What has happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Ever since his masterful paranormal chiller breakthrough hit, The Sixth Sense, his films have deteriorated, becoming both perplexing and plodding and show no sign of his first film’s expertly constructed plot and eerie atmosphere. This unfulfilled promise came to a head in his last two efforts, Lady in the Water, a misjudged attempt at what seemed like a children’s fairytale, and The Happening, a clunky science-fiction horror indebted to The Day of the Triffids that most certainly wasn’t happening. His latest, treading similar generic water as Lady and seeing him adapt an existing source for the first time, shows no sign of bucking the trend.
In a far-off fantasy world the nomad factions of air, water, earth and fire are at war. In the absence of the Avatar, a saviour who can bring balance and harmony to the world, the evil fire nation are attempting to conquer the other tribes. The most skilled of each clan possess the ability to ‘bend’ their respective elements and the airbender of the film’s title is a young boy named Aang. He is the last of his kind and the next Avatar. With the aid of a brother and sister from the water tribe, he begins to master the bending of each element, embrace his great responsibility, and save the world.
It’s based on a Nickelodeon animé series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, the prefix presumably ditched thanks to James Cameron’s billionaire behemoth from last year. In fact, The Last Airbender’s first problem is its title in that it sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. There’s martial arts fisticuffs and elemental bending aplenty, but Shyamalan’s uninspired script fails to venture past concept exposition with too much time dedicated to the whys and wherefors of the rather curious fantasy world and hardly any devoted to character, even if it does travel at an unusually swift pace for M. Night. There is an impressively staged concluding siege on an ice fortress which references the Helm’s Deep skirmish in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but you get the feeling that, with Shyamalan’s screenplay, you need the three hours of such an epic to get to grips with the all-too-swiftly drawn players.
The cast is made up of largely unknowns. Noah Ringer plays the next Avatar, fans of the Twilight series may recognise Jackson Rathbone, and it’s good to see Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) branching out into villainy as a banished Prince of the fire tribe who attempts to capture Aang and redeem himself in a strange and underdeveloped secondary plot.
Stranger still, however, is the assumption that the film will return for a sequel with plot threads left dangling. With a convoluted plot, an overreliance on slow-mo’d special effects and fight scenes, and an unengaging main cast, it’s difficult to see this franchise having any legs in it. The Last Airbender should be just that.