Silver Screen: The Last Airbender *

Silver Screen: The Last Airbender *
Bryan Miller

Today's question is: How many consecutive terrible movies can a director make before he's no longer considered an A-list filmmaker?

M. Night Shyamalan proves the answer is at least four with The Last Airbender, yet another heavily hyped summer release that winds up almost defiantly tone-deaf and ill-conceived. With each passing movie Shyamalan's grasp on discernible human emotions loosens, his plotting comes further unraveled, and he seems exponentially further removed from the crowd-pleasing knack of his idol, Steven Spielberg.

The Last Airbender is a live-action adaptation of the expansive Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender (the title having been ablated for obvious reasons). It's the story-- the very long story, from the looks of it-- of Aang (Noah Ringer), the sole surviving member of the Air Nomads, one of the four sects of the world along with the Earth, Water, and Fire nations. Some members of these groups can "bend" their chosen element, manipulate and control it through an over-elaborate series of tai chi moves.

The balance of power among the four representative groups is overseen by the Avatar, who can control all four elements, and also directly commune with the spirit world. The mantle of Avatar has been passed down through centuries of reincarnation-- think Dalai Lama-- but for one-hundred years he has remained missing. In that one-hundred years, the Fire nation, led by the aptly named Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), has risen to power and crushed the other nations under a clumsily mechanized heel. They've even gone so far as to eliminate all of the Air nation.

When Aang, frozen under an icecap, is found by waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, also currently bothering people in Twilight: Eclipse), he sets off a kind of arms race between the oppressed nations, who want the dethawed Avatar to lead them, and Team Fire, who want to incapacitate him to maintain their dominance.

If that sounds like a lot to pack into a single two-hour movie, that's because it is-- and that's just the first half-hour or so of The Last Airbender, which races forward through time thanks to seemingly endless expository dialogue and voiceover narration. There is a slew of subplots along the way, including a struggle for second banana to Fire Lord Ozai between his nefarious military commander Zhao (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi) and the king's son, Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel), who initially locates but then loses the Avatar; a rivalry between Zhao and the Fire Lord's brother, Iroh (Shaun Toub); a romance between Sokka and a Water Nation princess; talking dragons; and some magical glowing fish.

In a single voiceover, Shyamalan rushes through plotlines that could fill an entire movie. In one particularly eventful paragraph of floating dialogue, Aang liberates several villages and becomes a folk hero, inspiring others to rise up against the Fire Nation. That sounds like the fodder for some excellent action scenes, but Shyamalan skips past that to linger on his weeks-long tenure in a Water Nomad city made of ice.

Not that the action sequences would have been necessary. The ones that do occur onscreen in The Last Airbender are mostly uninspired, long slow-motion tracking shots of bustling battles. Lots of computer-enhanced background details provide the veneer of a rich canvass against which Aang can very, very slowly perform tai chi and dispense with adversaries in swirls of digital effects. Occasionally Shyamalan, who has an unmistakably sharp eye, captures a stunning image, but mostly he proves himself a mediocre action director at best.

The fighting is certainly more fluid than the dialogue. The Last Airbender is Shyamalan's first film based on someone else's story, although he's adapted it himself, and not for the better. Not only do his characters speak almost entirely in exposition, when they express what are supposed to pass for their emotions, they do it in absolutely direct language, delivered with wide eyes in near monotones, careful never to use any contractions. It's tempting to say that Ringer, who bears the brunt of the explanations and hyper-earnest declarations, delivers one of the worst performances for a child actor in recent memory. It's certainly grueling. But Shyamalan has coaxed agonizingly stilted performances from otherwise charismatic actors-- Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, Paul Giamatti, et cetera-- so it seems polite to give the kid a pass.

A title card in the opening seconds of the film posits it as Book One: Water, presumably indicating three future installments of the series, and the final frames of the movie introduce a new nemesis from the Fire Nation to torment Aang. Yet again, franchise-mania deprives viewers of any sense of closure. In this particular case, that seems unlikely, as The Last Airbender is poised to join the ranks of fantasies The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Masters of the Universe, and Super Mario Brothers by actively promising sequels only to have audiences loudly reply, "No thanks."

How long until M. Night meets a similar fate?