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.