After the venomous reaction to his 2008 horror picture, "The Happening," writer/director M. Night Shyamalan retreated to the comfort of a big-budget special effects extravaganza, picking an adaptation of the cult animated series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," as a way to increase his box office chances while fostering his idiosyncratic filmmaking vision. Instead of blockbuster glory, "The Last Airbender" (it seems the "Avatar" part of the title was already spoken for) manages to cripple the filmmaker further; it's a joyless, stilted adventure picture, petrified by Shyamalan's glacial touch and his odd refusal to simply kick back and enjoy the inherent spectacle of the source material.
With the world in chaos, hope for a great "Avatar" to emerge and calm warring nations has been lost, following a century of inactivity allowing the powerful Fire Nation to rise up and terrorize the land. As members of the Southern Water Tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, "The Twilight Saga") have discovered young Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in ice, quickly freeing him and soon befriending the bewildered young monk. Discovering he is indeed the last Avatar, Aang begins to test his "bending" powers, learning of his purpose to unite the elemental forces of the planet, while preparing for war against the Fire Nation, led by Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), and a determined threat in the form of disgraced Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire"), who needs Aang to repair his reputation.
With "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening," Shyamalan demonstrated a disturbing divide between the miracles he worked to execute as an A-list filmmaker and the theatrics audiences were expecting (or perhaps deserved). Shyamalan's limitations as a director were starting to show, no longer hidden behind his once youthful breath of ego. The magic man suddenly lost his silver screen powers, churning out a few winded duds. Not just subpar movies, but features of shocking clumsiness -- Shyamalan couldn't connect the dots in the same manner that thrilled audiences with "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable." The man appeared to be out of creative gas.
"The Last Airbender" is an extended confirmation of his artistic void, with Shyamalan taking material clearly swarmed with appeal and strangling it with his customary dramatic distance and horrific eye for casting. The film is a remarkable bore; a shocking realization when one considers the tale contains flying monsters, feats of furious "bending" battles, and an epic story of good vs. evil in a world of elemental stimulation. The very powers of earth, fire, water, and air fuel these spiritual characters, and Shyamalan never brings it to life. Instead, the picture drags along the ground like a corpse, treating its own myth as homework and the participants as burdens, while feeling around a fantastically wasted world of weathered environments and ornate set design.
When Aang contorts into airbending mode, the director hits a few stirring notes of combat, attempting to build the young hero's acts of defense into a few neato one-take camera moves, drinking in the blustery chaos with some showoff cinematography that recalls the Shyamalan of old. However, the action is fleeting, as the screenplay is settled firmly in exposition mode, with "Last Airbender" acting more as a prequel, setting up Aang as the conflicted savior of the frustratingly ill-defined universe.
Unfortunately, the acting can't save the day, with an entire ensemble tripped up by Shyamalan's swollen dialogue and rigid instruction. Peltz, Rathbone, and Patel deliver crude performances of confusing intensity, torpedoing the film with extended monologues and broad reactions that ask for more than they can possibly give. As for the boy wonder, Ringer retains a convincing physicality with his spastic airbending moves (the whole cast receives a thorough workout here), but his performance is shockingly amateurish, killing the severity of the conflict.
More tell than show, "Last Airbender" might be better off in the company of die-hard fans, who could pull highlights out of this feature without the burden of initiation. To Shyamalan's credit, the picture isn't confusing to newcomers (though some of the spirit-world dragon material is a bit sketchy), just disturbingly dull, unable to get a satisfying sprint going.
With a film that encompasses a wide range of locations and CG elements, the AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation keeps everything neatly arranged as intended. Detail is exceptional, allowing the viewer an accurate read of reactions, while set design and costume textures are superbly preserved. The Greenland opening alone is a marvel of BD strength and clarity, with a beautiful wash of brightness that eagerly supports the fantasy film mood. Colors are pronounced, with expected emphasis on earthy hues, though everything is comfortably separated and purposeful. Skintones are natural and expressive, while shadow detail is solid, able to maintain the more forbidding corners of the frame.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is a distinctly controlled listening experience that keeps in line with the director's purposeful intention. Never one to engage in sheer noise, Shyamalan's direction is supported sonically, with sound effect nuances and scoring cues holding comfortable position in the surrounds. Directionals kick up mightily for the action sequences, where the elements are called into duty, flying and striking with a bold force that supplies a vibrating low-end and some engaging circular movement. Dialogue is preserved professionally, with much of the force kept frontal to hold the exchanges with a clean presentation. Atmospherics are generous and quite useful to bring the film what little scope it retains. DVS, French, Spanish, and Portuguese tracks are also available.
English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are offered.
"Discovering 'The Last Airbender'" (58:15) should be this amazing, epic observance of the movie's lengthy production. Instead, it's an extended EPK promotional sprint, walking through various filmmaking steps armed with overtly celebratory interviews from the cast and crew. There's a lot of hot air expelled here, including some thoughts from creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who have since shown reluctance to discuss this adaptation. The BTS footage is surprisingly ordinary, but at least the glimpses of production in motion break up the tiresome self-congratulatory mentality of the featurettes. It's all here, from idea to scoring, but the dynamic energy of moviemaking is lost to wearying special feature formula.
"Siege of the North" (18:32) highlights the miracle of set design, where cities were constructed to help bring reality to the greenscreen efforts. Focus then moves to stunts, where Shyamalan's meticulous staging provided an enormous challenge for the crew.
"Origins of the Avatar" (7:18) returns to creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who explain the backstory of their project and how martial arts informed the cartoon world and the eccentric characters.
"Katara for a Day" (5:37) spotlights actress Nicola Peltz, who goes from make-up to shooting, allowing the camera into her life as she experiences the daily routine of the film.
"Deleted Scenes" (11:24) offer unfinished looks at a few character beats, including Ang's conversation with the dead, additional training with Katara, an extended battle sequence, and a moment of fiery intimidation from Ozai (Cliff Curtis).
"Gag Reel" (4:29) is a collection of mix-em-ups from the cast and crew, highlighting flubbed lines, BTS clowning, and martial arts mishaps.
"Avatar Annotations" is a PIP collection of featurettes, interviews, and BTS footage, acting as a sort of running commentary for the film. Many of the points made here are also found in the other featurettes.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
M. Night Shyamalan was offered a cartoon universe of staggering potential with "The Last Airbender," but his storytelling indifference claws away all the excitement. The kicker is the ending, which boldly sets up a sequel that establishes a more turbulent road ahead for Aang and the gang. All well and good, but who wants to see a sequel when the filmmaker can't even get the first one right?
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