The Last Airbender (Paramount Pictures, PG)

The Nickelodeon cartoon series upon which the film is based is steeped in mythology and religious influences making the world of the four tribes (Air, Water, Earth, and Fire) feel endowed with a sense of wonder. 

The only word to describe The Last Airbender is awful. Well, maybe dreadful is a better word. Then again, horrible also springs to mind. Regardless of what adjective is used, The Last Airbender is bad in every aspect and in every sense of the word. Director M. Night Shyamalan has delivered a pathetic and lifeless film that attempts to portray itself as an epic journey of myth and fantasy, but it ends up feeling stilted and flat despite employing trendy 3D technology (more on that later). It is almost impressive that a director, who was once considered to be the next Hitchcock or Spielberg, could take a $150 million budget and source material so easily adaptable to film and somehow create a mess more chaotic than a Jackson Pollock painting.

Shyamalan astounded audiences with his ability to play with film conventions and audience expectations in The Sixth Sense more than a decade ago. Since that time, his two other films, in one way or another, succeeded in toying with the audience and film format to deliver thrills and perfectly written screenplays. (I say “two other films” because the incidents that happened in 2004, 2006 and 2008 should be forgotten by all of mankind. Forever.) In The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has forgotten (or overlooked) any sense of subtext, suspense, mystery or wonder that a film of this nature demands. The film barrels over any character development with such speed that we have no time to make any sort of connection with the film and therefore are unaffected by nearly everything that happens on screen.
The film and its director have already received enough accusations of racism for the film’s cast so that won’t be dwelled upon here. What was more disconcerting was the poor choice of actors based solely on their talent and lack thereof. Noah Ringer, who plays Aang a.k.a. the Last Airbender, delivers his lines as if reading them for the first time. There is no emotion in his voice or face and little more than puzzled looks are what pass for acting the majority of the movie. The second worst piece of casting is Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show as the film’s villain Commander Zhao. Mandvi is a talented comedic performer, but here he sounds exactly as he does when conducting a fake interview in hopes of leading someone to make a fool of themselves. Jackson Rathbone, who launched into fame from his role in the Twilight Saga, attempts to be both the leading man and comic relief but for some reason looks petrified in every scene and as if he is constantly about to vomit.
The Nickelodeon cartoon series upon which the film is based is steeped in mythology and religious influences making the world of the four tribes (Air, Water, Earth, and Fire) feel endowed with a sense of wonder. Shyamalan has done away with any such connections and instead presents an almost literal adaptation whose references to meditation or spirits serve only to explain character motivation after the fact. The mythology of the cartoon series is more a tool for plot development than a true inspiration for the film.
By far the most disappointing and distressing aspect of the film is Shyamalan’s clear lack of understanding of how 3D technology is best utilized. The argument could be made that the director saw James Cameron’s groundbreaking effects in Avatar and then did the exact opposite in The Last Airbender. The 3D effects add nothing to the film and actually hurt the experience because it simply highlights for the audience what is real and what was generated by Industrial Light and Magic in post production. So little of the film necessitates 3D that most of the time the audience is left watching actors on a soundstage with insultingly poor CG images inserted behind them. The Last Airbender perfectly exemplifies the curse of the current 3D obsession of Hollywood studios and how truly harmful and unnecessary it is.
The Last Airbender is easily the worst film to date in 2010 and possibly of the last five years. With this film, Shyamalan has singlehandedly negated the fantastic work he produced early in his career. This abysmal film (and the sequels which are sure to follow) will now be his very tarnished filmmaking legacy. | Matthew F. Newlin

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