M. Night Shyamalan has said “The Last Airbender,” in theatres this weekend, will be the first of a trilogy. A mix of action and spiritualism it will be, he says, his “Lord of the Rings.” I’m here to tell you, this ain’t no “LOTR.” It’s barely “Police Academy” standard let alone anything that could be compared to Peter Jackson’s richly layered epic.
The story begins with the discovery of Aang (Noah Ringer) a young boy with a distinctive tattoo marking his head and back. He’s been frozen in a block of ice for one hundred years and is unaware that the evil Fire Nation has waged a war on his home, the Earth Kingdom. Along with his new companions, Katara (Nicola Peltz), her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), he flies around on a large creature that looks like a “Where the Wild Things Are” reject, fighting for the land and trying to stay one step ahead of Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) a disgraced royal who thinks capturing the boy will restore his honor. You see, Aang is the last of his kind. He’s the Avatar, the only person alive with the ability to “bend” all four elements. Unfrozen Avatar boy would be an asset to the Fire Nation army, but it is his destiny to supply order to his war torn world.
Based on an animated television series, “The Last Airbender” struggles to wedge three seasons worth of “bender” mythology into a ninety minute movie. To bring the audience up to speed Shyamalan provides endless exposition. In fact, there is very little dialogue in the first hour that isn’t setting up the history, motives and abilities of the characters. Conversational it isn’t. It’s a lot of “What is the spirit world grandma?” and “Aren’t there spirits here?” followed by long winded explanations delivered with a gravitas that wouldn’t be out of place in a community theatre production of “Sweeney Todd.” Add some narration and location intertitles to the questions and exposition and it’s obvious Shyamalan has broken the golden rule of filmmaking—show me don’t tell me. He shows us plenty, but unfortunately tells us even more.
He isn’t aided in the storytelling by a wooden cast of young actors who seem to have been hired more for their athletic ability than their acting chops. Even Dev Patel, such a winning presence in “Slumdog Millionaire,” is reduced to spending most of the movie simply screeching and glowering. When the other acrobatic actors aren’t over emoting they spend their time engaged in an elaborate game of Rock, Paper, Scissors battling with earth, wind and fire, the elements, not the funk band, to win control of the Earth Kingdom.
Even the murky 3D doesn’t add much, once again proving that stereoscopic images cannot rescue a weak story or mask poor acting.
“The Last Airbender” is my first seat belt movie of the season—that’s a movie so misguided, so off the mark you need a seat belt to keep you in your chair for the entire movie. Shyamalan really should have released the movie at Thanksgiving because it’s a turkey—but you won’t want a second helping.