By: Addison Wylie
How the somewhat mighty hath fallen. Mighty go down, go boom. Big boom. The mighty in talks is M. Night Shyamalan; the esteemed director behind classics like The Sixth Sense and Signs. As years passed, his visions have gone down a not-so friendly route. I remember thinking Lady in the Water was decent but it was a movie that is almost universally hated. As for his next submission on his resume, The Happening was an unintentionally funny, stupid mess. Fans and movie goers have been waiting for Shyamalan’s comeback; his return to his original form. When it was brought to the attention that he was involved in a film adaptation of the hit cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, people were intrigued. Maybe this would be his chance to tackle those youngster storytelling elements he wanted to tackle successfully in Lady in the Water. However, this is not a comeback film. The Last Airbender isn’t even a watchable film. What Shyamalan has done is made one of the worst adaptations to my memory and this is coming from someone who hasn’t seen an episode. As an outsider, even I can tell that something is off throughout the runtime. The story is the definition of convoluted, the characters and visuals are all flat, and the minutes seem like hours as the film plods along at a snail’s pace. Shyamalan has a real turkey on his hands; a turkey that will hang around in our minds for a very long time.
I apologize in advance if I butcher this synopsis but this is how an outsider has been delivered the plot for this ghastly sight. In this fantasy world, there are four kingdoms. They each represent an element and can utilize powers in these elements each kingdom dabble in. However, individuals marked as Airbenders are the top on the element chain. They are powerful geniuses who can do incredible things. When Katara, played by Nicola Peltz, and Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone, stumble upon a mysterious young boy Aang, played by Noah Ringer, it is a conundrum as to what element he dabbles in. It is quickly learned that he is in fact an Airbender. Scratch that, the LAST Airbender. Not only can he master the ways of air but he can master all the ways of the elements. When the Fire Nation finds out about his disappearance and awakening, the army plots to find him. With Aang out of the way, there will be no obstacles in their plan to dominate the world. Katara and Sokka, experienced in waterbending, swear to protect Aang, thus, a cat and mouse game begins. It might even end up in a big, underwhelming battle.
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Where do I even start with this train wreck? Notice my use of the word “underwhelming” in the plot synopsis. That word is the key here because it covers every cinematic aspect located in this catastrophe. Let’s start with the script that Shyamalan penned. The script is disconnected but convoluted at the same time. The script is filled with characters who lack motivations or feelings; two main parts in the process of making people that your audience should care about. Here, we have child actors that have been thrown in front of a camera with limited direction other than what they’re supposed to be feeling. It doesn’t seem that Shyamalan or any of the acting coaches have taken the appropriate amount of time to help these young actors make convincing personas. In fact, I bet these kids aren’t that bad actors; I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The lines the youngsters are given are extremely banal and hollow. There is only so much an actor can do with crappy dialogue and when the director is inept as well, the actors are sunk. Another problem with the script is that the movie itself is filled with too many characters. I can understand M. Night wants to cover a lot of characters but he doesn’t even make them interesting. Everyone is playing on the exact same note so it’s very hard to remember key players in the movie. There are scenes where characters refer to other actions that have happened but the movie hasn’t filled the audience in on those said previous actions. No details, nothing. It is never fully explained as to why Aang talks to a dragon when he meditates. My big thing are motives. Like I said, no one in this film is motivated at all. Why does the Fire Nation want to rule everything? Because they’re red and red’s evil? Sure. It’s moments like these that make me wonder if Shyamalan even cared about this film and his audience in the first place. For the most part, it seems like he saw this as an opportunity to potentially own a trilogy so that he could make a lot of money and eventually dive into a Scrooge McDuck vault of gold coins. It ain’t happening, M.
The script is a disaster but Shyamalan’s decisions behind this film stick as well. Take the cinematography for example. His director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, is an academy award winner in his craft providing stellar cinematography for films such as The Lovely Bones and The Lord of the Rings films. Perhaps he could take some notes from The Lovely Bones, another film with fantasy elements. The shots conveyed throughout the film is some of the worst cinematography I’ve seen in a commercial film in quite some time. Shots look like they aren’t framed correctly, there are exaggerated extreme close-ups used all throughout the movie, and some dream shots are almost too soft. However, the shots being too soft could be an issue of an editor in post not being able to control his ability to apply filters; which brings up another element. The editing displayed here is bad as well using dissolve transitions at inappropriate times and having the whole film feel very choppy. Seeing this in a 2D presentation, I don’t see how 3D would provide anything to this movie. Maybe M. Night knew his film felt cardboard so by using 3D technology, he thought he could add more depth. Another technical aspect that drops the ball here is how lame the choreography is. The fight scenes feel and look lazy. The moves don’t look challenging in the slightest, therefore, you get actors looking very bored. The fights never feel “real”. They are too stagy and predictable. I could write all day about how much this film lacks in the technical areas but let’s just say that everyone on the crew for The Last Airbender could’ve done a hell of a lot better.
I remember being excited when an M. Night Shyamalan movie would be released. It meant that the film would be filled with thrilling moments and very well crafted performances. It’s going to take a lot for M. Night to win me back after watching this dreck. The writing and direction is monotonous, the acting is weak because of the writing, and overall the film is an empty failure. Most of the time with trilogies that start weak, I’m interested to see how the series will recover. Not with The Last Airbender. I could care less about where this series goes from here as well as where Shyamalan’s directorial career goes too. The Last Airbender is a definite entry onto my worst of list of the year and it marks a period where a once promised director bites the big one.