M. Night Shyamalan is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when you thought he’d hit his true low, and just when you thought less creative control over his material would save the day, he pulls a fast one and comes up with something even worse. As it turns out, Shyamalan can vividly ruin a known property about as well as he can dream up mindless drivel of his own creation.
The Nickelodeon television show Avatar: The Last Airbender is generally regarded as a high-flying adventure with characters that fly even higher, a work of spirited kinetics that isn’t afraid to share in its character’s pain. All of this is accomplished via a broad narrative about a brother and sister of the water tribe (this world is ruled over by four tribes each aligned with an element). In the show, and in the film, these two are Katara and Sokka (played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone in the film, and I use “played” in a broad sense here). One day while exploring they discover a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), and the film follows the earlier portions of the television show as they come to realize he is the last of the air benders (benders being people who can control their affiliated element with panache).
Soon enough, in both fictions, a rebellious fire tribe prince (Zuko, played by Dev Patel) attacks the water tribe homeland, discovers Aang, and captures him. Before much time has passed, however, Aang escapes and meets up with Katara and Sokka so that he can unlock the secrets of earth and water bending and use a command of three elements to take out the often murderous fire nation. Meanwhile, Zuko has severe daddy issues of his own, and his hunt for Aang may be informed less out of malice than anxiety and social acceptance.
All of which is perfectly functional at the broadest possible level, something that at least could not be said of Shyamalan’s bone-headed The Lady in the Water. But it is only at the broadest level where the “adapted” nature of this tale does the film any favors; when you get past the fact that Shyamalan didn’t develop the idea of this film, you have to deal with the fact that he did develop the screenplay and the visuals, both of which are rampaging and marauding in their deficiencies. None of which is an intangible either; everything that is difficult and distasteful about The Last Airbender is difficult and distasteful right up at the surface level. Shyamalan’s screenplay, for instance, heralds a new, burly level of grotesqueness, taking his usual habit of endless exposition and having a day at the races with it. The sheer quantity and non-apology of exposition in the film is downright brutalistic, giving us scene after scene of characters speaking to other characters about material they both obviously know already, and the speaking about it again.
Frequently, it is also material which has been shown to us just minutes before-hand, which divulges another not-so-secret about Shyamalan’s body of work. On one level, he is a remarkably self-confident director whose over-confidence toward his own material speaks for itself. At the same time, however, he exhibits a beguiling under-confidence in his patented sense of “style”, typically wowing us with a graceful bit of subtle visual atmosphere and storytelling and then stomping all over the nuance by having characters boldly proclaim and announce exactly what we had just glimpsed before-hand. For a director supposedly so skilled with a camera, he exhibits a humorless insistence on shooting his visuals in the foot by not trusting them and just begging that we look away, knowing full well that a character will tell us anything we could have gleaned from the screen not a second or two after we might have gleaned it. Even when the “showing” is good, we know he is about to tell us what we were just shown. And then tell us again, and then do it a third time just in case our eyes weren’t working. And in case our ears were plugging themselves up to hide from the dialogue.
Except, in The Last Airbender, there is nothing to glean from any of the visuals; Shyamalan’s framing, yet again, manages to be perfunctory when it isn’t entirely broken. This is not merely a case of the visuals failing to tell a story, but a work of visuals actively spitting on the story’s corpse. If Shyamalan didn’t seem so boastfully head-over-heels for his dialogue, I would say he obviously hated the material, chagrined his audience, and was clearly mocking their adoration for this material with his casually off-hand incompetence. Either that, or he was simply bored with it all. It is hard to say which is true, but what may be the most aggressively poorly filmed fight scenes in the history of film beg to argue for the fact that he actively hates the material and wishes to do harm with it. A mid-film conversation where Katara and Sokka, framed in a two-shot, and Aang, inter-cut in a closeup that almost peers into his nostrils, might be the worst a conversation has ever been written and filmed in unison. The Hollywood continuity cuts from side to side are merely bland and predictable, but the close-up is feverishly bad, allowing Shyamalan to have it both ways.
Very likely, his disregard for the basic faculties of editing and camera movement, not to mention his arrogantly swaggering use of painful close-ups for no reason whatsoever, stem from his personal fascination with his own ideas. It is no secret that Shyamalan loves his ideas and wishes to give them to the world in a pretty little package, and The Last Airbender is not his idea; perhaps he was jealous of it, and jealous that for his first major tentpole and 100 million plus budgeted release, he had to lower himself to the level of “an adaptation” of someone else’s material.
One might think, in fact, that he would look at any adaptation of any material – say, Shakespeare for instance – as “lowering himself into the muck of the Earth”. If we remember our Lady in the Water well, Shyamalan plainly fancies himself superior to anyone else in the world, and having to tackle another person’s ideas may have gotten the better of him. It is not obvious whether he hates the show Avatar, is bored by it, or merely feels ashamed of himself for directing it and angry at Hollywood for refusing to give him 150 million dollars for any of his own majestic ideas. Whichever it is though, the film that resulted from this inner -hurricane of cognitive dissonance is awful, plain and simple. In the end, adaptation or not, that is all that matters.
So how good is it really?: 0.5/5 (as close to the bottom of the barrel as tentpole cinema has ever gotten)
But how “good” is it?: 2/5 (there is an appeal to seeing how much little-worth Shyamalan can pile on, but the whole affair feels so antiseptic and clinical in its badness that it works more as an intellectual study in incompetence rather than a great crowd-pleasing pile of trash)