(by Dustin Putman
Had 1984's classic fantasy "The NeverEnding Story" been absent of heart, coherence, charm, drama, suspense, whimsy and storytelling know-how, it might have turned out a whole lot like "The Last Airbender." There's a giant, furry creature that flies people around on his back a 'la Falcor. There's a shadowy, threatening wolf-like creature, called a "Dragon Spirit," who stalks the protagonist. There's even a Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) who might as well have been nicknamed the Childlike Empress. Based upon the anime-inspired Nickelodeon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" that ran for three seasons between 2005-2008, this big-budget adaptation features a talented artist behind the camera and seemed to hold a certain amount of promise because of that. Unfortunately, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's (2008's "The Happening") downward spiral tragically continues. Working for the first time on a project derived from pre-existing material, Shyamalan is at a total loss in how to revamp the animated series into a free-standing live-action feature suitable for uninitiated audiences. Because of this failing, the finished product is nothing short of an incomprehensible fiasco, a series of pretty visuals in service of sheer calamity. Article continues below
Shyamalan bombards the viewer right from the get-go with so much exposition that the plot is nearly impossible to follow. From what can be gathered, the world is made up of nations signifying each of the natural elements—Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. When brother and sister Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), the latter the last remaining known waterbender, discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) buried in the ice, they have reason to suspect that he may be the Avatar, an all-powerful nomad with the special gift of airbending. When the young, scheming Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) learns of this, he is quick to snatch Aang as a means of claiming the throne. Not ones to sit around idly, Sokka and Katara set out to find him as the Fire Nation plans their attack. Or something like that.
With nonchalant name-dropping of Ocean and Moon Spirits and Northern Water Tribe, along with settings such as Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Southern Air Temple, "The Last Airbender" is a confusing mess living both literally and figuratively on its own planet. One has to sort of admire the wacky ambition and imagination involved—the different otherworldly lands and sights, courtesy of location shooting in Greenland and a cavalcade of superb, virtually seamless visual effects, are a wonder to simply look at—but that doesn't necessarily make for a successful outcome if everything surrounding its technical achievements is botched. The screenplay is overwrought and undercooked, a whirlwind of plot points and spare events without an understanding of natural cohesion and where to focus its attention. The characters are ineffectually one-note and emotionally cold with no chemistry between any of them. The editing is equally haphazard. When Sokka meets Princess Yue, all they do is stare at each other before the film cuts to them talking about how much they've enjoyed spending the last few weeks together. Say what? A romance develops between them, but you'd never guess it if it weren't for the dialogue spelling out their abrupt "I-can't-live-without-you" feelings.
Even the best actors sometimes cannot overcome bad writing and inane dialogue, so one can imagine how things fare with an already poor cast. Newcomer Noah Ringer portrays Aang, and he is so wooden and charisma-free that it's easy to forget he is playing the lead character. He makes no impression whatsoever, remaining a cipher from start to finish. Jackson Rathbone (2010's "Eclipse") and a comparatively passable Nicola Peltz (2006's "Deck the Halls") share no distinguishable bond or sibling camaraderie as Sokka and Katara. As Princess Yue, Seychelle Gabriel (2008's "The Spirit") delivers several monologues that earn unintentional laughs. Only Dev Patel (2008's "Slumdog Millionaire"), as Prince Zuko, comes off particularly well, but even he is a victim of a vaguely formed role.
Viewed as a painting, or a series of fantastical snapshots, "The Last Airbender" impresses. The problem is it's not a Photoshop portfolio, but a movie, and a woefully empty and stagnant one at that. If there is a message behind all of the fire and water and earth and air on display, it has gotten lost in translation. And, if director M. Night Shyamalan hoped to bring some feeling to the story and characters, he has missed the mark on a grand scale. When the viewer isn't sitting there perplexed, wishing the bold aesthetics were being backed up by at least a miniscule semblance of substance, boredom and apathy are destined to take over. The budget for "The Last Airbender" was reportedly $150 million. If a cent of that went toward the screenplay or the casting, it might not be such a bad idea for someone to sue the financiers.
Special Note: I fear I am becoming a broken record, but something needs to be said about the heinous 3-D theatrical presentation of "The Last Airbender." As was done with 2010's "Clash of the Titans," the film has been hastily, messily, and nonsensically converted to 3-D for the sole purpose of sucking every last dollar the studio possibly can out of unsuspecting consumers. The results are nothing short of disastrous, soaking the color, brightness and clarity out of every frame in exchange for absolutely nothing. Watching the movie with glasses looks virtually identical to watching it without glasses, only the images are murkier and lack fine detail behind the lenses. There are times, indeed, when you can take the glasses off completely and be better off, not even receiving the halo effect that 3-D typically gives off. If one must go to see "The Last Airbender," avoid the 3-D version like the bubonic plague. It represents the absolute nadir of the format, worse and more useless than even back in the days of cardboard glasses with red and blue lenses. Paramount Pictures should be ashamed of themselves.