In a summer season besieged by stinkers, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender took very little time to gather a reputation as the most malodorous of them all. Being the sort who is naturally drawn towards the widely-loathed, if only to see what potential worth led to their creation in the first place, I held out hope that it wasn’t as bad as all that. Shyamalan’s been on a bad streak lately, but he’s still an enormously talented fellow, and working with material that originated from somewhere other than his own mind could only be an improvement after the total system shutdown of The Happening, right? And Jonah Hex had more to recommend in it than most reviews let on, so why not this? Well, my optimism lasted ten seconds. It’s a poor sign of things to come when the lead-in to a film stirs memories of Uwe Boll, and The Last Airbender opens with an expository crawl (read aloud for the less-literate members of the audience) not much more coherent than that which kicked off Alone in the Dark. I’d love to report that the film at least improves after that inauspicious introduction, but that’s the level on which it remains comfortably nestled for the bulk of its running time.
Airbender is an absolute disaster, an untrammeled tangle of portentous pageantry and bad laughs. In adapting the popular Nickelodeon cartoon, Shyamalan plays to all his worst tendencies while downplaying or outright ignoring his strengths. The chief offense and the wellspring that allows all the film’s other flaws to flower is, sadly, that tendency towards deliberateness which has defined Shyamalan’s style since he began. There might be far greater space to forgive the many faults of Airbender were it not so damned serious about itself. No matter what you do with this material, you at least need to project a sense of joy — this is aimed at children and contains lots of cool magic battles, so ideally it should be a heap of fun. Alas, joy is not a weapon in M. Night’s arsenal. What should be sprightly and magical is instead a lugubrious drudge made all the more hamstrung by the amount of story packed into the script. Airbender tries valiantly to compress the show’s whole first season, twenty-episode arc into an hour and 40 minutes, but it’s a losing battle — clarity and nuance are sacrificed in favor of quantity.
The basic plot boils down like this: Certain people can control the elements and are called “benders.” Noah Ringer plays the title character who’s also the Avatar, the savior/leader of humanity. After disappearing a century prior, he emerges encased in ice and little the worse for wear. He’s freed by characters played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, who belong to a Waterbender tribe. Word gets out about Ringer’s Avatar, at which point the power-mad Firebender tribe decides to snuff him. Even in trying to sum it up as succinctly as possible, it’s plain that there’s an entire elaborate mythology that needs to be laid out within the world of the film, and there’s simply not enough time to get it all in there without tossing niceties like character development out the window Airbender, then, is a film where cardboard placeholders for characters to be written later are constantly explaining things to one another (and to us), and if they can’t explain it well enough, Peltz’s voiceover will pop up to explain it further. This isn’t a movie — it’s a damned audiobook interrupted periodically by CGI action.
The poor actors saddled with all this exposition don’t fare well. Shyamalan, per the usual, has directed them to deliver their lines as stilted and affectless as possible, as though he were making some modern-day Bresson homage and not an all-ages tentpole. Ringer, for all I know, might be a promising young actor, but you wouldn’t know it from his performance here; Lord knows he’s trying, but has not the ability to handle the solemn stylization demanded by Shyamalan, with most of his lines emerging fraught with needless pauses in an approximation of Significance. (“Some of the great monks. Can meditate. For up to four days.”) He invests the pivotal narrative figure with all the gravity of a stage-frightened kid in his third-grade play who has memorized his lines by rote. And before I get accused of picking on a kid, this holds true for everyone in the film, even the usually reliable Cliff Curtis (showing up periodically as the king of the Firebenders), with Rathbone’s haltingly declamatory line readings being the rock bottom. (Apparently he’s also in the Twilight films, which surprises me not a whit.)
Even those in the cast who get the luxury of emoting fall short. Dev Patel’s Firebending character, estranged from his father, spends most of the film in a furiously driven lather, yet the best Patel can get out of it is a low-grade perma-petulance. When he shouts early on, “Bring me… ALL your elderly!” it’s hard not to stifle a giggle. In fact, there’s a lot of unintended laughter to be mined from ‘Airbender,’ whether it be due to the enormous swells of turgid exposition, the cast’s awkward delivery of said exposition or Shyamalan’s reverent treatment of all this exposition. The frequent and disbelieving derisive chuckle, truth be told, was all that kept me in my seat. That’s good news for future camp scholars looking for wrong-headed objects to coronate, but as camp by definition is unintentional that’s kind of a massive failure on the part of all involved.
When you get right down to it, I do wonder what drew Shyamalan to this project. He’s not an action director—he’s an inaction director who creates suffocating moods through unnatural placidity and exquisite, carefully-arranged mise-en-scene. Any “action” sequences in his previous films have been either brief, hushed bits of business rigged to tear at that very fabric of placidity (i.e. the central act of violence in The Village) or have been deliberately crafted as clumsily brutal as possible to rob them of their action-hood. Simply put, this is not his métier and it shows. Where even in the butt-dumb The Happening there was still a glimmer of compositional confidence, ‘Airbender’ shows him so flummoxed by the demands of big-budget spectacle filmmaking that he can’t even piece together a simple two-shot without fucking it up. (I’m serious. Check the early exchange between Peltz and Rathbone while in their tent right before the Firebenders show up. It’s sub-film-school shit.) Shyamalan has optimistically subtitled this Book 1, after the show that inspired it. Should Books 2 & 3 ever be made, I think I’ll leave them on the shelves gathering dust, spines uncracked.