Ever since seeing The Sixth Sense, my nature has been to resist the films of M. Night Shyamalan. I have to admit that now. I’m aware of his technical skills and his ability to build tension, and yet something within me finds his work profoundly unappealing. I go in with an open mind, but then, minute by minute, it seems as if he’s purposely trying to push me away with his unreasonably slow pacing, his amateurish dialogue, his bizarre character development, his ill-fitting sense of humor, and in some cases, his ridiculous plot twists. By the time I leave, a wall has gone up, and I feel cheated and angry. Many have felt the same way about Lady in the Water and The Happening, but few agreed with me on The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. The first even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Now we have The Last Airbender, a live-action 3-D adaptation of the Nickelodeon anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Unfortunately, Shyamalan has proven he can alienate younger audiences just as easily as older ones. It’s a children’s film, and yet he didn’t seem to have children in mind when making it; it’s unmanageably plot-heavy, the dialogue is rife with incomprehensible exposition, the last minute 2-D to 3-D conversion is unimpressive, and worst of all, the characters are badly drawn – a mistake, I suspect, that was made worse with the casting of white actors in roles that were intended to be Asian and Inuit. There are a few enjoyable action sequences and moments of digital wizardry, but on the whole, I cannot envision anyone, kids least of all, making heads or tails of this film.
The premise is that, in an alternate reality, the world is divided into four elemental kingdoms: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Within each are people who can manipulate, or bend, the elements. The Fire Nation, having already overseen the genocide of the Air Nomads, is now waging war against the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes. From the Southern Water Tribe, we meet a teen waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone); while hunting, they crack open a gigantic sphere of ice, releasing little Aang (Noah Ringer), the sole surviving airbender who disappeared 100 years ago. As it turns out, he’s also the Avatar, which is to say he’s the only one with the ability to control all four elements. Apparently, he can go into meditative trances and have conversations with a dragon spirit, a skill that’s never adequately explained apart from its obvious implications.
While well skilled in the art of airbending, Aang was never trained to bend water, earth, or fire. So begins his journey to the Northern Water Tribe, since, according to him, water training the natural progression from air training. He has to be careful; the Fire Nation is aware of his existence, and more than one person is pursuing him. Firstly, there’s Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Secondly, there’s Ozai’s exiled son, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who hopes to regain his honor by capturing Aang. Finally, there’s Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), Zuko’s main rival.
It seems basic enough, but the plot is deceptively weighty, mostly due to extremely long-winded explanations about various spirits, periods in history, peoples, places, and philosophies. Some are woven into unnecessary subplots. When Aang, Katara, and Sokka arrive in the Northern Water Tribe, for example, Sokka immediately falls in love a white-haired princess named Yue (Seychelle Gabriel); because so little time is spent on them, we can’t invest in their relationship, nor can we absorb the details of her miraculous birth or her connection to the spirit of the moon. And then there’s Zuko’s uncle, Iroh (Shaun Toub), who really serves no purpose except to be an easy-going crutch for Zuko to lean on. He has his own troubled past, although it’s alluded to so casually and briefly that one wonders why Shyamalan deemed it necessary.
What he seems to be doing is taking an entire series’ worth of information and packing it into a single film. This isn’t how it works; when it comes to a film adaptation, especially of a lengthy source, one must know exactly which story should be told and then proceed to remove the extraneous details. Yes, sacrifices would be made, but the simple fact is that movies generally require streamlines plots. There’s no conceivable way audiences are going to take in everything The Last Airbender tells them. There’s simply too much of it. Worse still, it’s not told particularly well. If you doubt me, listen to the dialogue Shyamalan supplies Aang with. When he speaks, he sounds more like a modern-day kid than a revered figure of myth.
I don’t want to write Shyamalan off as a bad filmmaker. He has disappointed me time and time again, but I can’t help but feel that, somewhere deep down, he has what it takes to make a good movie. His previous films, even the ones I flat out hated, all had flashes of greatness. What he needs to finally realize is that successful films cannot be just about the craft; he must stop laboring over atmosphere and put some effort into actual storytelling. The Last Airbender, while stylistically and thematically different from his earlier efforts, is a burden to watch, an overstuffed and underdeveloped adventure fantasy that doesn’t have any audience capable of following along in mind. Yet again, I have built up a wall, and its seeming less and less likely that I’ll ever be able to knock it down.