The first chapter of M. Night Shyamalan’s career had the Indian-American filmmaker laboring in obscurity, writing and directing his own original stories without mainstream success. In the second chapter, his “Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs” — all quality films — made him a superstar. Chapter 3 was the downturn, where he used the same tricks as before but failed to produce much magic: “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening.”
Now, with “The Last Airbender,” he has moved on to the fourth chapter of his career, in which he writes and directs movies based on existing properties, leaves behind most of his trademarks … and produces something flat, inert, listless, and unengaging. But hey, at least it’s flat, inert, listless, and unengaging in new ways!
It was called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” when it was an animated series on Nickelodeon, but then I guess there was another movie called “Avatar”? Or something? So now it’s just “The Last Airbender.” Anyway, it takes place in a world divided into four nations, Air, Water, Earth, and Fire, and in each quadrant certain people are born with the ability to “bend” (i.e., manipulate, control) their native element. But there’s one dude who can bend all four elements, if you can imagine such a thing, and he’s known as the Avatar. He also has the ability to communicate with the Spirit World, which the movie assures me is important. He brings balance and peace to the four nations. Or at least he used to, until he disappeared a hundred years ago. Now the obnoxious Fire Nation, led by king Ozai (Cliff Curtis), is waging war against the other three lands, imprisoning or killing anyone who can bend anything other than fire.
Naturally, some children will save the day. Katara (Nicola Peltz), a tween girl who can bend water, and her older brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who can’t bend anything, are orphans living in the arctic part of the water country. Everyone else in their village appears to be Asian or Eskimo; perhaps they were adopted. They find a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen in the ice, and you’ll never guess who he turns out to be. Hint: He’s the last airbender, and also the Avatar.
Aang, assisted by his new friends, must rally the people to fight against the Fire Nation, while the fire king’s son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), scours the earth looking for him. The king probably thought he was sending his son on a wild goose chase, looking for a guy no one has seen in a hundred years. When Zuko discovers that Aang is the Avatar — remember, that means he can control air, water, fire, and earth, and is pretty much the most powerful person on earth — Kuzo tries to capture him by force. Why did he think that would work? You can see why king Ozai wanted his dipstick son out of the way.
There seems to be a fine mythology somewhere in here, all Tolkien-y and Star Wars-y and Harry Potter-y. There are royal uncles (Shaun Toub), duplicitous military commanders (Aasif Mandvi), and many scenes of people fighting each other and bending things. A lot of the visuals are impressive (but don’t pay extra for the post-production 3D effects), and every now and then something happens to make you think, “Huh, I’ll bet this was pretty good as a cartoon.”
But the story is inherently silly. The act of bending an element requires dancing around as if doing tai chi, a sight that never stops being funny. To keep us from noticing the goofiness, Shyamalan goes full-speed in the opposite direction, treating everything with great solemnity and soberness. The result? It just seems MORE silly. Only now it’s dour and stone-faced, too.
The lead actor, Noah Ringer, is 13 years old and was plucked from obscurity after a talent search. A talent search that came up empty, apparently. No, that’s mean. The poor kid. I suspect a lot of the blame actually lies with Shyamalan not knowing how to bend a child actor in a special-effects-heavy production (see also: George Lucas). I hope Ringer gets another chance to act in a different kind of movie so he can show us our first impression was wrong. He’d do well to stay away from Shyamalan — which might be easy, since Shyamalan might not get to make another movie after this one. Time to say goodnight, Night.
C- (1 hr., 43 min.; )