Shyamalan Blockbuster Misses the Mark

JON CHENG
Aug 17, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest big-budget blockbuster eschews one too many elements of its animated original TV series. But all is not lost.

A blockbuster adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon animated series, “The Last Airbender”, has, since its release, been panned by US critics and moviegoers alike. Financially, the movie did not reap its benefits, either; it grossed a mere US$16 million during its opening weekend, a meagre fraction of its US$150 million budget, which does not include its US$130 million marketing cost.

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, however, is not a complete waste of one’s movie-going experience. Contrary to many criticisms, “The Last Airbender” does have its exciting moments and the occasional sequence of breathtaking visual effects. That’s not to say that 3D had any help with it. Shyamalan made the last-minute conversion of the original 2D movie during the post-production process. So like “Clash of the Titans”, the 3D tech here is so shallow, it’s almost a bad gimmick. In fact, the hovering, spinning stars in the Paramount Pictures montage are the piece de resistance.

 

Strike a pose: Aang (Noah Ringer) preps his air-bending manoeuvres to knock down his enemies.

Strike a pose: Aang (Noah Ringer) preps his air-bending manoeuvres to knock down his enemies.

Photo credit: Paramount

 

Come to think of it, maybe 2D might have been a better idea. The cinematography would have been a little more lush, and the twisting plumes of air and vortexes of water globules will look less like it belonged to a 10 pm special on “The History Channel”.

It’s a pity, too, to cast the young and promising Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as the supposedly evil Prince Zuko, or the “Price of Fire”. He frowns, winces, and looks constipated while whining about his need to find the Avatar, or else he won’t be welcomed back in his kingdom. Perhaps the awful script has left him devoid of any breathing room – or anyone else in the cast for that matter – to shine. They’re all seemingly rendered into porcelain dolls that give you that longing, sympathetic stare: “Look Ma, I was once Tin-Man in ‘Wizard of Oz’!”

While the plot is also a complete mess, it is still mildly engaging. A long time ago (clues point to an era about 1,000 years ago, but we also see tank vehicles) in a civilization far, far away Teenagers Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) are two “warriors” in the Southern Water Tribe who stumble upon a reincarnated Aang, played by newcomer Noah Ringer (a real-life title holder of the Texas Taekwondo champion). He turns out to be the almighty “Avatar” who can bend the elements of air, water, fire and earth. Blaming it on their mundane lifestyle in the village, they decide to tag along as Aang embarks on a journey beyond their wildest imaginations. From village to village, Aang shows off his chops: tattoos on his bald head illuminate as he performs exotic dance moves to perform his air magic. When the village peoples’ interests are piqued, Aang decides to do the same for all the others. Ultimately, he needs to see a master living in the North Pole’s water kingdom so he can hone his craft in other elements. While they do so, they inevitably catch the attention of the fire tribe and especially Zuko. So wherever Aang goes, danger follows.

Fans have complained that The Last Airbender has killed the magic of the animated series, but for another casual viewer, the film could also be viewed as an interesting culture piece.

Fans have complained that “The Last Airbender” has killed the magic of the animated series, but for another casual viewer, the film could also be viewed as an interesting culture piece. Certainly, the Hollywood pizzazz is a key, attributing to its nearly all-white cast – with exception of the Fire Tribe, who are Indian – but in essence it’s nearly Asian at heart. At least the Zuko’s tribe pays some homage to its Indian culture. They kneel, perform rituals, and pray to their gods. It is a marketable opportunity for set designers to construct elaborately opulent palaces, ships, shrines and costumes, taking viewers’ attention away from grade-school dialogue and stiff acting.

But still in essence a visual-effects heavy, the film will leave one longing to manipulate air or water in some cool way; alas, it is still not quite enough to manipulate the dismal box office figures and the Shyamalan’s penchant for making sub-par films.