The Last Airbender
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
There are certain directors whose cult followings are entirely lost on me: David Gordon Green, Richard Kelly, Rob Zombie, but most of all M. Night Shyamalan. Granted, Shyamalan is the odd man out in this thinly connected group, his name undeniably marquee-worthy and thus beyond the outré realm of cult. And yet—such are the vagaries of popular opinion—the man once touted as "the next Spielberg" has gained for himself this sort of marginal, intensely felt appreciation just as his box office clout has plummeted and his critics have grown ever more merciless in their scorn. In 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense gave the world a "visionary," but by 2004 flop The Village gave hardcore supporters an underdog, a misunderstood artiste whose lush visual palette and somber portrayals of spiritual marvel made his spooky/soulful films moving personal testaments among a surfeit of hacky Hollywood blockbusters dependably embraced by the fanboy-led American public.
But now with The Last Airbender even diehards will have to agree that the personal touch has been lost and that Shyamalan's descent is complete. After The Village's muddled post-9/11 allegory and once-too-often employment of his trademark lame third-act plot twists came The Lady in the Water, a super-indulgent, batshit crazy defense of his own genius (Shyamalan himself plays the messiah) that would have been almost bizarrely admirable for its egomania if it didn't so pathetically reveal to the world the thin skin of its delusional creator. With Lady Shyamalan effectively blew his wad: follow-up The Happening was reliably lame but also surprisingly defeated and opportunistic, its environmental-issues apocalypse tailored more for cynical (and atrociously implemented) shock effects than the hushed New Age wisdom that was once the director's stock-in-trade.
The backlash to The Village and Lady made Shyamalan not only anathema in the film industry (Michael Bamberger's notoriously fawning The Man Who Heard Voices details his fallout with a Lady-wary Disney) but somewhat of a joke amongst even the most casual of filmgoers, and just as its marketing campaign deemphasized the man behind the camera, The Happening suggested Shyamalan had retreated to the safe confines of blockbuster formula in order to salvage his reputation. Which brings us back to The Last Airbender, the cinematic equivalent of a whipped dog grudgingly but ineptly obeying its master's commands. As the first "book" of a saga, with an ending that promises a sequel and thus yet another pre-adolescent-targeted franchise, its every aspect feels prepackaged. The convoluted story concerns a world divided into four nations, respectively representing earth, water, air, and fire, with certain individuals able to "bend," or control, these elements at will. The Fire Nation oppresses the others and has all but exterminated the Air Nation except for bald, elaborately tattooed twelve year-old Aang (Noah Ringer), the latest in a line of superbeings-named, unfortunately, Avatars-who can potentially control every element and ultimately restore balance, or something, to the world. Aang has been safely frozen for a century until his discovery by water tribe members and terrible line readers Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who guard him against the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), in pursuit of Aang for the purpose of winning the blessing of angry daddy Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and granting his people the power of total domination.
The intended magic of The Last Airbender is founded on a misunderstanding of the very natural universe it claims to fervently respect. For instance, Aang only possesses control over air, because he skipped out on his Chosen One lessons when he learned his special status barred him from having a family (what twelve-year-old chooses domestic obligations over superpowers?), but aren't all of these elements intertwined anyway? Fire can't exist without oxygen, while the water frozen into jagged ice weapons by its appropriate benders can only crystallize due to atmospheric conditions. Wouldn't control over water then necessitate control over air? Perhaps this is nitpicking—fantasy films are almost inherently logic-proof—but Airbender's conceptual sloppiness mirrors its weak narrative and crummy visual design. The characters are without exception stick figures, a problem exacerbated by Shyamalan's awful direction of wooden teen actors forced to spout his exposition-ridden dialogue; the patient if often tortured pace of previous M. Night joints is forsaken for an awkwardly rushed clip; the fight choreography is perfunctory down to the bullet-time-lite slo-mo and ramping shots (it doesn't help that the bending's floating and flying globs of elements grow exceedingly monotonous); and the whole thing has been cheaply converted into a 3-D format both smeary and dull, rendering miserable a host of already uninspired fantasy worlds of mountain temples, forest villages, and ice kingdoms.
Limply hopping onto the 3-D bandwagon is for Shyamalan a move rife with irony, because never has his directorial style looked flatter. That style has always been the rallying point for his defenders-no matter how misguided, silly, or outright stupid were his stories of salvation and faith, the guy could strikingly compose a shot. Quoth David Bordwell after listing the numerous potholes of The Lady in the Water:
For all that, the film displays stylistic ambitions that we almost never see on American screens. Critics have made fun of the plot's clumsiness, but as usual, they're oblivious to anything about visual texture that isn't in the press release… The partial framings, offscreen characters, incomplete shot/reverse-shots, to-camera address, and teasing layers of focus throughout the film echo late Godard…
Godard comparisons aside (was the antagonistic Lady Shyamalan's Weekend?), such praise is understandable—I can even admit The Village is a beautiful film if shown without sound. And in a lesser-of-two-evils scenario vying Shyamalan against, say, Brett Ratner, I'd chose Shyamalan any day. Except that, now, Shyamalan has become Brett Ratner. The CGI in The Last Airbender looks much more competently designed than the crappy stuff pockmarking Lady or The Happening, but its wall-to-wall usage has drained the film of Shyamalan's compositional idiosyncrasies, and save an unusually sinuous long take or two, this animated television series adaptation could have been helmed by nearly any director capable of executing a sweeping crane shot.
Besides box office viability, what's at stake for Shyamalan with The Last Airbender? The translation of the film's themes into visual terms may be depressingly rote (forget the controversy over the Caucasian casting; should one read directorial self-hatred in the Fire Nation's exclusively Indian populace?), but these themes are actually very much his. Playing writer and producer as well as director, Shyamalan's a perfect fit for the source material, which like so many epic fantasies made in the long shadow of Star Wars stirs into a bland stew a random assortment of cultural traditions and religious mythologies: a little messianic Judeo-Christianity, a little Buddhist reincarnation and meditative practice, a little East Asian martial arts. The vagueness of The Last Airbender's metaphysical and political messages—like another recent film involving avatars, this is the kind of $100+ million monstrosity that has its nature-worshipping good guys fight advanced-technology-dependent bad guys—accords with its director's goopey worldview ("Every being has a purpose," says a guardian angel in Lady in the Water; "Let your emotions flow like water," advises a guru in Airbender), one that continually juvenilizes emotional fragility and simplifies spiritual curiosity. Shyamalan's protagonists are almost always mopey, "sensitive" outsiders who repair their trauma by clearing the easiest of psychological hurdles: what is The Sixth Sense but a drawn-out therapy session with ghosts, in which the key to self-improvement is superficially communicating with and helping others? Aside for Zuko the brooding characters are now absent here, but with its lip service to ideas of "humility," "harmony," and "the spirit world" The Last Airbender is really just a step removed from the inoculating bedtime stories of Shyamalan past: meditation in this film merely involves shutting one's eyes and learning ancient secrets from dragons. I likely stand in a small minority of people suspicious of the transformation of spirituality into vacuous spectacle, but I think most will agree that along with the reinforcement of this insidious association it's the sheer shoddiness of that spectacle in The Last Airbender—which contains not so much as a single moment of revelation or wonder—that makes it such a regrettable piece of garbage.