Combustible Celluloid
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With: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Francis Guinan, Damon Gupton, Summer Bishil, Randall Duk Kim, John D'Alonzo, Keong Sim
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan, based on a TV series created by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action violence
Running Time: 103
Date: 06/30/2010

The Last Airbender (2010)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hot Air

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The thing that nobody ever talks about regarding M. Night Shyamalan is what a terrific director he is -- in a purely visual sense, that is. He is one of the only working directors that understands the concept of physical space, establishing the three-dimensional locations and distances of the characters and their surroundings. In The Last Airbender, he stages several terrific fight scenes, filmed all in one or two single, long shots, with the camera floating and rotating around in every direction.

What most people actually talk about is how dumb his movies have become. He stumbled into a great success with The Sixth Sense, and everyone was eager to see him repeat this formula, complete with a "mind-blowing" twist, but by most accounts, he has not done it. Now when the twist comes, everyone expects it, and no minds are blown. His previous film, The Happening, ended with a resounding, "that's it?"

So now he has adapted an animated TV series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," and eliminated the "Avatar" from the title for obvious reasons. The concept is that some people are "benders" and can control one of the four elements. There's a "chosen one" called the "Avatar," who can control all four, but he has been missing for a century. When he returns, in the form of a boy called Aang (Noah Ringer), the firebenders have decided to take over the world and destroy everyone else. There are a couple of white kids who travel around with Aang, but they seem to have absolutely no purpose except to say very obvious things out loud.

So essentially we get yet another war movie disguised as a fantasy movie, with one-dimensional bad guys, one-dimensional good guys, artificially imposed road trips, training sequences, etc. Shyamalan writes this stuff as if he'd never seen another example of this tired genre (Avatar is one, perhaps ironically). He plays it straight and lays out the expositional dialogue as if it were gospel. Worse, his cast of pretty, overtrained child actors -- all of whom look like they will get Disney recording contracts next year -- can't make heads or tails of this stuff. It's the worst batch of performances this year, which is all the more amazing when you consider the depth and quality of Haley Joel Osment's juvenile performance in The Sixth Sense.

It seems as if Shyamalan's heart isn't in this one. The movie is presented in 3D, as if merely to cash in on a popular trend, and it's the first of a series, like Percy Jackson and a whole slew of other Harry Potter fantasy knockoffs. With a movie this shockingly bad, however, it's not likely that anyone will be interested in another chapter. So it's better not to even bother seeing this one. If Shyamalan is going to do something for the money, I'd suggest that he does a simple brain-dead action movie and show the world of choppy/shaky-cam filmmaking how it's done.

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