I seem to be saying something close to "how the mighty have fallen" a lot lately. This seems to be mostly due to this summer's horrendous lack of quality filmed content. Don't be mistaken, this is not the latent result of economic downturn, as it doesn't cost any more to write a great script as it does to write crappy one. No, folks, this is just a lazy year for Hollywood.
And in a summer of lackluster productions, none could be more frustratingly bad as M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. Shyamalan leads the pack of once-respected directors selling out and turning in absolute dreck. The irony is, after a string of bad films driven by his over-inflated ego, I fully expected Night to redeem himself with the first project that isn't a complete product of his own imagination. Unfortunately for me, and extremely unfortunately for Shyamalan, that didn't happen.
If anything, The Last Airbender digs an even deeper hole for the dethroned, self-described "master of the twist", whose previous efforts, The Lady in the Water and The Happening, ruined his relationship with Touchstone and disappointed just about everybody else. In my opinion, Shyamalan hasn't achieved greatness since 1999's The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable and Signs are decent entries. The Village is clearly where it all started to go down hill, and also the point where his ego went public, stating that he had figured out a fool-proof formula for creating successful blockbusters. I guess the last few years proved that wrong.
So, I was intrigued when I heard that the infamously pompous auteur actually took up an offer to direct material that he didn't conceive himself. It was a move of humility to me, something that signified that maybe he actually received and understood the feedback railing against a climax that involved Mark Wahlberg walking through a windy field and nothing more. I literally thought the time had come where he would put his money where his mouth was and give us a well-directed movie, free from the foibles of his previous work.
Well, we do get a film that bears little to no resemblance to anything else in his body of work, but the results are hard to watch, and make me suspicious that Night will use the failure of this film to bolster the concept that he should only be a writer/director working with his own material. Yes, that's a ridiculous notion, but it's the only thing I can come up with to cover for a man who, in the late 90's anyway, I used to admire. The fact is that The Last Airbender is so difficult to watch that even fans of the series it is based on probably won't like it either. And that's when you know you have a bomb on your hands.
From the excessive bouts of narration holding the story together like band-aids for a machine gun wound, to the horrendous expository dialogue delivered through wooden acting by the young and inexperienced cast, to the soulless and surprisingly lackluster visual effects, all packaged in another seemingly rushed 2-D to 3-D conversion, the result can be classified as nothing other than a travesty. Many will complain about the lack of personality in the characters and blame the young stars, but that seems extremely odd to me, seeing as Shyamalan used to be good with kids.
The script is another point of contention, trying to cobble up too much information and squeeze it into a feature-length running time. As a result, Shyamalan's film does manage to cover an entire season of the original animated series, but at the cost of a fragmented narrative that's hard to follow, even for the fans. Chief among the gripes of those fans, though are the casting choices. Night decided to change the benevolent Water nation to be portrayed by Anglo people, while in the cartoon, they're Asian. Dev Patel and Cliff Curtis head up the evil Fire nation, comprised solely of Indian peoples.
I'll spare you the repetition of the tedious plot, which, if handled better, could have been interesting and fun to watch *COUGH* the original animated series *COUGH*, but it basically centers around two war-orphaned kids from the Water nation finding Aang, a reincarnation of The Last Airbender, frozen like Encino Man. Aang is the only one who can bend all four elements and thus restore order to the world. Oh, yeah, it's in the future, where human beings can now control one of four of those elements with their minds, or something like that. I forgot to mention that, that's important.
Whatever grace and balance the animated series had, Shyamalan has bulldozed with his trademark gloominess and deadpan seriousness. I seem to recall Avatar: The Last Airbender being more funny than the humorless denizens of Shyamalan's live-action world. But we do get a floating buffalo-like creature that looks suspiciously like a cross between The Neverending Story's Falcor and Carol from Where the Wild Things Are. That's cool, right?
After growing to hate Shyamalan's now-cliche penchant for twist endings, I actually yearned for one in The Last Airbender, if only in the hope that it would reveal the preceding film to be just a joke. A really boring joke. Needless to say, I wasn't even granted that.