Last Airbender, The (2010): Shyamalan’s Fantasy-Adventure, Mythological Fable about Civilization on Brink of Apocalypse

Making a necessary change of pace trying to resuscitate a major career (“Sixth Sense”) turned sour, director M. Night Shyamalan strives to liberate his typically blunt style with the fantasy-adventure odyssey, “The Last Airbender.”
Adapted from a popular animated series on the Nickelodeon Channel, it is the first of the director’s works, which is not based on his own material.
The results are disappointing, visually blotchy and emotionally inert.
Working on an unprecedented scale predicated on great deal of computer and digital animation technology, Shyamalan struggles to find a workable rhythm and galvanizing shape to give the material the necessary density of incident, dramatic detail and visual richness.
That said, “Last Airbender” is not entirely without imagination, and it contains some unforced visual passages involving flight and movement. Most controversially, however, the decision to retrofit the work in 3-D, while making obvious business sense, proves highly problematic, even counterintuitive in the final result.
Unlike the obvious example, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Shyamalan’s movie was not conceived or shot in that format.
Shyamalan made his reputation and fortune specializing in evocative, moody ghost stories with serpentine endings that jolted and shocked. But even in his best work, there was a strong and increasingly mannered feeling of a too coercive sensibility that forestalled dramatic discovery. After the spellbinding run of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” Shyamalan floundered, commercially and artistically, with his subsequent work.
“Last Airbender” is] intended as the first chapter of a future franchise. Introduced as book one, the film encompasses all manner of sci-fi pop culture references, like “Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” and literary sources, especially J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” cycle, in telling the story of a chosen one or gilded child who must recognize and finally acknowledge his historical destiny.
The story unfolds as a mythological fable about civilization on the brink of apocalypse.
Civilization is ruled by four nations marked by the elements—Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Each nation breeds a special class who learn to bend telepathically directing objects of their assigned element. Only avatars, a special class of warriors taught by Oriental monks, is capable of mastering all four disciplines. But the avatar class is apparently extinct, with no member seen in a century.
Against that backdrop, the militaristic and aggressive Fire Nation has torn asunder any possibility of peace. Ruled by the despotic Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), the Fire Nation has massed an armada of battleships and war machines deployed to horrifying effect. They have expanded their territories, terrorized the other nations’ homelands, and demanded their willful capitulation.

The proper story begins with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), apprentices in the Water Nation, discovering a mysterious young boy, Aang (Noah Ringer), in their community. The ritualistic, highly particular tattoo markings lining his face immediately signal him as a boy of distinction. His physical skills and daring suggest he is an exalted figure–the avatar–the only one singularly blessed to upend the Fire Nation’s military onslaught.
Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire”), the Fire Lord’s son banished by his community and stripped of his rank and power, is tasked to return the avatar to the control of his father in order to have his punishment rescinded. By contrast, Aang is a kind of Hamlet character marked by doubt and confusion. He abandoned his order before fully mastering the other elements and chafed at the sacrifices and demands made of him.
Caught now in the emotional plight of Katara and Sokka, Aang is required to master the other three disciplines. From that point on, “Last Airbender” evolves into a recognizable adventure tale where a mysterious title figure must learn how to simultaneously submit to the rigor and order of his special training, and elude capture by Zuka or his father’s brutal lieutenant, Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi).
Unfortunately, from the start, Shyamalan is weighed down by the origins tale. He is eliding and compressing some hundred hours of the television series into a single feature. The best directors create drama and conflict through deft visual imagery. But all too often, Shyamalan appears incapable of shaping the work visually and creating conflict, drama and action through character, movement and incident. As a result, the movie is a lot of blunt exposition, which is all tell and no show.
Every once in a while Shyamalan finds a nice visual gesture, like Aang’s wand that he converts into a near magical device that enables him to fly. In these moments, there is a rare sense of spontaneity and wonder and the movie achieves some semblance of grace.
However, too much of “Last Airbender” is either incoherent or undeveloped, and the characters are denied any depth or nuance. The story has a provocative central idea about four characters, each a child, either deprived or ostracized from their family and wanting desperately to be part of a community. Moreover, while the actors are adequate to a point, none of them are giving any particularly interesting or challenging part to work with.
The storytelling is too frayed and inconsistent to gather any significant emotional attraction to the characters. Some of the action set pieces have vitality, like an early showdown between Fire combatants trying to pacify a group of Earth warriors. But more often, the action feels either choppy or arrhythmic that proves virtually impossible to develop any feeling for the situations or stories.
The script returns to the notion of how the avatars are capable of communing with the spirit world, but that part is confusing and poorly differentiated from the material world. (The Nazi allegory turns way too punishing and glum in the movie’s second half.)
Andrew Lesnie, who shot Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is a great cinematographer, but here, the 3-D travesties much of his talent. The action is predicated on the formal contrasts of playing off fire and water in the concluding battle. A lot of the big set-pieces are either murky or blurry. Whenever the camera moves, the imagery is static and earthbound. The whole reason of having the added dimension is to offer something previously unseen, but “Last Airbender” never feels immersive, exotic or beyond our grasp.
The movie ends with promises of more to come. We’ve seen in the past, in the franchises for “Star Trek” and “Superman,” of a problematic first film improved by subsequent works. That needs to be the case. Otherwise, the title of “The Last Airbender” is all too prophetic.
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