The Last Airbender: An Expensive Disaster

The new M. Night Shyamalan 3-D kids’ film The Last Airbender centers on a quasi-messianic young lad who, from out of nowhere, arrives to save the Earth and create peace to quell all rivalries. In short, he is hope and change personified.

And get this: the means by which he intends to accomplish all of his lofty goals is by blowing hot air everywhere he goes.

It will not surprise you to learn that The Last Airbender is, like another would-be hero I could name, an expensive disaster -- inept, boring, and weird. It’s completely unlike the previous twist-ending Shyamalan films such as The Sixth Sense and Signs. In fact, you would never know it was a Shyamalan feature at all because it, unlike the others, is based on pre-existing material: Avatar: The Last Airbender (that title obviously had to be changed given recent events at the multiplex), which was a Nickelodeon adventure series for kids.

The little kid -- the “Avatar” -- appears at the outset encased in an icy sphere discovered by a teen boy and girl (Jackson Rathbone, Nicola Peltz) who are members of the Water Nation -- one of the four great tribes based on the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. These tribes are locked in conflict and mistrust.

Within a tribe, those who have mastered an element are called “benders” and can throw it at their enemies. So the girl, an apprentice “waterbender,” can make some hocus-pocus movements with her hands and harness water (and ice) to do her bidding. If a villain should come after her, she could force him away by throwing a blob of water at him (this looks as ridiculous as it sounds) or even make icicles pop up in a cage around him.

There’s no getting around the fact that boring exposition covers about as much of this movie as water does the surface of the earth, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Aang (Noah Ringer), the Avatar, is the chosen one who disappeared from Earth 100 years ago and is needed both to bring back peace among the humans and to form a rapport with the gods, known as spirits. Except he’s not exactly the same Avatar as the one who disappeared. He’s a reincarnation of him, one of many going back in a long line. (References to Eastern religions and stylings are sprinkled liberally throughout the story.)

The Avatar, with his shaved head, looks like a Buddhist monk except for the ridiculous arrow-shaped tattoo on his scalp that points down between his eyes and, at tense moments, lights up like a Vegas neon sign pointing the way to the buffet. He is sought by the rival tribe the Fire Nation, whose psychotic king has burned his son (Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel) and exiled the prince until he can, by wandering the Earth, find the Avatar and bring the chosen one to captivity.

But the soldiers of the Fire Nation, whose firebenders can lob flameballs (which sound cool but are largely ineffective throughout), are forbidden to kill the Avatar (he would just be reborn), and the Avatar is forbidden by the spirit world to kill the fire people. Moreover, the Avatar, who at the moment is just coming into his skills but will eventually be master of fire, earth, and water, is already an airbender, meaning he can kick up a cloud of hot air and literally blow people away if they try to nab him. He is also highly skilled in martial arts and can out-leap and out-spin anyone.

So (the audience figures this out even though no one on screen does) he is essentially impossible to keep prisoner. The main body of the movie consists of him being repeatedly captured by the rival warriors and then slipping away. Because the Fire Nation can’t kill him, at one point they simply let him escape.

The Avatar is one of the most boring superheroes ever presented on screen; the child actor playing him is dull and straightforward and Shyamalan doesn’t give him any shadings. He’s just a noble hero on the run -- and as we watch him taken prisoner and then running away again this story line looks like it could keep repeating itself forever. He spends much of the movie trying to add waterbending to his airbending ability, but since his airbending technique alone seems plenty to keep him safe, this isn’t much of a subplot and seems to be featured mainly so the CGI artists can work up a hugely expensive-looking (though uninvolving) climax in which vast amounts of water get manipulated.

Like The Golden Compass, another movie with yards of exposition for every inch of forward momentum, The Last Airbender is full of magical creatures and fantastical situations -- but there’s no fun in it, and watching it is more like work than entertainment. These days, chosen ones seem to be intent on being repetitive, wasting lots of money and taking themselves far too seriously.