THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE LAST AIRBENDER"
This photo perfectly illustrates the absurdity that is The Last Airbender.
What did I just watch? The Last Airbender is the film version of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, which has millions of devoted fans. I've never seen the show, but if the movie is any indication, it may well be the stupidest thing ever. The big screen adaptation was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who seems intent on driving one more nail into the coffin of whatever's left of his career. I was enjoying a nice July 4th holiday when it came out in theaters, and thus never bothered to catch it until DVD. I could have skipped Airbender on disc too, and my life would not have been one iota less fulfilled.
In the story's universe, there are four nations: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. (Never seen that before!) Certain members of each nation have the ability to "bend" their particular element. Trouble starts when the Fire Nation launches a war against all the others. The only one who can bring peace is Aang (Noah Ringer), a young boy with the rare power to bend all the elements. He teams up with water-bender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) to take on the villainous Prince Zuko (Dev Patel).
The Last Airbender is a chatty little movie. So chatty, in fact, that it practically has its head up its own posterior. Everything feels like exposition, with characters talking about mystical stuff you won't care about unless you're already obsessed with Airbender minutia. People rag on the way Twilight caters to fans, but at least that film series tries to make itself accessible to newcomers. The Last Airbender is, for the uninitiated, like watching a foreign-language movie without subtitles. Good luck figuring out what's going on. Come to think of it, I suspect even fans will be disappointed, given how turgid and lifeless the storytelling is.
So many things are so, so wrong. The acting is horrific. Young Noah Ringer has the martial arts skills required for the role, but no acting chops whatsoever. His performance is like something out of a bad grade school stage production. Then there's poor Dev Patel, who made such a strong impression in Slumdog Millionaire. That film took advantage of his natural charm and likeability. Shyamalan casts him as a bad guy, which was a colossal mistake. Perhaps Patel could convincingly play a villain in a film with a better screenplay, but in this film he's like (to paraphrase Simon Cowell) a kitten trying to be a tiger. The actor grimaces and scowls, yet never once gives off an ounce of menace.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing for me is that The Last Airbender never answers the most fundamental question: What is the point of bending elements? Aside from allowing for some visually striking fight sequences, there doesn't seem to be much call for it. Without knowing what's so special about the ability, I could not have cared less about Aang or anyone else in this idiotic tale.
In fairness, the movie has a gorgeous look. That is literally the only thing it has in its favor. Mere words can barely describe the sheer inanity on display. To put it as crassly as possible, this film sucks. Here's hoping it really is the last Airbender.
( out of four)
The Last Airbender DVD comes with a 7-minute interview with the cartoon's creators, which is unenlightening at best. There are also several minutes of insipid deleted scenes which prove the movie could have been even worse than it already is.
The Last Airbender is rated PG for fantasy action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.