Judge Clark Douglas is a master of fender-bending.
Four nations, one destiny.
"He will begin to change hearts, and it is in the heart that all wars are won."
Facts of the Case
For ages, the four cultures of the world—Air, Water, Earth and Fire—were able to co-exist peacefully. This was due to the constant presence of an Avatar; a powerful being who provided balance to the world due to his ability to control all four elements. The most powerful members of each tribe are the "benders"—individuals who can control the specific element of their culture and use it to their advantage. When the Avatar mysteriously disappeared a century ago, it allowed the Fire Nation to declare war on the Water Tribes, the Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdom. The Air Nomads suffered the most, as the Fire Nation wiped out their entire population…or so it was thought.
One day, a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer, Cowboys & Aliens) turns up in Water territory. Young Katara (Nicola Peltz, Righteous Kill) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) are astonished to discover that Aang is an Airbender, and even more astonished to discover that he is the current reincarnation of the Avatar. However, Aang has not yet received the training he requires to take his place in the world and restore the balance of the universe. He hasn't yet mastered the ability of bending the other three elements. Once he does so, he will be able to put the Fire Nation back in its place and set things right again.
When the Fire Nation learns of Aang's existence, it immediately sets out to capture him before he can complete his training. Making things even more complicated is the fact that two esteemed Fire Nation warriors are in a competition to see who can get to Aang first. The king's estranged son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) can return home if he captures the Airbender, while the scheming Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show) will become heir to the throne if he achieves the same task. Will Aang be able to escape their clutches?
I remember the precise moment when I realized just how far M. Night Shyamalan had fallen in the eyes of the movie-going public. I was at the premiere of Inception, and a trailer for the elevator-horror flick Devil was shown before the film. As the trailer progressed, the audience seemed to be intrigued by what it saw. Then the words "Produced by M. Night Shyamalan" appeared on the screen. At that moment, the entire theatre burst into laughter. I heard similar stories from others who saw the trailer at different times. At long last, after several poorly-received films, Shyamalan had literally become a laughing stock. How could the man who gave us the popular The Sixth Sense and the excellent Unbreakable have come to this?
I wish I could report that The Last Airbender represents a comeback for the director, but that simply isn't the case. In fact, this may very well be his worst film to date, if only because it's the one movie on his resume that could have been directed by absolutely anyone. Say what you will about The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening—whatever flaws they may have, they are unmistakably the work of a bona fide auteur. The Last Airbender is a large, clunky studio picture that completely lacks any sort of distinctive directorial flourish (though reviewers more spiteful than yours truly might suggest the film's general awfulness is a Shyamalan trademark).
It's been reported that The Last Airbender was designed as the first film in a trilogy. Unfortunately, it seems to have been structured as the first act of a lengthy miniseries rather than as a satisfying stand-alone motion picture that might lead into a sequel. The film offers loads of set-up and very little delivery; introducing one sub-plot after another only to leave them hanging at the end. The opening act of the film seems to be setting up a traditional quest movie, as we're informed that Aang must master the other three elements and then restore the balance. After a while, it becomes clear that we're only going to get around to dealing with one of those elements this time around. Very little of significance is actually resolved; by the time the film concludes most elements feel like they're just getting underway.
More problematic is the stilted, portentous style in which the film is presented. There isn't an ounce of humor to be found anywhere, yet the material lacks the dramatic weight to get away with being so relentlessly serious. Shyamalan's dialogue is particularly cringe-inducing, as characters tend to make pronouncements and speeches at each other rather than engaging in convincing dialogue. Some of the material in The Last Airbender is so wooden that it makes George Lucas' weaker moments in the Star Wars prequels seem elegant. The performances certainly don't help, as most of the actors are incapable of getting beyond "stiff line-reading" mode. Noah Ringer is respectable enough in the title role and Nicola Peltz comes across rather naturally, but everyone else ranges from visibly uncomfortable (Cliff Curtis, Dev Patel) to flat-out awful (Jackson Rathbone).
It must be admitted that the big special-effect sequences look pretty good and that the action is acceptably well-staged on a technical level. However, the film does such a poor job of developing the characters and their stories that the action scenes lack the narrative drive that would permit us to care. We're not interested in the people fighting, so there's nothing to distract us from the fact that we're watching an empty spectacle. James Newton Howard's score does what it can to pump up the drama, but even his fine effort does little to generate interest. The design of the fantastical creatures seen throughout the film is impressive, but the movie rarely gives us the opportunity to get a good look at those colorful beasties.
The Last Airbender was widely criticized for its poor use of 3-D, but I have to say that it looks pretty handsome in 1080p/2.35:1 2-D. The level of detail is superb throughout, and scenes which were attacked for being incomprehensibly murky in theatres boast impressively clarity on Blu-ray. There are moments that look a bit soft, but these are due to artistic choices made by the filmmakers. Blacks are remarkably deep and shadow delineation is impressive. The audio is flat-out remarkable; one of the best mixes I've heard this year. The action sequences are truly immersive experiences and the film finds a superb balance between powerful sound design, Howard's large-scale score and the dialogue. If it has no other noteworthy virtues, the film's soundtrack is certainly a superb achievement.
The key supplement is an hour-long documentary entitled "Discovering The Last Airbender," which is broken in multiple sections: "Inspirations," "Spirituality," "Heroes," "Greenland," "World," "Action," "Effects," "Music," and "Finale." You also get a handful of additional featurettes: "Siege of the North" (18 minutes), "Katara for a Day" (6 minutes) and "Origins of the Avatar" (7 minutes). "Avatar Annotations" is a picture-in-picture feature that offers interviews, commentary and behind-the-scenes footage accompanying select scenes from the film. Finally, you get some deleted scenes, a gag reel and a DVD copy of the film which also contains a digital copy.
I haven't seen the animated series upon which The Last Airbender is based, so I can't say how faithfully it recreates the source material. On its own terms, this is simply a bad movie. It sure does look and sound lovely on Blu-ray, though.
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