One of the things I hate most about critics as a group is their bullying tendencies. You know, how they’ll regularly gang up on an actor (Tom Cruise, anyone?) or a filmmaker (like M. Night Shyamalan, in the case here) and all go out of their way to slam not only their work, but them as individuals? For chrissakes, one of the first review blurbs for this flick on Rotten Tomatoes has some guy saying: “Let’s just be honest: M. Night Shyamalan is an idiot.” How is this film criticism and not a full-on personal attack? Dislike the man’s movies all you want, but who the hell are you to call the writer-director of “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” an idiot?
Admittedly, I might be the biggest Shyamalan fan in the critical racket, having loved not only his three aforementioned biggest hits, but also his less successful “The Village” and “Lady in the Water”. Heck, I even found things to enjoy in the rather ridiculous “The Happening”! Still, I went into “The Last Airbender” with some apprehension, wondering how Night would handle the challenge of adapting a pre-existing property (Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” cartoon series) for the first time, as well as making his first FX-driven epic fantasy. Which, of course, goes against the less-is-more, intimate approach he’s favored until now.
I shouldn’t have worried. In a textbook demonstration of the auteur theory, Shyamalan has taken what could have been a big, flashy, generic Hollywood production and made it wholly his own. The scope is bigger for sure, and the film is filled with astonishing imagery and action, but at its core, it’s very much a direct continuation of the themes and ideas explored in “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, “Signs”, “The Village” and especially “Lady in the Water”, with characters learning to believe in themselves again, to not be afraid anymore, to have faith, to embrace their powers and to accept their destiny…
Spirituality has always been a central part of Shyamalan’s oeuvre, and this film is not an exception. In fact, it almost seems to be a remake of “Kundun” at times, what with the protagonist, Aang (Noah Ringer), being the reincarnation of a spiritual leader not unlike the Dalai Lama… except that he does martial arts and can control the elements!
The complex mythology introduced in “The Last Airbender” concerns four nations, each of which is host to “benders” who can control either Air, Water, Earth or Fire. Throughout history, a lone “avatar” has been able to bend all the elements and keep the world in balance, but his latest incarnation has been missing for 100 years when the film begins, and the Fire Nation has taken this opportunity to wage a war against the others, exterminating all the Air Nomads, enslaving the people of the Earth Kingdom and terrorizing the Water tribes…
Explaining all this and more makes for a film kinda heavy on exposition (including some unfortunate use of voice-over narration), but also one that’s filled with amazing sights, from the huge metal ships of the Fire Nation to the snow and ice-covered city of the Northern Water Tribe, from the villages and forests of Earth Kingdom to the abandoned temples of the Air Nomads, where only their burned skulls and bones remain… The breathtaking visuals captured by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (who also shot all three “Lord of the Rings” films) are matched by a rousing score by frequent Shyamalan collaborator James Newton Howard. And let’s not forget about the action sequences, which feature awesome fight choreography, impressive special effects allowing the heroes and villains to throw air, fire, water or air at each other, and some really cool long unbroken shots that use zoom-ins and slow-motion in a way that recalls “The Matrix” or “300”.
Some have come down hard on lead Noah Ringer and some of the other young actors surrounding him (Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Seychelle Gabriel…), but I thought they were okay. And I actually really liked the villains played by Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis and, of all people, The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi, who brings some welcomed deadpan humor to his part. I also dug the lemur bat, the flying bison and the other bizarre creatures!
The title card “Book One: Water” at the beginning and the cliffhanger at the end suggest that Shyamalan and his backers plan on “The Last Airbender” being the first film in a trilogy (mirroring the TV series’ three seasons). Here’s hoping that, in spite of all the critics/bullies who had decided long before they saw the damn thing that they would pan it just because they have a hate-on for Shyamalan, it’s gonna be embraced by audiences and become a big enough box-office hit so we get to see the next two chapters.