Look, I may be the last remaining Shyamalan fanboy in the blogosphere, but even I'm not going to defend The Last Airbender. It pretty much blows. It plays like some sort of hippie elementary school Christmas pageant. The dialogue isn't just bad, it calls into question Shyamalan's proficiency in the English language. (Personal favorite: "We believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.") Noah Ringer's performance should make everyone appreciate the difference between genuinely talented child actors and merely photogenic kids. I cannot tell a lie: the movie is a stilted, overexpository bore.

But I have to dissent from one aspect of the pile-on, and that is the seemingly universal impression that The Last Airbender is ugly. Roger Ebert calls the special effects "atrocious," and the film " the drabbest, darkest, dingiest movie of any sort I've seen in years." A.O. Scott calls it "muddy" and "graceless." Ty Burr references "shockingly dingy camerawork." And so on.

Some, though not all, of these complaints have to do with the by-all-accounts-awful 3-D retrofit. I'm not qualified to quibble with that assessment. But what's getting lost here is that, when seen the way Shyamalan intended -- in two glorious dimensions -- The Last Airbender is gorgeous and painstakingly composed, with the same measured attention to detail the filmmaker displayed in his previous work. The effects are fantastic, every shot gleams, and what Shyamalan does with framing and focus sets the movie apart (at least visually) from the artless, efficient blockbusters we see week after week.



It is also a bad-ass action film. I found the one-take fight scenes staggering, a beautiful alternative to the edited-to-a-pulp mish-mash action that we usually see. Noah Ringer is a terrible actor, but I can see why Shyamalan cast him: his ability to do at least some of these stunts allowed the director to compose fluid, lucid action set pieces without having to edit around the star. This aspect of Airbender is being widely downplayed.

Again. no dispute that: (1) The Last Airbender pretty much sucks, and (2) that 3-D "up-conversion" is an abomination of near-Biblical proportions. But in two dimensions, the movie looks fantastic, and visually at least, Shyamalan's still got it.