M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, The Last Airbender, is being thoroughly savaged by critics, receiving some of the director’s worst reviews yet. Adapted from a popular animated series, it remains to be seen whether or not the show’s young fans will agree with the critical consensus. With some devotees already expressing angst over casting choices, the film’s potential success (and Shyamalan’s future) seems to be on shaky ground.
The current reaction from critics is familiar territory for Shyamalan. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes reveals a remarkably consistent slide in the director’s ratings from film to film. If The Sixth Sense, with its 85 percent Tomatometer rating, marks the high-point of Shyamalan’s career, then Airbender, at 9 percent, represents the bottom of a ditch the director seems to have dug deeper with every new release.
While poor reviews don’t always translate to poor box office performance (just ask Jerry Bruckheimer), the success of Shyamalan’s films have so far matched critical reception. Indeed, the once lavishly praised filmmaker has never been able to reproduce the financial or critical success of 1999’s Sixth Sense, a cultural phenomenon of a movie that catapulted Shyamalan to the top of the Hollywood directors A-List. It’s easy to forget that he was once hailed in a Newsweek cover story as the next Steven Spielberg.
Shyamalan’s last up-to-bat, 2008’s The Happening, was the previous low point in terms of the director’s critics and box office draw. The movie, premised on a global episode of mass hysteria without any apparent cause, seems like a tough sell. With a plot-twist involving plants, it’s not difficult to see why audiences failed to be convinced. Shyamalan’s habit of last minute twists was only effective if audiences were able to suspend their disbelief. With critical and box office failures like The Happening and Lady in the Water, those plot-twists seemed to induce groans rather than wonder.
If fans of his earlier work had held out hope that Last Airbender’s format, an action-packed, effects-laden epic, would be a more comfortable fit for the director, those hopes seem to have been dashed. With Shyamalan’s own daughters fans of the show, the project seemed promising. Things got off on the wrong foot when people complained that the show’s characters, depicted as Asian in the animated series, were being portrayed by a largely white cast. Some even went so far as to protest casting calls. Not a good sign.
It may be that Shyamalan tried to make up for it by taking time to explain Airbender’s fictional world and back-story in painstakingly faithful detail. Unfortunately, that detail seems to have been fleshed out to an excruciatingly complete degree, with much of the film bogged down by clunky exposition and wordy dialogue. The last minute conversion to 3-D doesn’t seem to have impressed critics either, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times going so far as to say that it “wrecks whatever grace or visual beauty might have been there.”
A strong box-office performance might redeem Shyamalan, but, with a budget totaling close to $300 million, it’s difficult to imagine much of a profit for Airbender. If audiences react the same way that critics have, it would not only cast serious doubt on any future sequels, it could spell disaster for Shyamalan’s career. With that career spanning a meteoric rise and fall over the course of a single decade, The Last Airbender could just be Shyamalan’s last hurrah.