REVIEW: A Few Nifty Visuals Can't Rescue Exhausting Last Airbender
The Last Airbender is, as M. Night Shyamalan movies go, pretty straightforward. It's also, refreshingly, not as completely idiotic as most of his movies are. No aliens in stretchy unitards who can be vanquished by -- surprise! -- plain old tap water; no meek, modest 19th-century communities who are -- surprise! -- really just weirdo cults being kept away from 21st-century life. The Last Airbender, based on a popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, is a fantasy-adventure aimed primarily at kids, set in a world where four tribal nations -- Air, Water, Earth and Fire -- just can't get along, because a revered being known as the Avatar has skipped out on them some 100 years ago. Taking advantage of this international instability, the people of the Fire Nation have decided to bully the other guys into submission and thus take over the world. Oh where, oh where, could the Avatar be?
As it turns out, he's been hiding in sort of time warp, and two Water Nation kids, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who plays Jasper in the Twilight movies), serendipitously bring him back into the world. He's a very worried-looking, very bald little kid named Aang (Noah Ringer); his anxiety-filled brow is decorated with a mysterious tattoo motif. Aang isn't just the Avatar; he's also the last airbender -- in other words, he's able to bend the air to his will, and although there used to be lots of Air Nation people who could do this sort of thing, the Fire Nation has done away with them all. Soon the Fire Nation will turn its aggression on the waterbenders (who can make water do bendy things; Katara is a waterbender) and the earthbenders (who are good at moving rocks around via telepathy).
The Fire Nation people need to capture Aang, lest he restore harmony to the world and squelch their superpower ambitions. And if, beyond that, you can follow the plot of The Last Airbender, you're surely capable of bending some pretty heavy-duty baloney into submission yourself. Like so many movies these days, The Last Airbender relies largely on exposition: Characters are always making forthright declarations like "The Fire Nation is here, and they've brought their machines!" or "We must travel to the Northern Earth Kingdom!" Which is probably a good thing -- otherwise characters would be popping up willy-nilly in various confusing locations, although they do plenty of that anyway.
Because of all that narrative hippity-hopping (Shyamalan himself wrote the script), The Last Airbender is exhausting to watch. What's more, the movie is being shown in 3D in select theaters, and although some of the picture's visual touches are quite lovely -- there's a kingdom built entirely of ice, and some nifty effects in which globes of water are made to float in the air -- they don't seem to be particularly enhanced by the technology (though those special glasses will, of course, add some padding to the ticket price).
It's clear that Shyamalan's ambition is to create a grand fantasy epic; at times the picture's production design has an almost Middle Earth-y look. (The cinematographer here is Andrew Lesnie, who also shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) But oddly enough -- or perhaps not oddly at all -- the most impressive and entertaining aspects of the picture have less to do with spectacular effects than with human skill. The movie's young star, Ringer, is a Taekwondo champ, and it's fun to watch his hands slice through the air ever so gracefully, or execute kicks and jumps and pirouettes that defy gravity. So many action movies these days are devoid of real human action. At least Shyamalan understands that watching the human body move is one of the pleasures of moviegoing.
Of course, because this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the stink of pretension is high: There's no doubt that these warring, troubled tribes are supposed to be metaphorical, revealing big truths about the messed-up world we actually live in. But some of the actors rise above the sillier-than-silly dialog: Aasif Mandvi (who played Mr. Aziz in Spider-Man 2, but who was even more wonderful in a smallish role in David Koepp's superb romantic comedy Ghost Town) plays an amoral military commander; he walks a fine line between sending up the movie's kiddie hokum and treating the material as seriously as if it were Shakespeare. And Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire, shows up as the unfortunately named Prince Zuko. (Would you want to play a character whose name sounds like a sugar substitute?)
Still, The Last Airbender, for all its Shyamalan-style grandiosity, is completely harmless and inoffensive, and at the very least, Shyamalan appears to be having a little fun here. The movie's finale comes not as a big surprise but as a turn we're completely ready for. There's something to be said for giving the audience what it needs, instead of what you think it wants.