Monday, 16 August 2010

The Last Airbender

Many have said The Last Airbender continues the downward spiral of M. Night Shyamalan's career. Of course, those who twigged 10 years ago that his tedious, ponderous, patronising drivel was exactly that, will likely feel less disappointed than apathetic. Truly, Airbender is a film that wholeheartedly lives up to the low expectations set for it - whether this is a surprise or not is in the eye of the beholder (as an aside, very few film titles are so awesomely aligned with their director's colossal lack of irony or humour).

In the face of the dreadful exposition that mars The Last Airbender, somehow the controversy surrounding Shyamalan's ethnic switching of key characters seems redundant. It's a film that collapses at the first hurdle, at the basic level of acting and script. It's not so much a success with distasteful asides as a film that can't even get the groundwork sorted first. That the drama evaporates within 5 minutes is therefore inevitable. It's a completely deadening, dull experience where nothing feels at stake, where (as is usual with this director) speaking slowly in soft focus close-up is meant to constitute good drama.

Trying to explain the convoluted mess of a plot (adapted from the hit children's TV show) is even more of a headache than trying to justify why H2O intolerant aliens landed on Earth in Signs. In a very Tolkein-esque fantasy universe, Earth, Air, Fire and Water comprise four nations. The hostile, war-mongering Fire nation (who, oddly, seem to patrol on boats for the most part), are looking to solidify their power...until two Southern Water tribe siblings (Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz) unearth an Avatar: young boy Aang (Noah Ringer), who possesses the ability to control all four elements (but, in a bit of odd dramatic flummoxing, needs to learn to hone 3 of them across the remainder of the film). Can Aang master the ultimate ability of water-bending and bring peace to the world? Frankly, do we care?

No, not really. From the bizarre titling of the film as Airbender only with more emphasis on the power of water to the inevitable schoolboy giggles that arise from Shyamalan's typically po-faced delivery ('You always were the greatest bender'), it's a weirdly hermetic affair, accidentally generating humour (in the UK at least) where it doesn't intend to (not the director's fault to be fair) but also stubbornly defying any sort of conventional appeal for international audiences. Shyamalan's egocentric, stubbornly somnambulant style may win over fans in the dreary world of his suspense thrillers but it's a colossal misjudgment here. The largely young cast struggle manfully with one of the wordiest scripts ever to befall a major blockbuster but unsurprisingly come off worst; only Dev Patel as petulant, estranged Fire Prince Zuko manages an OK performance, bubbling over with incandescent anger.

It would be a lie to suggest however that there aren't positives. For one, it's perfectly adequate visually, Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's camera drinking in some delectable vistas. It's also impeccably scored by James Newton Howard, who must have a sixth sense of his own to conjure up such spiritually powerful music on the basis of this nonsense. Yet, it's a world that is designed efficiently by an increasingly misguided director incapable of inhabiting it on an emotional level. Although not so bad that air bends around it, Airbender is the most bizarre kind of mega-budget failure.

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