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.