Rating: 2 stars out of 5
If you look at the still images of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender – let’s state his involvement and culpability right up front – they look pretty impressive.
One can sense the colour, movement and wondrous fantasy world contained within, and feel suitably impressed. That is, until one watches the motion picture that Shyamalan has delivered. The trailer, too, looked good, but the film is mediocre.
For the uninitiated, the story follows the adventures of a young monk named Aang, who is the anointed saviour of the world, the so-called Avatar capable of ‘bending’, or manipulating, the four key elements of Fire, Earth, Water and Air.
He is also a wanted boy. After a mysterious absence, he has returned to a world in chaos; the militant Fire Nation is the dominant power threatening the lives of the nations of the other elements. They wish to capture Aang because he has the power to restore balance to the world, at their expense.
The story, which Shyamalan intends to tell in a planned trilogy of films, has Aang, his training hitherto incomplete, keeping ahead of enemies, aiding the oppressed and learning how to bend the other elements in anticipation of a final showdown with his enemies.
Given that this is an adaptation, one understands that a certain amount of artistic leeway should be given to the director; still, there is one glaring disparity between the film and its bright and funny Nickelodeon animated series: the film is dull, distant and joyless.
Sure, it is Shyamalan’s prerogative as writer-director to interpret the series into a film his way. Putting aside the casting controversy over his decision to cast more Caucasian actors than can be found in the original series, the darker, more sinister film has miscast some key roles.
Take newcomer Noah Ringer, the young Taekwondo exponent whom they found through open auditions to play Aang. While he has a good look, and seems to give decent effort, his shortcomings and inexperience as an actor are exposed by the demands of this screenplay.
He just doesn’t have the dramatic range to be Aang.
Dev Patel, the fine Brit actor known for his lead role in Slumdog Millionaire, is on paper a good choice for the exiled, conflicted Prince Zuko, whose search for Aang is also a search for redemption. But as one of the antagonists here, his performance is awkward and at times over the top.
The comedian Aasif Mandvi, as Zuko’s adversary and rival hunter for Aang, is another who seems miscast. He is neither sinister nor imposing.
These criticisms, however, are not important in the grand scheme of things. The film could have worked in spite of these faults.
While the world of the four elemental nations – Fire, Earth, Water and Air – has been translated well from the series, the main problem here is that Shyamalan’s film is way too serious-minded and self-important.
Whatever joy and humour, albeit somewhat childish humour, that existed in the original have been stripped away and discarded for the most part. The closest thing to a comic and humanly relatable figure is Sokka, Aang’s ally and companion, played rather well by Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone.
Another notable flaw is Shyamalan’s use of voice-over, dialogue and soliloquy for the purpose of exposition – literally telling the story with words. Last but not least are the fight scenes, which seem indulgent – what with repetitive slow-motion and overlong lingering shots – to the point of inconsequence.
Even if you’re not someone paid to critique a film, so long as you watch a bit of the TV series and compare it to the movie, you will invariably discover that at the very heart of things, the film is soul-less and alienating.
It may, from the outside, appear to be an intriguing thrill-ride. But try as you may, you will have genuine difficulty feeling involved and at all excited.
Unless somebody has the ability to bend a bad movie back into shape, this can be considered the first, lost, opportunity at bringing the life essence of the series to the big screen.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.