Other than The Last Airbender, it's hard to think of another movie that conveys so much urgency in every line of dialogue and yet goes absolutely nowhere. M. Night Shyamalan, fighting to reclaim his commercial viability, wrote, produced and directed this live-action adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon animated series, and while he successfully condensed an entire season into one feature-length film, he did so by packing it with only exposition, leaving no room for characters, story, or anything else. A soul-crushing disaster made worse by unnecessary, counterproductive 3-D, The Last Airbender fails to immediately qualify as the worst film of the summer only by virtue of the year's abundance of other candidates.
Noah Ringer plays Aang, the last airbender of the title, who is rescued from underwater imprisonment by the scruffy brother-sister team of Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz). When his release is detected by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the disgraced son of the King of firebenders, Ozai (Cliff Curtis), he and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) set off to capture him and deliver the boy to Zuko's father. In the meantime, the ambitious commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) also takes up pursuit of Aang, and decides that the best way to render the boy's burgeoning powers inert is to kill the spirits from which he – and the world's other benders of water and earth – derives power. Seeking refuge in a city of ice, Aang, Sokka and Katara train to master the power of waterbending in the hopes that they will be able to repel the attacking firebender hordes, and restore Aang's status as an Avatar, the world's all-powerful protector.
If you care at all about or are even intrigued by any of the plot description above, before you investigate The Last Airbender further it is essential to note that I haven't merely condensed the details of the film, I've eliminated almost two hours of nonstop exposition that you will have to endure to even find them. I cannot remember one single sequence where the characters aren't describing what just happened, what is happening, or what will happen at any given time, and all of that dialogue is delivered with such fatalistic melodrama that it only underscores the feeling that none of it matters, and worse yet, none of it resonates emotionally. A big part of Aang's journey/ transformation involves him letting go of his anger towards the genocide of his people, but there's no point at which I thought he cared enough to be angry, much less have to "try" and let it go.
Of course, part of the problem there is that the performance Ringer gives doesn't work, but it's hard to blame the actors, who seem to be doing precisely what they were told by Shyamalan. Patel, who was passable at best in Slumdog Millionaire, is by far the worst, numbly making his way through one repetitive monologue after another, but Peltz delivers her lines as if she was told each one was her last, and Mandvi must have been told he'd receive a digital moustache in post, because he's twirling it like a madman.
Meanwhile, Rathbone shows mildly more energy here than in the Twilight films but generally maintains his emerging tradition of never blinking; but like his costars, he also acquiesced to Shyamalan's oppressive, self-serious direction, helping to create a summertime adventure that's frigid and unenjoyable, almost on purpose. Only Shaun Taub escapes with any dignity intact, playing Iroh as the sensible and compassionate alternative to, well, everyone else's polarized heroics or villainy.
The action scenes are for the most part well-shot thanks to deft work by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose Oscar-winning efforts on Lord of the Rings were clearly a point of inspiration for Shyamalan. But even if a few people respond to this positively – and God knows one of my colleagues did – I literally can't imagine what about this will captivate an audience at large and make it commercially successful. Mind you, I'm not trying to prognosticate its box office prospects, which are irrelevant to quality and unimportant to the artistic merits of a film in any and all cases; I'm merely observing that I don't see anything in the construction of this story as it is that will connect with people on a deeper level than summer spectacle, a meager offering of which The Last Airbender provides.
Ultimately, Shyamalan has miscalculated his own abilities yet again – specifically, to presume that what he apparently finds interesting will translate easily to what his audiences find interesting. What's sad is that even among his past flops, I understood what he connected with in them, even when I didn't, but here, there appears to be nothing driving his efforts, except perhaps the obvious opportunity to have a hit movie. Notwithstanding the 3-D, which is not only superfluous, it actually ruins some of his photographic techniques (such as hazy, distorted dream sequences), his visual inventiveness remains undiminished, but there's no discernible passion for the material, and nothing more than that technical virtuosity to sustain its many, many other shortcomings.
The irony, of course, is that Shyamalan has spent much of his career creating one image for himself and then desperately trying to disavow himself of it. It used to be that he was the guy who always made movies with twist endings. Now it's that he started his career promisingly, fell off hard, and never recovered. Far be it for me to suggest that The Last Airbender will or should be his actual last movie, but with any luck it will at the very least be Shyamalan's last Airbender movie, because if he needs anything at this point, it's a twist ending to his career - and overwrought, underwhelming, ineffective drivel like this only suggests the kind of finale that his other failures have been building towards.