Movie Review: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender sucks the wind out of it's own sails

Those arguing against the seemingly relentless march of 3D technology might say that it’s no substitute for a strong plot and good acting. And it appears that M Night Shyamalan agrees, so much so that he’s dedicated an entire film to proving the theory.

It’s all too easy to rip apart a film that’s as unsatisfying as this overblown fantasy, so I’ll start by saying that were this to be judged solely on effects, he’s nailed it. The film, a fantasy war epic based on the hugely popular cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, is a 3D wet dream, set in a futuristic world divided into tribes who worship the four elements: Air, water, fire and earth. Certain members of the tribes are gifted with the ability to “bend” these elements, though the Fire tribe, (unnervingly similar to the equally, irredeemably evil Slytherins in Harry Potter) seek to conquer the world by enslaving and quelling their enemy benders, and gaining control of the universe. But while the bending of the elements is rendered impressively in 3D, the truth is that even with torrents of water and fire shooting directly towards your face, they still cannot obscure the limp plod of the rest of the film and the horribly wooden, unintentionally puerile (“From the first day we discovered you were a bender…”) dialogue.

The Avatar, a being (in fact, a twelve year old boy played by Noah Ringer) with the power to control all four elements, has been lost for over a century, but on his return (having lived in suspended animation inside a ball of ice), two Water tribe children Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara(Nicola Peltz), the last water bender of the tribe, take him on a journey across the globe, searching for teachers who can finish the training he started. Meanwhile back at the Fire tribe ranch, the king has banished his disgraced son (Dev Patel) and warned him not to return until he manages to kill the Avatar.

Hence, what appears to be a visually explosive, but (bar one performance) poorly acted extended training montage (with well executed martial arts artistry), in which we meet another water tribe, with a beautiful princess and a kindly king, who teach the Avatar and watch as they make full use of the 3D technology, spouting emotional platitudes off undying dedication o the cause, and oddly unemotional , all the while failing to ignite any passion for the fantasy world Shyamalan has created.

It’s not the story (a failsafe good vs. evil by fantasy standards) that’s the problem, it’s the underdeveloped characters that prop it up. Fantasy needs to be believable, and it’s difficult to care about the monumentally un-terrifying villains and save-the-world-by numbers heroes (“I need to talk to the dragon spirit. Is there a place I can meditate?”). Jackson Rathbone, whose bright eyed wildness gives minor Twilight character Jasper real teeth, is disappointingly bland here. But the real standout is Dev Patel, who (in retrospect), perhaps chose his follow up project to Slumdog Millionaire a little rashly, but nonetheless displays an impressive range for emotional angst that transforms an on-paper spoilt child into the genuinely conflicted, sympathetic Prince Zuko who effortlessly steals the spotlight every time he’s on screen.

Time was, the endings of M.Night Shyamalan films were always the biggest mystery. Now, the only mystery remaining is how, in a recession, he continues to get studios to fund his films.

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