Film Review: The Last Airbender

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st September 2010.

The ever expanding array of 3D movies due for release in the near future indicates that this cinematic gimmick is here to stay. The fact that 3D cinema cannot be pirated and the potential for future profits from emerging home 3D blu-ray and TV technology means that the major Hollywood studios are insisting that almost all future tent pole releases be available in 3D.

What has become clear though, is that the presence of “3D” tacked on to the end of a movie’s title is in no way a symbol of quality. And there is no better example of this than last week’s release of “The Last Airbender”, quite possibly the worst film of the year so far.

Based on the successful animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” which ran originally from 2005 – 2008 on US children’s cable channel Nickelodeon, the film is a mishmash of Asian mythology, martial arts and elemental manipulation. In the hands of writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender is a humourless yawnfest featuring terrible dialogue, bland performances and horrible 3D rendering.

Showing major potential with his first two features, it now appears Mr Shyamalan fluked the modern masterpieces that were The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). The shocking twist ending of the former with its famous catchphrase, “I see dead people” and the thrilling comic book plotline of the latter made M. Night a director and more importantly, a storyteller, to watch.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there as the director went back to the “final storyline twist” well a few too many times with Signs (2002 – I see aliens), The Village (2004 – it was all an experiment), Lady in the Water (2006 – water nymphs live in my pool filter) and The Happening (2008 – the wind did it). With his creative powers waning, The Last Airbender (Avatar has been removed from the title due to a similarly named, moderately successful film from last year) has no plot twist. Whilst the absence of a twist may well be a twist for M. Night, I would suggest that there is no plot twist because there is barely a plot.

Try bending your brain around this. There are four nations: the Fire Nation; the Water Tribes; the Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdoms. Each has members who can control or “bend” fire, water, air or earth. Only a long missing, reincarnated Dalai Lama-like being, The Avatar, can control all four elements and bring peace to the world. Sure.

To make matters worse, this storyline is leaden with clumsy dialogue clunkers such as, “Sokka, I want to believe in our beliefs just like the Firebenders believe in their beliefs.” Sorry, come again?

There has been much outrage online as nerds worldwide protest the lack of Asian actors at the forefront of this Asian mythology-based film. This wasn’t really an issue for me. Authenticity is hardly a problem when it comes to a movie featuring giant fluffy flying dogs and the yin yang spirits swimming around as large glowing koi carp.

On a positive note, the special effects of The Last Airbender are quite stunning with exciting flame and ice battles, and the casting of Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel a good choice.

Unfortunately, the 3D effects of the movie are simply terrible. Like Clash of the Titans, this film has been rendered into 3D post-production to cash in on the craze. With the exception of a few effective landscape scenes, the rest of the film looks remarkably 2D, with characters simply cut out and moved forward within the picture but remaining flat, much like a pop-up book.

 Unlike Clash of the Titans, which was a much better film in 2D, The Last Airbender is too flawed to improve once on DVD or 2D blu-ray. Its cliff hanger ending indicates that another 2 sequels are on their way, although this is dependent on the movie turning a profit on its US$280 million production and marketing budget.

As a member of The Golden Raspberry Foundation, I am pretty certain that The Last Airbender will get my vote for Worst Film of the Year. I’m sorry, but M. Night Shyamalamadingdong has struck out on this one. I see dumb cinema.

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