July 8, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan, once declared by Newsweek magazine as “The Next Spielberg,” has come a long way since his Hollywood debut.
He made it big on one hit – 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” garnered six Academy Award nominations, including two for Shyamalan himself, as both writer and director. He followed it up with “Unbreakable” in 2000 and “Signs” in 2002, earning more critical acclaim, and fueling the fire of the hype surrounding his career. As an exciting young talent and the biggest Indian-American filmmaker in Hollywood, he had remarkable potential.
And then it all seemed to go downhill. Through Shyamalan’s last three films, he has received steadily worse reviews each time out, and earned a joke-like reputation of being arrogant and washed-up.
With his newest film, “The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan has taken on a different type of creature. It’s an adaptation of the Nickelodeon anime series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which premiered in 2005 and aired for three years. The film follows the adventures of Aang, the only remaining descendant of the Air nation able to manipulate air in combat. The members of the other three nations (Water, Earth and Fire) soon discover him to be the Avatar, the long-awaited idol capable of bending all four elements to his will.
Soon the members of the Fire Nation, the tyrannical conquistadors of the world, attempt to capture the Avatar and destroy anyone in their way.
The base material is a fascinating story with fans across all ages and cultures. This story deserved a dedicated, careful adaptation. Unfortunately, it was handled clumsily, and the product is a sadly inept example of filmmaking.
For the first time in his career, Shyamalan is working off someone else’s story. It is now evident, though, that Shyamalan is not only stubborn with his own ideas, but is simply challenged in translating his talent to the screen. “The Last Airbender” is so utterly pedestrian it’s tough to comprehend how far the director has fallen. And following this film, it hurts to think how much further he’ll fall.
His vision does the film no favors. Perhaps the biggest mistake was letting him write the script, which is bland and unimaginative, adding little beyond the basic story. From the script follow the failures of many other parts of the film.
The most pervasive problem is the acting — or rather, the casting. Considering its $150 million budget, “The Last Airbender” should have had no trouble attracting talent. Yet, few casting choices succeed.
Aang is played by young newcomer Noah Ringer, who does well with the martial arts requirements of the role, but is nothing special on the acting front. His moments of silence are his greatest gift to the film.
In a supporting role, “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel might enter the screen action to some audience laughter and cries of “Jamal!” but in the heart of the film he shows a passion most of the cast lacks. He plays Zuko, the banished Fire Nation prince who seeks the Avatar for his own salvation. As the conflicted uncle Iroh, Shaun Toub (“Iron Man”) also puts in a persistent effort, adding human depth to a shallow script.
But their bright performances are muddled by questionable casting choices, such as “The Daily Show” correspondent Aasif Mandvi as the cruel Fire Nation commander Zhao. Even in a dramatic role, he garners laughs.
Supporting actors Nicola Peltz (“Deck the Halls”) and Jackson Rathbone (“Twilight”) play Water Nation youngsters Katara and Sokka, who discover the Avatar. They do their part to look astonished and confused by the events before them, even if they seem unprepared to inhabit a character. Both characters are developed poorly, but their presence nonetheless adds to the childlike sensitivity of the story.
It is that very sensitivity, though, from which the film suffers. This is not a film directed towards adults — carrying a PG rating, it’s clear that “Airbender” aims for a cartoon-craving audience. The mistake is that that same juvenile attitude is reflected in its irresponsible creation.
The film is sad for a few reasons. First, it is an incredible failure of an adaptation of an otherwise beloved story. Second, it marks Shyamalan’s biggest failed opportunity, and perhaps the lowest point of his career.
There is hope for the former. Ending with a not-very-subtle ploy for a sequel, and picking up a modest gross at the box office, “The Last Airbender” has the chance to make up for its shortcomings next time around. For Shyamalan, though, the revival may be tough. And if Paramount wants this new franchise to succeed, it should go nowhere near the director again.
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