The story follows the adventures of Aang, a young successor to a long line of Avatars, who must put his childhood ways aside and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations.
There are films that are considered, by cult consensus, to be ‘so bad they’re good.’ Sadly, the same cannot be said of The Last Airbender. It is mind-bogglingly bad, and boring with it. Our hero is a young Bender (stop giggling back there!) named Aang who specializes in ‘bending’ air. Apparently he is the last one, and he must prove to the element-themed world he lives in that he is an Avatar, a being equipped to save the peaceful Water Nation from the evil Fire Nation.
Aang is played by Noah Ringer, a child actor evidently cast for his martial arts skills rather than his theatrical ones. In keeping with the overall tone of the film, Aang is presented in a portentous, serious light: he frowns a lot, strains to look sombre, and clearly tells himself to ‘look wise’ when he delivers his lines. Unfortunately for Noah, he has a rather comical resemblance to Dr Evil; as a result all of his brooding and glowering had an unintentionally humorous edge, for this viewer at least. Ringer’s supporting cast weren’t much better – Jackson Rathbone lacked impact as Aang’s sidekick; this is a pity as he employs knowing irony to good effect in the Twilight saga, and the tactic would have worked a charm here. Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) pops up as a Fire Nation rebel, all dark and angry, and puts his extensive martial arts training to adequate use.
The Last Airbender is based on the comic book series of the same name, and therefore will appeal to the loyal fans who read it in its original form. Whether a hardcore appreciator of this supposed masterwork will enjoy this film is not for me to say, but I can imagine that the uncritical young children that this is aimed at might enjoy its epic sweep. Only naive eyes could find much to savour though; anyone who has seen Lord of the Rings, or indeed the hardly original Avatar, will find this sadly derivative stuff.
There are numerous similarities to Avatar, in fact – the fantasy land, the reluctant quester, the simplistic characterization of Good versus Evil, the 3D visuals, the role of an actual Avatar as a key plot point…and really, no-one needs a rehash of Cameron’s film quite so soon. M. Night Shyamalan must have felt quite peeved when his long-nurtured film was pipped at the post in this respect, but frankly I have very little sympathy for him. Shyamalan’s insistence on writing, producing and directing his own films (and then making self-indulgent cameos in them) is proof that auteur filmmaking can create deeply awful results. His latter-day films add nothing to his already tattered reputation; they merely destroy it further. One can only assume that he sees himself as a misunderstood genius – either that, or he is a hack who cares about nothing but profits. The problem is that he makes flops…so misunderstood genius it is!
As a child I was told ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ This is a difficult maxim to live by as a critic, but I shall make an effort to say something nice now. Firstly, it was good to see lots of actors and a presumably huge film crew being employed during these difficult economic times. Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed the po-faced use of the word ‘bender’ throughout the film. And thirdly…nah, there is no thirdly. Sorry about that Shyamalan.