M. Night Shyamalan is a veteran of films I’ve loathed, most notably Signs and The Lady In The Water, but where I have a soft spot for The Happening through the sheer hilarity of its dreadfulness – if Tommy Wiseau had a budget and desire to make a disaster movie, Happening is the film he would have made – Airbender marks a return to the flat self-importance that left Lady very much dead In The Water.
Reams of exposition are delivered in lengthy scenes that give the actors little to do other than nod their heads, hurrying through what passes for action (mostly consisting of people striking elaborate poses at each other, taking so long to conjure up each power that battles effectively become turn-based) in order to reach the next passage of monotonous blabbing as quickly as possible. Shyamalan’s inability to draw any kind of emotional response from his actors, in addition to the script’s confusion of bloated portentousness for gravitas, results in these scenes being dragged from slow to suicidal, in turn making it only natural to glaze over most of the information being given to you through mentally debilitating boredom. How energetic children are expected to sit through these endless, dreary exchanges beggars belief.
Visually the film is at least colourful and therefore more engaging to look at than watch, but the quality of the CGI varies wildly and little effort is made to giving the effects any real-world credibility. Tsunamis of water splash down on top of people who find themselves perfectly dry seconds later. Fire is thrown around with wild abandon yet while it would be a bit much to expect a children’s film to represent anyone burning, it would be nice to at least get the impression of some form of heat being generated. As for the oppressed Earthbenders needing a chosen one to point out that they have an advantage over their captors in the ability to manipulate the ground beneath their feet, the less said the better.
The elemental powers on show are entirely interchangeable except for the different colour schemes. Aang apparently needs to learn specific skills to master the control of each, yet we’re not given any insight into what these skills might be or how they’re different from those required for other elements. Perhaps the biggest problem running throughout the film is that it scarcely believes its own world and has no interest in probing it for anything deeper than opportunities for visual spectacle. Yet if the film won’t even put that minimal effort into establishing its fantasy, that spectacle is robbed of consequences and lacks any impact for the audience.
It would help if there were a protagonist worth cheering for, but young Aang mopes through the film with none of the fun that a super-powered boy with a flying furry pet should be having, no matter how many reincarnated saviours with the weight of the world on their shoulders he’s got buzzing around inside him. I don’t like being so harsh on young actors, but there’s no spirit or exuberance in the leads’ performances. That may be mostly down to the dour material, but even bad lines needn’t be delivered with the enthusiasm of a multiplication table recital. Dev Patel is at least generous enough to make his performance as the angsty exiled Prince of the Fire people (or something) so completely lacking in credible humanity or threat that everyone on-screen with him briefly looks good. A word also for Seychelle Gabriel, who pops up briefly as a short-lived, princess-shaped plot device: you’re reasonably talented and in a slither of a role, your smile is one of the better things on show here, just as your torso was the best thing in the otherwise abominable The Spirit. But being the best thing in the worst films is no way to build a career.
Even with being released during a particularly bad summer, the scale of The Last Airbender‘s egregiousness can be summed up with two points. The first is that it relies upon being slightly more visually enjoyable than Lady In The Water and marginally more bearable than summer competition Jonah Hex for credibility. The second is that the film’s sole entertainment value comes from chuckles earnt by characters delivering minutes of straight-faced ominous exposition, only to start calling each other ‘benders’ (a sarcastic British term for homosexual) shortly afterwards.
The Last Airbender is insufferable for adults and no doubt doubly so for children or fans of the animé, who will be hit twice as hard by the portentous dialogue, dour tone, torturous pacing and hollow spectacle. For a more enjoyable evening’s entertainment, take a dive into an active volcano. And live.