The Last Airbender is a bad movie. This seems to be empirically proven. The question the remains is just how bad is The Last Airbender? Judging by the reactions on my Twitter feed, it’s one of the most catastrophically bad movies ever made. These reactions make me feel weird, since I think it’s just run of the mill bad. Still, it’s telling that I could end up being one of the film’s biggest defenders by simply saying ‘It’s just regularly bad.’
Based on a cartoon show, The Last Airbender is set in a mythical world where certain people have the ability to control (called bending) one of the four elements – earth, water, air, fire – depending on their race. There is an Avatar born every generation who can control all four and who helps keep the peace in the world. 100 years before he disappeared, and the Fire Nation took the opportunity to wage a huge war that enslaved most of the other nations and totally wiped out the Airbenders. Then suddenly the Avatar is rediscovered, frozen in ice along with the dragon from Never Ending Story, but it turns out that he’s just a kid and he hasn’t mastered all the other forms of bending. So it all becomes a race as the Fire Nation tries to capture the Avatar while the Avatar and his friends trot around the globe doing stuff and getting training.
There’s some interesting world building going on in the film, but little else. Director M. Night Shyamalan seems to have continued his process from The Happening, in which he apparently intentionally makes every wrong choice. In The Last Airbender he has cast the film almost exclusively with terrible actors incapable of even delivering lines like “We have to go now” with any believability. Noah Ringer plays Aang, the young Avatar, and he’s generally miserable. I feel bad shitting on the performance of an actor so young, but since he’s the lead you would hope that he would have some kind of charisma if not actual acting chops. He has none.
But he’s not the worst actor in the piece. Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire, plays the whiny exiled son of the Fire Nation king, and he’s pretty rotten, but at least in an energetic way. He seems to think he’s playing in 1980’s Flash Gordon (and maybe he’s right), and he’s hamming it up beyond belief. I kind of enjoyed that, which is much more than I can say for everyone else. Jackson Rathbone, playing an Eskimo (!), once again gives his usual lizard performance – huge staring eyes, pursed lips, head darting quickly to and fro. It’s hilarious. Nicola Peltz plays his sister (and I’m guessing Aang’s future love interest), Kitara, and she’s just about the worst actress I have ever seen in a major motion picture. Again, I feel bad railing on kid actors so much, but they are just so completely fucking terrible.
The adults don’t fare better. Cliff Curtis is brutally wasted as the Fire Nation king, while The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi bends minds with his poor casting as some other Fire Nation asshole. Mandvi delivers every line like he’s standing on the stage at a Brooklyn comedy club, playing to a crowd of jaded hipsters.
Some of the actors might have not been so humiliated if Shyamalan had given them a script of any value. He continues his The Happening trend of writing expositionary dialogue that sounds like no human would ever speak it aloud, but at least here he has the excuse of a movie not even set on Earth. Even still, most of the spoken dialogue is simply tedious, plodding exposition, with wooden actors just drooling it out. As with every other Shyamalan film The Last Airbender is stultifyingly serious, and that seriousness just makes everything kind of silly.
As terrible as all of that is, none of it felt like it was any worse than stillborn crap like The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising or Percy Jackson. It’s just plain bad fantasy movie-making, the kind that’s a whole lot of production design and little else. I will say that at least The Last Airbender is full of incident; there’s always something to look at, and there are plenty of action scenes. None of them are worth a damn, but at least they exist. Maybe it’s just that I saw the eventless The Twilight Saga: Eclipse the night before, but I appreciated that at the very least The Last Airbender had a touch of scope and motion.
All of that ends up being worthless because M. Night Shyamalan seems incapable of directing a movie. Many of his shots are listless, and without life. The film is filled with jagged, rotten edits. And there are a couple of baffling shots, including one long establishing shot of a field that seems to have nothing to do with the scene that comes to follow. There’s a lot of inept filmmaking on display, although I think that Night retains a good eye for composition – a number of shots in the movie will make delightful stills. Maybe he should have become a photographer.
I suspect that many of the people raging against The Last Airbender are reacting at least partially to the fact that this is a Shyamalan movie. I’ve believed this emperor to have no clothes ever since Unbreakable, a tedious movie that’s a lot like Airbender except with better actors – po-faced, grim, joyless and shoddily written. That’s Night’s general MO; The Last Airbender feels positively bouyant for an M. Night movie, but for a cartoon action adventure it’s a plod.
Fans of the cartoon and those who still harbored some belief that M Night Shyamalan had talent to offer will be left raging. The rest of us will sigh, forget it and then try to remember what the name of this movie is when five years from now we catch a scene while flipping through cable channels. The Last Airbender is a non-movie.
4 out of 10