M. NIGHT SHAMEONYOU | First came Lady in the Water in 2006. The Happening followed in 2008. Now, with THE LAST AIRBENDER, incredulously flatlining director/writer M. Night Shyamalan has finally concluded his Downward Spiral Trilogy with a glorious crown jewel of cinematic what-the-fuckery. In other words: If you thought those films were bad, wait'll you see the great big shit he takes on the beloved Nickelodeon anime series — fully titled Avatar: The Last Airbender — by trash-compacting an entire TV season's worth of plot into 103 of the sloppiest, weirdest, most incongruous movie minutes this year. (And I'm taking into consideration Legion, When in Rome, Sex and the City 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and Jonah Hex, people.) In his best movies, Shyamalan grounds fantastical scenarios with intimately observed characters; his Unbreakable is a self-discovery chamber piece that doesn't reveal itself as a superhero origin story until its final scene. But working for the first time in the epic-scale action-fantasy genre — Airbender takes place in a mythic world where mankind has split into the sparring elemental empires of air, earth, fire, and water, which certain warriors within each sect have the ability to "bend" (or telepathically control) — Shyamalan is painfully out of his league. Or perhaps he's secretly teamed up with Ashton Kutcher to Punk planet Earth. Either way, I sensed the need for a Failbender as early as the film's first scene, when teen Water Tribe scouts Katara and Sokka (Nicola Peltz and Twilight's Jackson Rathbone) discover an intriguingly tattooed young boy (Noah Ringer) and a large furry creature that looks like a buffalo by way of Where the Wild Things Are frozen in a block of ice in the arctic tundra. They're promptly defrosted by Katara, who's a Waterbender, and as the boy lays silent and motionless on the ground, she blankly announces: "He's exhausted." Er, pardon me? Did Shyamalan edit out his 49-second yawn? Shouldn't she be all "WHAT THE HELL, GLACIER CHILD AND GARGANTUAN BISON"? Unfortunately, this is prototypical of every last bit of the movie's spoken script: awkwardly worded declarations delivered with all the zest and passion of a juice commercial. But more on that later.
So, ugh. UGH. Turns out this little boy is Aang, the sole surviving Air Nomad (and, yes, the last Airbender) who also might be the Avatar — the Chosen One who's prophesied to restore balance to the Force or shut down the Matrix or defeat Lord Voldemort or whatever. This mystery is solved when Sokka asks: "So, are you the Avatar, Aang?" Aang doesn't respond immediately, but he later offers: "My name is Aang, and I am the Avatar. I ran away, but I'm back now." Oookay. (P.S., in case you're wondering: The fluffy buffalo is Appa, Aang's flying animal companion, SO ADORABLE but barely utilized outside of background shots.) Oh, and there are bad guys: The exiled Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) pursues Aang & Co. to get back in the good graces — the TOTALLY EVIL good graces, if you know what I mean — of his father, Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) of the Fire Nation. This chase leads to some truly inept battle sequences where various 'benders clash in the most ridiculously lackadaisical way possible. The Earthbenders of the Earth Kingdom, for example, raise chunks of terrain to hurl at the Firebenders, who stand around and politely wait until the Earthbenders are quite finished before blasting them with torrents of flame, and then the Firebenders pause so the Earthbenders can counterattack, and so on. This war is so courteous, it's practically afternoon tea. Meanwhile, in order to fulfill his destiny, Aang learns that the secret of Waterbending is to "let your emotions flow... like water" (how delightfully obvious!), and Katara narrates events that the movie simply can't be bothered to depict ("My brother and the princess became friends right away"). The Last Airbender quickly becomes a lethargic parade of endless Tai Chi training sequences and kooky dialogue that sounds as if it's been fed through the Fortune Cookie Fortune Processor 5000: "It is time we show the people of the Fire Nation we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs"; "May I introduce you to the mysterious ocean and moon spirits?"; "Again, I offer my condolences on your nephew burning to death in that terrible accident"; "I understand that when you freed that handful of towns you were very impressive." Wait. These are probably misplaced Shakira lyrics.
Shyamalan garnered a considerable bit of preproduction controversy due to his casting of Caucasian actors in the show's pan-Asian leads — decisions that would be easier to shrug off were these truly the best choices for the parts, but The Last Airbender is generally Cue Card Theater in terms of performance. (Weirdly, while the heroes are white, the villains are dark-skinned, with the three chief antagonists played by two Indians and a Polynesian. JUST SAYIN'.) I hope there's a good bit of post-release ire as well, because the woefully bungled 3D retrofitting is a big-ass scam that exists only to jack up ticket prices; the solitary pop-out effect appears to be the shooting stars in the Paramount Pictures logo. Yeesh. In Lady in the Water, Shyamalan wrote a meaty supporting role for himself as an artist whose works will go on to inspire world leaders and guide the masses to enlightenment. Judging from the violent chorus of boos that erupted from the audience at my Airbender preview screening when his name appeared on the end credits... yeah, no. F —Jasper
••• Showing in 3D and 2D. Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 minutes.