The conversion process needed here was not to add 3-D to the images, but to add depth to characters and a story that barely qualify as one-dimensional.
The dialogue has all the breath of a collapsed lung. The tone is as fluffy as a fallen souffle. The performances are as tabular as a well-sanded board. The action has all the bounce of a deflated tire. The story extends like an outstretched, horizontal plane, without features or variation to break the monotony. In short – resorting to the cliche my thesaurus and I have been studiously avoiding, even though it perfectly encapsulates the film – THE LAST AIRBENDER is, from beginning to end, as flat as a pancake. And the post-production 3-D conversion only underlines the planar qualities of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest disappointment: dingy and dark when viewed through the polarized lenses, the optical process not only fails to immerse you in the fantasy world on screen; it very often provides not even the minimal illusion of depth. Sad to say, the conversion process truly needed here would have begun in preproduction – not to design the film with 3-D in mind, but to add some depth to characters and a storyline that barely qualify as one-dimensional, let alone two.
THE LAST AIRBENDER (based on the cartoon series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER) is set in a world divided between four nations, each representing one of the primal elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Each nation has “Benders,” individuals capable of controlling their nation’s element. There is supposed to be an Avatar, who controls all four, bringing balance to the world; unfortunately, he has been missing in action for 100 years, allowing the Fire Nation to rise up, attempting to gain dominance over the others. Out hunting one day, Katara(Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find Aang (Noah Ringer) buried under the ice. He turns out to be the epynomous Last Airbender, who ran away from home a century ago when he learned that his destiny would prevent him from having a normal life. Only trained in bending his own nation’s element, he must now master Earth, Air, and Water. However, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), banished from the Fire Nation by his father, knows that the only way to regain favor is to return with Aang as his prisoner.
THE LAST AIRBENDER proceeds with all the choppy rhythm and incoherent storytelling of a film that had been ruined in post-production. (Yes, I’m thinking of you, JONAH HEX.) Apparently pitching his film to fans of the cartoon, Shyamalan makes little or no effort to involve newbies or even explain why they should care; he just throws them into the middle of the Four Nations and lets the story unfold, without bothering to structure it in a meaningful way.
Speaking in simple sentences that suggest a third-grade grammar book, characters walk in and out of scenes almost aimlessly; incidents happen, but the action seldom registers, because scenes are clipped before they have any impact. Instead, a narration is plastered on to explain what’s happening (as if the over-obvious dialogue were not enough). But nothing much needs explaining because nothing much is happening.
Shyamalan presents all of this in a style that suggests his approach to LADY IN THE WATER distilled down to its purest form: we’re supposed to view the film with child-like wonder, accepting its simple-minded simplicity as some kind of innocent purity; to expect anything more is to betray your adult cynicism. Unfortunately, when you attempt to create something child-like, you run the risk of being childish.
THE LAST AIRBENDER’s one glimmer of an interesting sub-plot pertains to Prince Zuko, who hopes to regain his honor by capturing Aang. Dev Patel is a bit strained in his effort to convey the prince’s wounded pride and desire for redemption, but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for the rest of his young co-stars. Patel is certainly helped by being teamed with the excellent Shaun Toub as Zuko’s Uncle Iroh. Shoub is the only one who gives a fully engaging performance; he’s lucky enough to be playing the only character with some shading: he’s a member of the Fire Nation, but his commitment to certain principles overrides his nationalism, and he shows admirable concern for his banished nephew. It’s a deep sign of what’s wrong with THE LAST AIRBENDER that the titular character is much less interesting than his chief antagonist.
VISUALS, MARTIAL ARTS & 3-D
THE LAST AIRBENDER features glossy production values and special effects that look great in the trailers, but overall the visual design falls short. Ringer, with his bald head and tattoos, does not cut a striking figure as the Avatar. Seychelle Gabriel looks simply weird with her albino white hair as Princess Yue. At least the creature designs are nice; unfortunately, the creatures are underused, pasted onto scenes like decoration. The exception is the Dragon Spirit (voiced by FRINGE’s John Noble), who makes a dignified impression in only a small amount of screen time.
The martial arts sequences, when they finally arrive, offer a brief respite from the story’s tedium. The concept of different elements combating each other (e.g., fire blocked by earth or doused by water) is well realized on screen, and the use of CGI and slow-motion to enhance the battles is effective, but the actual choreography soon grows repetitious. After watching Aang do his little dance to bend air for the fourth or fifth time, you begin to wonder why his opponents never strike before he has completed his routine. Like BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE, this is a sad case of a film whose fight scenes work better in isolation; viewed as brief, separate clips on the Internet, the special effects and action – such as Aang’s run across the couryard in the middle of battle, with water spouts freezing around him -ignite a sense of anticipation that the film itself cannot satisfy.
In any case, THE LAST AIRBENDER’s visual qualities are marred by the last-minute addition of 3-D (the film was shot 2-D and converted in post-production). This is the worst 3-D I’ve seen in years, adding nothing of interest to the film. Much of the footage still looks flat, and the 3-D glasses darken the image, taking some of the sparkle out of what should have been pristine visuals. You will find yourself tempted to remove the specs and watch the film without them – which means you might as well save yourself a few dollars and see the flat version.
Since THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), Shyamalan’s career has been on a downhill slide, briefly interrupted by SIGNS in 2002. Till now, however, even his weakest films showed some glimmer of his previous talent; it was as if he was caught up by the ego and expectations that come with blockbuster success, and he was trapped into trying to recreate that winning formula. THE LAST AIRBENDER offered hope – a change in direction, working from pre-existing material that could reinvigorate him with the opportunity to do something new and different, a full-blown fant-asia style adventure that left the spook-show stuff behind in favor of epic vistas, colorful creatures, and archetypal heroes and villains. Instead, he has delivered his most disappointing film to date – an empty bauble that could have been handled by any Hollywood hack.
And in the worst tradition of summer blockbuster’s, THE LAST AIRBENDER is a shameless attempt to launch a franchise, whether we want one or not. Not only is the film sub-titled “Book One: Water,” there is also an obvious hook for a sequel placed before the closing credits. After sitting through this installment, however, it is hard to imagine anyone breathlessly anticipating “Book Two.”
THE LAST AIRBENDER (July 1, 2010). Written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandy, Cliff Curtis. Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Keon Sim, Isaac Jin Solstein, Edmund Ideda, John Noble.