M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender pits the forces of fire, water, earth and wind against the patience of moviegoers and the standards of summertime movie enjoyment.
The elements win, or lose from our perspectives. Two of the four elements combine to create the lasting, unfavorable impression of this latest phase in Shyamalan's creative decline:
This movie is a lot of hot air.
Based on the manga animation series imported from Japan by Nickelodeon, The Last Airbender is the first time Shyamalan has worked with material that wasn't his idea. After his last few films, that sounds promising. But all it does is highlight the director's deficiencies in fundamental skills like drawing performances from actors, staging action that stirs, and laying out a substantial story.
MacGruber and Jonah Hex can relax. This is without doubt the summer's movie nadir, the grossest waste of somebody's money to create (and people to view) that we'll endure. The Last Airbender makes the cartoon version with its ratchet-jawed characters and clunky animation seem like a Pixar classic.
If you insist, here's the plot: Northern and Southern Earth (we call them hemispheres) are inhabited by four tribes identified by their mastery of a particular element. Oops, make that three since the Airbenders were exterminated by the evil Fire Empire. Only one Airbender remains, and he has literally been on ice for a century.
Aang (Noah Ringer) was the chosen one who ran away from his destiny to be the world's savior and became trapped under a tundra while the rest perished. He is discovered by a young Waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her ungifted brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). They quickly surmise Aang is the Avatar able to control all four elements and save civilization from Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).
Here's the thing. Aang bends only air. He skedaddled before mastering the others. Doesn't that make him only an aspiring Avatar, and not the best savior to bet your life upon? Nobody thinks about that; they just say the kid will learn soon enough and charge forward. But in a war that is essentially rock-paper-scissors with elements, I'd prefer an Avatar with at least two powers under his belt.
Okay, forget logic, since Shyamalan did. There is nothing exciting about watching people doing tai chi and Bob Fosse dance moves, surrounded by CGI fireballs, dirt devils and water blobs colored in later by computer. Same goes for the flying horned beaver cat Aang rides, and the bat-winged lemurs that don't do anything. Save your money on the 3D effects added as a money-grubbing afterthought, which play accordingly.
There is also no reason for professional actors in a big-budget movie to emote like students auditioning for a class play. Some balance out; Ringer's lack of expression is almost wise next to Aasif Mandvi's silly seething as a Fire Nation bad guy, and Dev Patel — a long way down from Slumdog Millionaire — feigning villainy.
Even worse, Shyamalan is so convinced, so arrogant about his project's potential that the climax blatantly sets up a sequel, three years from now when a comet passes and revives the Fire Nation. Right after bat lemurs fly out of my … you know.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.