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Review: The Last Airbender

The best way to watch The Last Airbender is probably with your eyes closed.

  | March 07, 2014 09:48 IST
Review: The Last Airbender
  • Genre:
  • Cast:
    Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone
  • Director:
    M. Night Shyamalan
The Last Airbender? Let?s hope so, though there is a scene at the very end that gestures toward a sequel. After 94 minutes - was that all? I could have sworn it was days - of muddy 3-D imagery and muddled storytelling, the idea that this is just the first Last Airbender seems either delusionally optimistic or downright cruel.

An astute industry analyst of my acquaintance, who is 9 and an admirer of the Nickelodeon animated series on which the movie is based, offered a two-word diagnosis of its commercial prospects on the way out of the theater: ?They?re screwed.?

If nothing else, The Last Airbender, written and directed by M Night Shyamalan, can serve as a reminder of how difficult it can be to inaugurate a fantasy-action franchise.

The success, nearly a decade old, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the triumphant decade-long unspooling of the Harry Potter chronicles might look easy in retrospect, but this is a genre that has seen at least as much failure as success. (Remember Eragon? Lucky you.)

At least for now Shyamalan?s attempt to conjure a realm of myth and adventure out of special effects and long expository speeches might serve as a textbook chapter on "How to Do It Wrong".

The story is simple enough. Actually it isn?t, but an elaborate, potentially preposterous premise is almost always both a stumbling block and an opportunity for a fantasy epic.

The Fire Nation is trying to conquer everyone else: its war machine has already all but wiped out the Air People, and the Water and Earth Nations suffer under various forms of imperial oppression. But then Katara and Sokka, a waterbender and her protective older brother, happen upon a young boy (Noah Ringer) trapped in a bubble of ice. It turns out that he is not only the last airbender, but also the latest incarnation of the avatar, a quasi-messianic figure in touch with the spirits who govern this somewhat baffling world.

Bending, by the way, is an esoteric skill that involves striking a series of martial-arts poses until (depending on your elemental identity) you produce dust storms, fire balls or a barrage of ice cubes.

The young avatar, Aang, is expected to master all these things, and his latent power makes him a valuable quarry for two different Fire Nation heavies: the disgraced prince, Zuko (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire), and a scheming military officer, Zhao (Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart).

It?s all pretty silly, and handled with unrelenting solemnity. But that in itself is neither unusual nor fatal. The problem - the catastrophe - of The Last Airbender is not in the conception but the execution. The long-winded explanations and clumsy performances are made worse by graceless effects and a last-minute 3-D conversion that wrecks whatever visual grace or beauty might have been there.

The movie is so dim and fuzzy that you might mistake your disposable 3-D glasses for someone else?s prescription shades. And Shyamalan?s fondness for shallow-focus techniques, with a figure in the foreground presented with sharp clarity against a blurred background, is completely out of place in the deep-focus world of modern 3-D.

The format also has no place for one of this director?s major gifts, which is his ability to use the implications of what is off camera to create a mood of intrigue and suspense.

At his best - and even in the best parts of his weaker movies, like The Village or Signs - Shyamalan is a master of the unseen, but 3-D, almost by definition, has no use for what the viewer can?t see. So the best way to watch The Last Airbender is probably with your eyes closed.
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