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Movie Review: The Last Airbender (PG)

“Airbender” a Heavy Load to Bear

By Roxana Hadadi

M. Night Shyamalan should really stop making movies.

For years, he’s helmed one commercial and critical disappointment after another – “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” – all in a futile attempt to reclaim the kind of cinematic greatness he created with 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.” And with “The Last Airbender,” his big-budget adaptation of Nickelodeon’s children’s cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan swings and misses yet again, serving up an overdone flick that takes itself far too seriously and sags under the weight of its pretension.

From 2005 to 2008, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon and introduced viewers to a world divided by four elements – air, water, earth and fire – that are associated with various nations. Among each of those nations are benders, or individuals who can manipulate the elements to their will and use them in fighting or self-defense; only one person, though, can control all four at once. That individual, named the universe’s “Avatar,” is meant to communicate with the spirit world and help keep the universe in peaceful harmony, unblemished by aggression or war.

The film version of “The Last Airbender” tackles the first installment of this tale, or “Book 1: Water” (basically what happened during the first season of the cartoon). Through “Star Wars”-like subtitles and narration from the film’s main female character, Katara (Nicola Peltz), we learn that “100 years ago, all was right with our world,” with the air, water, earth and fire nations living amicably. But then the Avatar, the only person able to communicate with the world’s various spirits, disappeared – and the world plunged into chaos. With the fire nation attacking the other three, the bending of elements was banned, and people plunged into worry and despair.

Well, not everybody: Katara and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), must stick together in their water tribe – their mother was killed by the fire nation years ago, while their father is away at war – and are determined not to die at the hands of their enemies. And when Karata, who is struggling to learn to bend water without any guidance, and Sokka accidentally jettison a pulsing sphere of ice to the surface of their world and free the young boy covered in tattoos who was trapped inside, they find something to hope for. As it turns out, Aang (Noah Ringer), who proves to be capable of bending air, just may be the long-lost Avatar. With his power, the world may finally return to normal, free of the fire nation’s war-mongering and evil metal machines.

Not everyone, however, is so pleased to see Aang literally pop out of nowhere: He soon gathers a wealth of foes, from Prince Zuko (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”) to Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show”). While the prince needs to capture Aang in order to earn back his father’s love – Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), the ruler of the fire nation, had rejected his son and thrown him out of the country after deciding he was too weak – Zhao has more far-reaching plans for the boy. By stifling Aang’s power, Zhao hopes to attack and kill the gods, leaving the world in the clutches of the fire nation and with no one able to fight against them.

But as Aang realizes why everyone is so shocked to learn that he’s from the air nation, it’s not so easy for him to figure out what to do. With the knowledge that he’s utterly alone, without any kind of teacher or mentor, the task at hand seems overwhelming for the world’s potential savior. As the film progresses, he must learn to find not only himself but also the deeper meaning behind his mission.

To call the film lofty in its ambitions would be an understatement. Though Shyamalan wrote, produced and directed the film, from the beginning it’s unclear what “The Last Airbender” actually is: There are subtitles, narration, fast cuts between various narratives, hastily developed characters and talk of religion and militarism, all refusing to meld into one cohesive whole. Why the need for narration, when subtitles alone would suffice? Why talk of industrialism and spirituality, but give no clear reasoning for the appeal of either? And why, oh why, would you cast Ringer?

It’s obvious, really, that Shyamalan chose the 12-year-old because of his martial arts ability – he has a first rank black belt in taekwondo and his his high kicks are superb, it’s true – but put kindly, his acting is amateur; put rudely, his performance is by far the worst of the film. Saddled with horrible dialogue – the kind that gives away everything coming up, with lines like “This boy is our responsibility” and “We need a miracle to catch them” – he’s unable to do more than furrow his brow and grimace in concentration. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t ask for more: Everyone here is sparsely, sadly drawn, and it’s hard to sympathize with Aang’s plight when, after 95 minutes, you barely know him at all.

The only redeeming parts of “The Last Airbender,” to Shyamalan’s credit, are the casting of Patel and Shaun Toub in a role as the prince’s Uncle Iroh and the action scenes, which – of course – are the real reason people want to see this movie in the first place. Though this film is definitely a step down from “Slumdog Millionaire,” Patel throws real weight behind his role as the rejected, unloved prince, struggling to win back his father’s affections by betraying the rest of the world. Similarly good is Toub, who turns out to be the film’s moral conscience as the only character to truly understand the everlasting power of the spiritual world; in fact, you may find yourself sympathizing more in these outcasts’ plight than anyone else’s. I did, anyway.

And though Shyamalan overdoes the slow-motion in the action scenes at times – bringing to mind the repetitive quality of 2006’s “300” – most of the sequences really do pop, from when Aang goes all Dark Phoenix when trying to control the water element to his escape from Commander Zhao’s clutches with the help of a mysterious masked fighter. Is a 3-D ticket necessary? Not really – a few flying creatures give the screen some depth, but really the 3-D is only used to great effect once during the film, and that’s not enough to justify the higher ticket price.

Overall, however, there isn’t much to be offended by: Because the fights include the use of the elements, there’s little blood or grotesque imagery, except for one drowning, a scene featuring bleached bones littered across a courtyard and a dragon that may be creepy to younger kids. There’s also one chaste kiss between two teenagers, and the deeper emotional abuse suffered by some of the characters is hinted at, not overtly depicted.

So while the flick is, in terms of objectionable material, suitable for children, this doesn’t mean Shyamalan’s latest film is a success by any means – in fact, he may have jumped the gun by setting it up for a sequel. There’s this one part in the movie when Aang lifts his head up to the sky and screams in fury and pain – and yup, that pretty much sums up the experience of sitting through “The Last Airbender.” It’s shriek-worthy filmmaking, just probably not in the way Shyamalan wanted.


Roxana Hadadi last reviewed “Grown Ups.”

Also out this week: “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.”


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