Page 2 of 2
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.