Take a truly robust mythology, access to some of the best CGI houses working today, a budget that allows for location filming outside of Philadelphia, and what do you get? In the hands of former hot property M. Night Shyamalan, you get THE LAST AIRBENDER, an irritating fantasy flick that finds its greatest magic in rendering a live action, 3-D film into something flatter than the cartoon series on which it is based.
The premise blends Asian mysticism with the pan-mysticism of the alchemical sort to imagine an avatar, not to be confused with the James Cameron variety, who is master of all four alchemical elements. That would be earth, air, fire, and water. The world in which all this occurs is divided into four nations, each master of one element, and each generation sees an avatar born into one of those nations who is master of them all, and is the only one who can speak directly to the spirit world who watches over the world. Potentially. The last generation hit a snag when Aang (Noah Ringer), a monastery student, learned that he was the current incarnation of the avatar, and that being such meant giving up all hope of having a family. His running away in a fit of pique left the world open to becoming out of balance, the which was taken advantage of by the, ahem, hotheaded, Fire Nation, with the ensuing rampage subjugating the other three nations and wiping out the air benders entirely. Hence the title.
Aang resurfaces, literally, a century or so later in the Water Nation thanks to some less than competent water bending by Katara (Nicola Peltz), sister of Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), the less than competent hunter. Aangs appearance brings on the wrath of the Fire Nation, in the persons of disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), and his nemesis, Commander Zhao, which brings on the flight of Aang, facilitated by his pal, the giant beaver-tailed yak-like thing that can fly, as well as Katara and Sokka because theyve decided to make Aang their responsibility. That it leaves Grandma (Katharine Houghton) to fend for herself in their poor village in the middle of an icy waste doesnt figure into this decision.
For a story that is over-explained with insipid narration and the constant hammering repetition of plot points, of back story, and of what objects mean, the whole feels spliced together with little regard for internal logic. Large, evil-looking metal ships appear and disappear from the screen. Aang, Sokka, and Katara move around like pieces on a chessboard thats been upended by a petulant child. Any hope of a story with suitably dramatic punctuation has been undermined by Shyamalans efforts to use the techniques that served him so well in creating mood pieces such as THE SIXTH SENSE and his earlier, unjustly overlooked WIDE AWAKE, and applying those techniques to the action-adventure genre. In keeping with that, everything feels as though it is in slow motion. Not just the cliché slowing of action during the battle sequences, but rather, everything is paced to be just a few beats behind a rhythm with a viable pulse. Its as though Shyamalan wants to be sure that the audience doesnt miss anything by going too fast.
Ringer is miscast, or perhaps he and his co-stars have been told to perform as though they were in the first table reading. His moves, martial and element-bending, lack any sign of mastery, or even potential mastery, resembling nothing so much as a neophyte attempting advanced prestidigitation on his first day at magic camp. It doesnt help that there is no actual character development, Aangs perfunctory one subsumed entirely by his benighted approach to the role, and that there is none at all in either Katara or Sokka. The only trace of such is reserved for Prince Zuko, and Patel, despite the odds, delivers a good performance as the tortured and unloved son of a careless father desperate to fight even his better instincts to prove himself. Mandvi’s Zhao, the villain angling for power and a new world order, makes scenery chewing refreshing, though he is ultimately let down by the script that forces him to fill in too many dead spots.
Arguably, the worst thing about THE LAST AIRBENDER is that it would be blissfully forgettable if it werent so blazingly incompetent in its conception and execution. That is slyly positions itself as a springboard for a franchise inspires a melancholy not easily shaken off.