The Last Airbender

Movie Information

The Story: In a mystical realm, a young superpowered boy is the only hope of stopping an evil nation's plot to rule the world. The Lowdown: Generally amateurish and consistently dull, the movie is far from good, but -- even considering the Shyamalan pedigree -- isn't quite as awful as its reputation.
Score:

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Happening)
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub
Rated: PG

A disappointing summer movie season needs a whipping boy and it looks like M. Night Shyamalan has been given the position—whether he wants it or not. On the Internet, it appears that the fashionable thing to do these days is to blame Mr. Shyamalan for every plight that has fallen upon and spoiled humankind. Is Shyamalan’s latest opus The Last Airbender really as egregious as it is being portrayed? The short answer is only sort of.

No, The Last Airbender is far from a good movie. The acting is on par with Howdy Doody or certain late-night Cinemax fare. It certainly doesn’t help that the dialogue is a stilted mess of boring repartee. The direction itself—namely in the action scenes—is flat, with an occasional bit of slo-mo here and there, used as a substitute for style.

And the plot is no better. Think of it as A Dummies Guide to Fantasy Film. Young boy Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer) is the only hope for a mystical realm filled with element-controlling “Benders” who can twist wind, water, fire or earth at their will. It’s the usual “chosen one” stuff mixed in with the occasional outburst of martial arts and vague references to Eastern philosophy.

However, even with its substantial shortcomings, the movie doesn’t quite deserve the bum rap it has been getting thus far. One critic’s assertion that this is the “worst movie of the last two decades” is just patently silly. Any number of hack directors have made movies just as lame and sleep-inducing as The Last Airbender, with the only difference being that this film has a notable hack behind the camera.

A lot of the backlash against the film stems from the afterglow of Shyamalan’s early work finally wearing off. Airbender is an established Nickelodeon property and this is Shyamalan at his most mainstream. In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. The smug, self-serious back-patting that coats Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) has been purged. Unfortunately, in its stead is something worse: listlessness. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more inert—in both momentum and action—and floundering film than this. Unlike some of Shyamalan’s previous films, there’s nothing here to actively dislike. The whole enterprise feels ambivalent. Even the wonky, awkward charm of the junky The Happening (2008) is gone and replaced with nothing.

The film isn’t totally without interest. There is some subtext involving science’s struggle with religion and vice versa, but Shyamalan has no clue how to develop this idea, so it’s only vaguely touched upon. In the end, it must be said there are moments where the question arises of whether or not Shyamalan even remembers how to make a movie. The better question, however, is if he ever really did. Rated PG for fantasy/action violence.

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19 thoughts on “The Last Airbender

  1. Dionysis

    Seems this director has gone from ‘pretty good’ (The Sixth Sense’, which I thought was over-rated but worth seeing) to ‘oh brother, not another turkey’ in pretty quick time. Like some other hack directors, it does make one wonder just how he keeps getting the funding to do so.

    And for some reason (I really don’t know why), his presence in his own films irks me even more than Quinton Tarantino doing the same thing.

  2. Ken Hanke

    it does make one wonder just how he keeps getting the funding to do so.

    Simple answer: international box-office. The Happening may have done poorly here, but you factor in the rest of the world and it made money. This one will have no trouble doing that, considering how surprisingly strong its opening weekend was.

  3. Tomislav Pijonsnodt

    This one will have no trouble doing that, considering how surprisingly strong its opening weekend was.

    Its success was not at all surprising to those of us who know the extent and fervor of the original series’ frankly undiscriminating fan base.

    I have no intent of seeing this movie, but I somehow doubt it differs substantially in quality from the original. Certainly the few episodes I saw were awful. I think it more likely that the medium makes the difference. Even a trite fantasy epic would be an unusual undertaking for a Saturday morning cartoon.

    In any case, I believe the casting controversy deserved some mention.

  4. Justin Souther

    In any case, I believe the casting controversy deserved some mention.

    For one, I couldn’t think of anything as clever as, “Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn’t find any whose performances were lifeless enough.“ There’s only so much room I’m allotted per review, so I can’t touch on everything, but since the movie’s problems go beyond just wonky casting, I didn’t have the space. I understand why and how it should not be sold short, but at the same time I guess I’m jaded enough to expect this kind of thing from Hollywood.

  5. Tomislav Pijonsnodt

    A fair response. I had neglected to take word limits into consideration.

    I mention the casting controversy only because it has been widely dismissed as fanboy overreaction, and although there are components of that, I think some outrage is valid when a blockbuster film gets away with making brown heroes white and white villains brown. I doubt the decision was motivated by conscious racism, especially since Shyamalan is, you know, Asian…but racism is seldom a matter of individuals being deliberately nasty. It’s racism on the pop cultural level that is truly problematic.

  6. What happened to M. Night Shyamalan, ever since the Village it’s been all down hill. I loved Unbreakable, loved signs, and loved the The Sixth Sense. Maybe it’s the actors he’s been using, in the other movies I’ve listed he used bag name actors. Some of these new movies he’s been coming out with are big time downgrades.

  7. Justin Souther

    I doubt the decision was motivated by conscious racism, especially since Shyamalan is, you know, Asian…but racism is seldom a matter of individuals being deliberately nasty.

    I wonder how much is him and how much is the studio? I doubt he has the sway he once did, so I’m curious how much to blame he really is. But that’s probably something we’ll never really know.

  8. Justin Souther

    Maybe it’s the actors he’s been using, in the other movies I’ve listed he used bag name actors. Some of these new movies he’s been coming out with are big time downgrades.

    Before Airbender (Dev Patel to one side), I would argue that his casts have been better. While the names might’ve been bigger, I’d take Mark Wahlberg, Adrien Brody, William Hurt or Paul Giamatti over Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson any day. But casting talent and knowing how to use said talent are two very separate things.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Maybe it’s the actors he’s been using, in the other movies I’ve listed he used bag name actors.

    I don’t share your enthusiasm for his work in general, though I liked Unbreakable at the time (haven’t seen it since and I’m doubtful how it holds up) and kind of liked the very curious Lady in the Water. But I don’t think the casting can really be faulted until possibly this new one. I’ll put Paul Giamatti and Mark Wahlberg up against Bruce Willis and especially Mel Gibson any day.

  10. Will Lugar

    Maybe it’s the actors he’s been using
    Although some actors are better than others at making ridiculous dialog sound believable, I doubt that changing actors would screw up Shyamalan’s ability to direct.

    The editor of Roger Ebert’s website, Jim Emerson, has written a couple of blog posts I rather liked on one of Shyamalan’s better movies (Unbreakable) and on one of his worse movies (The Happening). I think Emerson has some good commentary on how Shyamalan’s directing ability seems to have gone downhill. I wonder if Shyamalan has an untalented twin brother.

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2009/02/rescued_by_m_night_four_pieces.html

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2008/06/whats_happening_in_the_happeni.html

  11. Justin Souther

    I don’t share your enthusiasm for his work in general, though I liked Unbreakable at the time (haven’t seen it since and I’m doubtful how it holds up) and kind of liked the very curious Lady in the Water. But I don’t think the casting can really be faulted until possibly this new one. I’ll put Paul Giamatti and Mark Wahlberg up against Bruce Willis and especially Mel Gibson any day.

    Did we really just post the exact same thing at the exact same time?

  12. Ken Hanke

    Did we really just post the exact same thing at the exact same time?

    Yes, and I don’t know which of us should be the more concerned.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Although some actors are better than others at making ridiculous dialog sound believable, I doubt that changing actors would screw up Shyamalan’s ability to direct

    Don’t forget he wrote the dialogue, too. I don’t care who is saying it or who is directing you’re not going to make, “Be scientific, douchebag!” sound good.

  14. DrSerizawa

    Count me amongst those who liked 6th, Unbreakable, Signs and even Lady. Village was a complete ripoff IMHO. Who making Village actually thought that the “big” reveal would be a shock?

    Like George Lucas perhaps his earlier efforts were more collaborative efforts but success allowed him to exercise total control of every aspect of his movies and now we are seeing 100% Shyamalan.

    He will keep getting bankrolled until he loses money. Hollywood’s concern about race and such doesn’t run as deep as their pockets.

    The scary thing is that his later movies CAN make money.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Who making Village actually thought that the “big” reveal would be a shock?

    I could ask the same question about any of his movies.

  16. montii

    reading your review of unbreakable / the sixth sense and then reading this one makes me wonder what happened to mr. shyamalan.

  17. Ken Hanke

    reading your review of unbreakable / the sixth sense and then reading this one makes me wonder what happened to mr. shyamalan.

    Except the reviews in question were all written by different people.

  18. Pepi Acebo

    I was quite disappointed.

    I really loved Lady in the Water (the film). My daughter’s middle name is Story.

    But this was terrible, with Hanna Montana quality acting and direction.

    And then to get to the end and find that it’s a cheap “to be continued” half-story.

    After I saw Salt, I wanted my money back. After seeing The Last Airbender, I wanted my time back.

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