The Last Airbender (2010)

Rating: **
Release Date: 7/2/10
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Seychelle Gabriel

Visually, this live action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is everything you could hope for. Unfortunately, everything else falls flats and lacks energy, heart, and common sense. Taking place in a fantasy world of elemental magic, four nations based on earth, water, fire, and wind are kept in balance by a powerful being known as The Avatar. Unfortunately, the current Avatar disappeared one hundred years ago and the Fire Nation has decided to conquer the world in his absence. The story opens with a novice water bender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discovering the missing Avatar buried in the ice. He turns out to be a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), and his awakening catches the attention of the exiled Prince Zuka (Dev Patel) of the Fire Nation, who begins a desperate campaign to capture him. Together, Aang, Katara, and Sokka spark a rebellion among the other elemental clans to overthrow their Fire Nation oppressors, and the entire film turns out to be a teaser for a sequel that will never come. ("The Golden Compass" (2007) ended the same way, and also fell victim to its own conceit and self importance)

The film was absolutely slaughtered by the critics, and even compared to the films of schlockmeister franchise killer Uwe Boll. Sure, it was bad, but not "Battlefield Earth" (2000) bad. It didn't make me want to take the director's camera away from him and beat him to death with it in a Michael Bay way, nor was it laughably forehead-slapping in a Uwe Boll way. More than anything, it just made me sad in a George Lucas wasted opportunity sort of way. There's good source material to mine here, and I've never seen a martial arts epic that was so fascinating, and yet so boring at the same time. There are some impressive martial arts and stuntwork on display, but the editing and pacing are so sluggish that they drain all the life and energy out of those scenes. Curiously, the fight execution is exactly opposite of the Hollywood norm (which is a good thing), but unfortunately, the overly ponderous results backfire. For the most part, the acting is terrible, and only Dev Patel and Shaun Toub manage to breath any life and feeling into their characters. While everyone's physical performances are quite good, the dialog is atrocious. This is made even worse by a ridiculous amount of self important narrative exposition and on-screen text. Nearly all of the dialog is awkward and unnecessary, as if director M. Night Shyamalan was so unsure of his abilities as a visual storyteller that he felt the need to explain every little thing at every point in the film. Do we really need to be told exactly where we are in the world every time the scenery changes? Are contextual clues not good enough? Every time someone opened their mouth to talk, the lack of subtlety and common sense just made me sad.

As I mentioned before, the visual effects are what sell the film, and it's gorgeous to look at. The art direction is superb and the sets, locations, and characters are wonderfully exotic and magical to behold. Noah Ringer looks great as Aang and the intensely captivating Sechelle Williams demands attention with her ethereal beauty. (she was equally riveting in "The Spirit" (2008) ). Apart from pacing and editing issues, the action scenes are interesting and nicely staged, and the martial arts choreography looks authentic and competent. The colors are rich, vibrant, and diverse, as each elemental nation has their own unique palette. Unfortunately, the musical score lacks the same energy as the rest of the film, and is only noticeable because it seems out of place. I think the film would actually work better in the music video format, with high energy rock and roll playing over the weak dialog and music score. It amazes me how a film can go wrong in so many ways, and it makes me wonder how no one noticed any of these problems at an earlier stage when something could have been done about them. The film is not without its charms, but it requires an open mind, patience, and forgiveness to enjoy them.