The Last Airbender
(PG) Dev Patel, Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz
Obviously the distributor thought that if it distributed this film under the name known by aficionados — Avatar: The Last Airbender — it would be confused as the sequel to James Cameron’s blockbuster. So it is now just The Last Airbender.
Based on a popular cable channel children’s animated TV series, the live action version has been directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who hasn’t really had success since his breakout hit The Sixth Sense and his follow-up Unbreakable.
The Last Airbender is a fantasy quest story in the Tolkien mould, set in a world that’s split into four nations: Fire, Water, Earth and Air.
Within each nation, there are a few gifted conjurers called Benders, who are able to manipulate the element for which their nation is named. But there aren’t many Benders left, because the malevolent Fire nation has waged war on the other three, gradually taking over the whole world and eradicating all other Benders as a way to maintain their power.
The Avatar is a gifted prophesied Bender who can manipulate all four elements. He is the chosen one — like Neo and Luke Skywalker — who will restore balance back to the nations and reduce the power of Fire to its rightful place with the other elements.
We meet the Avatar early on and then join his quest to the Fire nation to restore balance.
All this mythology is often narrated rather than depicted; the heavy exposition being one of the film’s major failings. That and the clunky dialogue, ham-fisted direction and underwhelming acting from the wooden leads.
Sadly, even when a major character sacrifices themself, one can barely muster a “myeh”.
Shyamalan mentions in the production notes that he has always wanted to make a fantasy film in the vein of Star Wars and Harry Potter and there is no doubt that this is meant to be part of a trilogy (at least).
Thematically, the film spouts dialogue about giftedness, honour and responsibility. It would have been nice if these ideas had been given more than lip service.
Also disappointing is Dev Patel’s first performance since his breakout starring role in Slumdog Millionaire — his role as Count Zuko is undeveloped, reducing him to a whiney, conflicted villain.
The irony is that the Airbender mythology would be fertile creative ground for a filmmaker who could give us some characters to care about. Shyamalan is not that filmmaker.