Oh, M. Night Shyamalan. You made The Sixth Sense, and the world was ready to declare you the new Spielberg, the new Hitchcock. And your follow ups had fans. Unbreakable, Signs. People liked these movies, but they didn’t have that Barton Fink feeling. But the next three films (The Village, The Lady in the Water and The Happening) kept getting worse and worse, with star Mark Wahlberg recently decrying The Happening as terrible. But with The Last Airbender writer/director M. Night was finally adapting material, which (one hoped) might get his head back in the game. Based on the Nickelodeon cartoon, there was a great story there and there was hope he might rebound. Noah Ringer stars as Aang, a mythical trained “bender” who can fight using air, water, fire and earth, and is called the last Avatar. He’s joined by water bender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) in protecting him from an evil Fire Lord army (which features Dev Patel, Cliss Curtis and Aasif Mandvi) that are bent on world domination. And my review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Aang has been imprisoned in ice for nearly a century when he’s woken up and freed by Katara. Such alerts Fire bender Prince Zuko (Patel) to their location and the race is on to get Aang to a safe place as he supposedly has the ability to stop the war, as he’s something of a Luke Skywalker/prophecy figure. The monks he trained with were all slaughtered, so over the years he’s become viewed partly as a myth. The fire benders are after him, and Katara is a novice in her bending, so they take him around to find a place where he can learn as his training was incomplete. But because he was asleep in the ice for a century he is reticent to accept his long absence. Prince Zuko has an awkward relationship with his father (Curtis) – he’s on the outs and finding the Avatar (as Aang is called) would redeem his name – and he’s taunted by commander Zhao (Mandvi) for not being super awesome. Of course, this is all going to lead to a showdown, but this is supposed to a be a franchise starter, so it only gets so close to a conclusion that wraps everything up, and in fact the ending sets up the next sequel (if there is to be one).
Pretty much everything that could go wrong here went wrong here, and M. Night Shyamalan will likely not be continuing the franchise. The film went through a hasty post-conversion to 3-D process for theatrical release, and though I did not see the film that way it was supposedly hard to watch. Regardless of how many dimensions the film is projected in nothing works. The child actors are modest in their talents, and the film never comes across as a world built – even some shots that may have been practical looked CGI’d. Dev Patel was charming in Slumdog Millionaire, but here he’s cast adrift, and for Daily Show watchers, Mandvi’s performance is mostly camp villainy without great threat. For a movie that runs only a little over a hundred minutes, there’s a whole boatload of backstory that’s ladled out over the entire first half that drags the film to a deadly lurch, so even when things do pick up, the film has already lost. There’s little energy, and Shyamalan does nothing to enliven things with his action sequences that never rise above amateurish. There’s no magic in a film about magic. This is a complete and utter botch, and having some familiarity with the source material, it’s even more shocking what a misfire this is. But Shyamalan has been off his game for a while now, and he’s not being particularly cinematically clever. This has a workman’s touch, and it should have never been this boring.
Paramount’s Blu-ray comes with the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and English 5.1 DTS-HD surround. The presentation is excellent. The film also comes with a DVD version and Digital copy. The film comes with a PIP track that runs through most of the film with interviews and commentary from the cast and filmmakers. This is supplemented by a behind the scenes documentary on the making of the film (58 min.), which is followed by a piece that focuses on one of the set pieces (19 min.) that’s a huge battle. “Origins of the Avatar” (8 min.) gives the cartoon its due, while “Katara for a Day” (6 min.) puts the spotlight on Nicola Peltz on the set during one day of shooting. There are also four nothing deleted scenes (11 min.) and a gag reel (4 min.).