Because writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan seemed to have headed downhill with movies like "The Village," "Lady in the Water," and "The Happening," I thought it might have been because while he's a pretty good director, he has long insisted upon writing his own stories, too. Therein, I figured, lay the problem: the scripts were deficient. So with 2010's "The Last Airbender," Shyamalan based his fantasy adventure on the TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and merely wrote the screenplay. It didn't help. The movie remains mediocre at best.
My hope is that in the future film studios will respectfully suggest to Shyamalan never to go near an original story idea or an adaptation again. Hire him to direct, but under no circumstance allow him near a pen, pencil, or word processor. Still, when he's the producer as well, I guess he can pretty much have things his way. From what I understand, Shyamalan's first impulse was to cram the entire first season of the television series into his movie but found it would be, surprise, too long. So he tried to condense the season into 103 minutes. That was probably even worse. For the most part, my never having seen the TV show, I found the movie haphazard, inconsistent, and, despite its beautiful appearance, dull. In fairness, the movie earned almost $135,000,000 at the box office. And cost $150,000,000 to make.
The picture begins with a lengthy prologue, written out on the screen and read aloud, which does not bode well for the tale to follow. In this forward we learn that "Water, Earth, Fire and Air Nomads lived amongst each other in harmony.... The Avatar was the only person born amongst all the nations who could master all four elements. He was the only one who could communicate with the Spirit World. With the Spirits' guidance the Avatar kept balance in the world. And then a hundred years ago, he just disappeared."
So, the world needs a new Avatar to bring order and harmony back into the scheme of things. By the way, the filmmakers decided to leave the word "Avatar" out of the title, even though it was in the title of the TV series, because they didn't want to confuse audiences with that other movie of the same name. So even though the film's main character is an Avatar (which my "Random House Unabridged Dictionary" defines in Hindu myth as "the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god"), the movie's title doesn't mention it. And you wonder why this thing is close to impenetrable.
The story opens with a brother and sister, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), rescuing a young boy of about twelve, Aang (Noah Ringer), from a frozen grave, where he has apparently slept in the ice for the past 100 years. He is, of course, the Avatar of legend, the chosen one who was to continue the tradition of his Avatar forebears and keep peace and order in the world. But he was a mere boy when he found out about the responsibility he would assume, and before he could learn how to control any but one of the four elemental powers, he ran away, became ensnared in the ice, and remained there for a century.
In the meantime, the evil Fire Nation, with no Avatar to hold them back, determined to conquer the world. We know the Fire people are evil because their ships look evil (think here of Klingons or Romulans). Katara, a Water Nomad, and her brother attempt to assist Aang assume his rightful position in the order of things by helping him learn to use his other powers. This means doing a lot of traveling, so it helps that Aang has with him a giant, friendly, furry, flying beast (think here of "The NeverEnding Story").
At the same time, the devious Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the disgraced and banished son of the Fire Nation's leader, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), searches for Aang, hoping that if he can capture him and show his father that he's got him, he can get back into his father's good graces (the Fire Nation figuring the Avatar to be their major obstacle to world domination). Accompanying Prince Zuko we find Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), a general in the Fire Nation army and Zuko's confidant and advisor.
The movie proceeds through so many situations, it has to rely on Katara's voice-over narration a good deal of the time to connect the dots. Not a good sign. Nor is the fact that the nationalities of the characters remains a mystery, most of them looking and dressing Asian, yet most of the primary actors being decidedly non Asian. Maybe this was an intentional effort to make the story more universal. Or not.
The plot meanders along like one of those stories you pass around in English class with each student adding a new section. Before long, it's chaos. Worse, the film has no flow. The pacing is awkward, the actions moving in fits and starts. In other words, it's as if Shyamalan just shoved as many episodes of the TV show into the movie as possible, with little regard to continuity or sense or grace or style. The result is slow, clumsy, and tedious and devoid of any trace of humor.
Worse still, most of the dialogue and delivery sounds amateurish. It's Noah Ringer's first movie, and Dev Patel had his first big break in "Slumdog Millionaire" just two years earlier. Many of the other young actors had but a few previous credits to their name. They're attractive and talented, I'm sure, but they seem out of their depth and given little help from the director. What's more, only a few of the adult actors, like Cliff Curtis and Shaun Toub, have any resumé worth mentioning. Even the little gymnastic ballets these folks do before conjuring up their powers look gawky. To say the acting is weak would be an understatement; I can't remember another major motion picture where the performances were so ungainly. $150,000,000, and the studio couldn't obtain accomplished acting or a coherent script. I dunno.
In its favor, "The Last Airbender" looks terrific. The sets, costumes, cinematography, special effects, and computer graphics (thank you, ILM) are first rate. But a movie has to have something worth following, something worth thinking or caring about, beyond pretty pictures. "The Last Airbender" provides no drama, no suspense, and no excitement; just a series of almost random actions. The whole thing reminded me of nothing more than an elaborate version of the kid's game "Rock-Paper-Scissors."
Spoiler Alert, sorta, kinda:
Most of us know that M. Night Shyamalan is fond of surprise endings, and I would never before now have even considered giving one away. But I feel I have to make an exception here on behalf of audiences everywhere. The movie's subtitle actually reveals the twist, announcing at the very beginning that it's "Water." Yep. Evidently, we've got three more movies to go: "Earth," "Fire," and "Air." Unless the studio feels the first one didn't live up to expectations, financially or artistically. (Think here of "The Golden Compass.")
The film's 2.35:1 widescreen image shows up quite well in Paramount's BD50, MPEG-4 transfer. Colors are exceptionally natural in appearance, with realistic flesh tones and solid black levels, the screen never looking artificially bright, glossy, or cartoonish. I'm sure the latter look may have tempted the filmmakers, given the movie's origins, but they kept the visuals rich and lush rather than garish. There is also good definition throughout, with an abundance of inner detail, even in longer shots, and only the faintest tinge of blur on occasion.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack provides wide dynamics and strong impact, along with excellent, taut, deep bass that will shake the rafters. It's exactly the kind of audio you expect from a blockbuster epic, with the surround channels, rear and side, generating plenty of musical ambience, plus pinpoint environmental and battle noises. Figure on being immersed in the sound field 360 degrees.
The extras on the Blu-ray disc include one lengthy documentary and three featurettes, all in high definition. The documentary, "Discovering The Last Airbender," is in nine parts and lasts almost an hour. Its nine segments take us behind the scenes, providing background on the making of the film and a promotion of it. Next are the featurettes "Siege of the North," eighteen minutes, on the set design of the northern city; "Origins of the Avatar," seven minutes, on the movie's animated-cartoon inspiration, with its creators talking about how they dreamed it up; and "Katara for a Day," five minutes, with Nicola Peltz, the young actress who plays the part. In addition to the featurettes, there are four deleted scenes totaling about eleven minutes and a gag reel of outtakes, about four minutes, both in high def. Then, there is "Avatar Annotations," a picture-in-picture affair with interviews and more behind-the-scenes footage over select scenes.
The extras conclude with eleven scene selections; bookmarks; a bonus DVD containing a standard-definition version of the movie and a digital copy for PC and Mac; an embossed slipcover; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Last Airbender" looks terrific, its sets, costumes, and special effects top notch. Unfortunately, the acting in the film is less than desirable, and the story is hopelessly childish. It's a nice movie to look at, to be sure, as long as you ignore the characters, plot, and action. In my book, that doesn't add up.
"It is in the heart that all wars are won." Tell that to soldiers on the battlefield.