the Northern Earth Kingdom for some Avatar meditation, or back to the Fire Kingdom for some hissing villainy. People catch the Avatar, let him go, then try to catch him again. All the while, Shyamalan creates an ever-growing sense of "Who cares where we are; when will this be over?"
I went into "The Last Airbender" as I have with Shyamalan for the last decade, hoping that the guy who made 1999's "The Sixth Sense" might finally deliver something equally as exciting and satisfying. It's been a hope against hope -- I praised "Signs" in print but knew as soon as I started to argue on its behalf with an outraged friend that I couldn't put my heart into it. "Aliens!" my angry friend said. "What hooey!" She was right; I'd been suckered by mood, cinematography and the classy presence of theater actress Cherry Jones into accepting a load of crap. Visual style and strong casts made me softer on "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" than I should have been. It happens.
You might ask then, why would I, with these lessons behind me, have still held out any hope for "Airbender"? Two reasons: If you love movies, you tend to be an optimist. And this story was not based on an original idea of Shyamalan's, so maybe there was a chance it wouldn't turn out half-baked. (Aliens!) Its origins lie instead with Nickelodeon's animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (which, obviously, required a title trim after James Cameron had his little Avatar-related idea). It's a popular show, and I know parents who enjoy watching it with their kids. Poor dears, now they'll have to pay out the nose to see it in 3-D, one violent explosion and action sequence after another.
Once upon a time, Shyamalan was right in tune with the spirit and pacing of a movie, but he's now completely tone-deaf. Half of the dialogue produced waves of titters from a preview audience primed to appreciate. That dialogue was delivered with all the cautious, uncertain pride found in the performers of a fifth-grade production of "Stone Soup"; you almost expect every youthful actor -- with the exception of Peltz, who shows the smallest signs of promise -- to break character, turn to the wings and ask their teacher if they're doing it right. Even Patel, the cute boy from "Slumdog Millionaire," looks like an amateur in this production. I was so grateful to finally make it to the Kingdom of My Earthbound Car, to make my final escape from Shyamalan's disappointing clutches.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.