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Airbender Ends Hopes for Shyamalan Resurgence

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
<i>Airbender</i> Ends Hopes for Shyamalan Resurgence

DVD Release Date:  November 16, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  July 1, 2010
Rating:  PG (for fantasy action violence)
Genre:  Kids/Family, Action, Fantasy, Adapation
Run Time:  103 min.
Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
Actors:  Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toab, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel

Director M. Night Shyamalan could use a hit, but his latest film, The Last Airbender, based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, is likely to cement his reputation as a filmmaker who peaked early and then crashed and burned. To sit through The Last Airbender is to wonder how someone who seemed so talented a few short years ago could completely unravel.

After the little seen Wide Awake, Shyamalan hit pay dirt with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, all mysterious, moody films anchored by a sense of mounting suspense and, sometimes, depictions of faith.

Shyamalan's meteoric rise was capped by a Newsweek cover story that dubbed the filmmaker "the next Spielberg." But not long thereafter, his career hit the skids. First came The Village, a provocative story about fear and alienation that, whatever its merits as a work of storytelling and symbolism, disappointed viewers who shrugged off the film's twist-ending.

Next was Lady in the Water, a troubled production that was dumped by one studio and received coolly by audiences after another completed the film. The filmmaker's casting of himself in a key role of a visionary writer was seen as hubristic, and the film did a quick fade at the box office. Nevertheless, Lady in the Water is the work of an auteur—a filmmaker who managed to bring a personal vision to the screen while working within the studio system. (The auteurist French publication Cahiers du Cinema chose Lady in the Water as one the 10 best films of 2006).

Shyamalan, on increasingly shaky ground with critics and the public, then made The Happening, an overwrought tale about the environment rising up against humankind. The film's stilted dialogue, wooden performances and preposterous plot were too much to take even for Shyamalan's remaining defenders.

If any of those defenders still remain after The Happening, The Last Airbender is sure to move them into a more hostile camp.

Noah Ringer stars as Aang, the reincarnation of the avatar—a being who can control the elements of air, water, earth and fire. Each element has its own kingdom, including special individuals who can "bend" the elements to their wills. Aang is discovered by a young waterbender-in-training (Nicola Peltz ) and her brother (Jackson Rathbone), who, along with a princess (Seychelle Gabriel), help Aang restore balance among the different kingdoms while protecting him from those who seek to use Aang for their own ends.

Chief among the villains is Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a Fire prince who has been cast off in shame by his father. Only by finding the avatar and returning with him can Zuko be welcomed back into the Fire kingdom. Vying to take Zuko's place as the Fire king's favored servant is Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), who has his own plans for Aang. The Last Airbender is built on a belief system centered on peace and harmony. Aang alone can restore the balance among nations that has been lost, and he does so by meditating and consulting with the Dragon Spirit in scenes that slow the film down to little effect.


Someone should have explained to Shyamalan, who was once considered a master of suspense, that visual depictions of meditation don't do much to build tension. At one crucial point in the film, Aang declares that he needs a place to meditate, and might just remain in a meditative state for days! Hearing Aang's declaration, his friends declare that they need to be on their way, and they leave Aang to consult with the Dragon Spirit while they find something more productive to do. Viewers might feel compelled to abandon ship at the same point.

Throughout his films, Shyamalan's weaknesses as a storyteller have been masked by excellent visual presentations. Working with veteran cinematographers like Tak Fujimoto and Christopher Doyle, Shyamalan has produced film after film with mesmerizing images. For Airbender's cinematography, he's chosen Andrew Lesnie, known for his work on the films of director Peter Jackson, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Too bad, then, that Airbender has so few memorable images. Its abundant CGI and other visual effects can't offset the film's glaring weakness—we don't care about the characters or their fates. (Note: The film's 3D effects reportedly were added after the film was shot, as was the case with the similarly woeful Clash of the Titans film earlier this year. Don't bother to pay extra money to see the 3D presentation, as the 2D is disappointing enough.)

As for the story's central themes, Shyamalan was quote in Premiere magazine expressing gratitude that the studio behind the film (Paramount) would "let me make such a diverse, Buddhist tentpole summer movie." Notice the absence of such words as "coherent," "satisfying" or " well acted," none of which apply to this epic misfire. It's enough to make one look back wistfully at those poorly reviewed earlier Shyamalan movies—personal visions brought to sputtering, sometimes spectacular life, rather than the messy, mechanical adaptation of a pre-existing storyline in Airbender. We can only hope that the sequel set-up that concludes this film doesn't result in any further chapters.


Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  None.

  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  None.

  • Sex/Nudity:  A kiss.

  • Violence/Crime:  A man threatens to burn down a village; skeletons of dead monks are shown; fights and battles among the different benders; off-screen, a man burns his child to teach him a lesson; dead guards hang by a rope; an explosion; the ocean and moon gods are killed; a character drowns.

  • Religion:  Buddhist themes throughout; the Fire nation doesn't want to live in balance with the spirits; the avatar is said to be able to change hearts, "and it is in the heart where all battles are won"; Aang levitates and has visions of the Dragon Spirit; tai chi moves are practiced; it is said that if the avatar is killed, he will be reborn; a girl's white hair is said to be the result of her parents' answered prayers to the spirits; a sacrificial death.