M. Night Shyamalan | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Consensus holds that the work of once-acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan has managed a near-perfect trajectory of decreasing returns. I’m not talking about box office — I have no idea (or much interest) in how that’s gone for him — but quality, starting with supernatural chiller The Sixth Sense and sliding gradually to the nadir of The Happening. I’m not as convinced (I quite liked some of his efforts along the way), but it’s fair to say The Happening was pretty awful and certainly his worst… until this.
Adapted from a US animated series (but having to drop the series’ Avatar prefix thanks to a certain other 3D blockbuster), Shyamalan’s live-action rendition condenses the storyline of the first season into a 90-something-minute movie. You can immediately see some problems are going to arise just from the maths involved. I should say, I’ve never seen the original series, so I have no idea how Shyamalan succeeds in translating it. There was plenty of controversy in his casting, which included Caucasians in the roles of apparently-Asian characters in the original, but happily using them for the villains. I don’t know that that bothers me so much, but it seemed to be a watershed moment for some.
Even ignoring the inevitable prejudice of an adaptation not living up to fans’ expectations, however, The Last Airbender is a mess. You don’t even need to see it in the notoriously too-dark post-production 3D to find yourself confused about what’s going on. The plot pings back and forth between locations and characters, basing itself in a heavy mythology that isn’t adequately explained. Chunks of it seem to be missing, conveyed through clunky voiceover rather than on-screen action. The first rule of screenwriting — literally, the first — is Show Don’t Tell, but Shyamalan does exactly the opposite.
In fairness to him, there’s some defence to be found in the trivia section of IMDb: “Almost 30 minutes of footage was cut from the theatrical release because Paramount Pictures wanted the film converted to 3D as quickly as possible, in an effort to save money.” That certainly might explain some of the awkward jumps in plot, and at times we can see a conversation taking place but only get to hear a narrated summary. Still, I don’t think these edits cover all of the film’s flaws — not even close — but it explains some of them.
About the only good thing I can recall is the CGI, which is fine. But you get good CGI everywhere these days, so it’s far from a reason to watch. The action sequences it’s employed for are largely uninspiring, their style stolen from 300 or other equally familiar sources. The acting is routinely appalling too — Dev Patel, for instance, is more like his lacklustre first role in Skins than his BAFTA-nominated, worldwide-attention-grabbing turn in Slumdog Millionaire.
I wouldn’t call myself a Shyamalan apologist, but I think he has at times suffered harshly at the hands of critics and audiences disappointed that he’s never re-reached the heights of The Sixth Sense (though, personally, I prefer Unbreakable anyway). Unfortunately, The Last Airbender is more fuel to the fire. It’s not only Shyamalan’s worst film, it’s a plain bad film by any reasonable measure. Laughably awful, even.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.
The Last Airbender featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.