'Last Airbender' breaks wind

Article Published: Jul. 8, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Last Airbender' breaks wind

Noah Ringer stars in 'The Last Airbender.'

As a writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan built his reputation on the plot twist.

The surprise ending in 1999's The Sixth Sense stunned the bejeezus out of audiences, but after The Last Airbender, the real twist is that he's somehow still making films.

Simply stunning in its banality, this latest effort - and I use the term loosely, because even yawning takes some degree of effort - should have been directly released on the Syfy Channel, billed after Boa vs. Python or Flu Bird Horror. Maybe even Stonehenge Apocalypse, because, really, how often do you get to say that?

The only difference between Airbender and typical B-movie schlock is budget. Shyamalan works with millions, while his Ed Wood-ian counterparts work with a shoestring.

Despite decent special effects and some colorful closing credits, Airbender is pure "B," falling in that "so bad it's good" category, the same reserved for ironic viewing and homespun riffing - funny, but in the wrong ways.

Shyamalan errs by approaching the inherently playful material, based on a popular Nickelodeon anime-style cartoon (Avatar: The Last Airbender - having dropped the Avatar part for obvious reasons) with the same gravity you'd approach the story of a troubled boy who sees dead people.

But when your film features an animated flying buffalo/beaver, or a flying lemur for that matter, gravity's the last thing on anyone's mind. Airbender takes itself way too seriously and, coupled with lazy writing, wooden acting and the clunkiest of dialogue ("Do you have a spiritual place where I can meditate?" "Yes, we have a very spiritual place."), is its own undoing.

Airbender is set in a mythical world, one in which four nations struggle to exist peacefully. These aren't your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, economically struggling nations, though. They're based on natural elements - the Water Nation, Fire Nation, Earth Nation and Air Nomads - with certain people from each able to harness the power of their respective element.

But the world has fallen into ruin, following the mysterious disappearance of the Avatar, the chosen one who can control all four elements and maintain peace on Earth. Since then, the Fire Nation, led by the coldhearted Ozai (Cliff Curtis, Sunshine), has waged war on its sister nations in an attempt at world dominance.

But when teenage waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz, Deck the Halls) and brother Sokka (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) discover a mysterious boy frozen in the ice, they discover he's none other than Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer), the missing Avatar.

Only 12 years old, Aang chose to flee from his responsibility as Avatar, only to end up stuck in an iceberg with his flying buffalo/beaver, called Appa, for 100 years. Unaware of the time that's passed, and with Katara and Sokka as his newfound companions, he visits his old village to learn the Fire Nation has murdered all the Air Nomads, making him the last of his kind.

All the while, they're pursued by Fire Prince Zoku (Dev Patel, Slum Dog Millionaire), disgraced and stripped of his title until he returns to the Fire Nation with the Avatar in captivity.

But Zoku doesn't realize that Aang never completed his Avatar training, having only mastered the art of airbending. Realizing that Aang must face his destiny, the gang sets out to help him learn the other elements and ultimately restore peace to the world.

If only the plot were that simple. Instead, Shyamalan beats around the bush, incorporating as many incomprehensible and unnecessary elements (honestly, no pun intended) as possible, making Airbender difficult to follow and hardly worth the effort.

It's as if the actors felt the same way. Only a few recognizable faces, namely Curtis and Patel, whose talents are cruelly squandered, bolster a cast of relative unknowns, who read dialogue like they're emulating poorly dubbed, low-budget anime. These characters are flatter and more two-dimensional than their animated counterparts, leaving viewers with no investment in their wellbeing or undoing.

As a director, Shyamalan's trademark plot twist became his own worst enemy. Audiences came to expect this in every subsequent film following The Sixth Sense, resulting in forced plot devices that seemed more contrived and had less of an emotional impact with each go around - and without a dash of subtlety.

There's no twist in Airbender, but Shyamalan does make a bold move - prominently crediting himself with directing, writing and producing this defective piece. An even bolder move would be making the sequels Airbender unfortunately promises. Here's hoping his next twist is breaking that promise.

The Last Airbender, rated PG for fantasy action violence, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.

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