The Last Airbender. Much has been made of the fact that the dreaded director of such horrors at The Happening, The Village and Lady in the Water cast Caucasians in the Asian-inspired lead roles. He’d have a leg to stand on if any of the actors he chose could act, but alas, their performances are as flat as an anime drawing. And speaking of flat, the so-called 3-D in The Last Airbender is barely noticeable — not surprising since it was yet another retrofit like Clash of the Titans.
Found in an ice floe, Aang (Noah Ringer) is the titular character, a little bald and tatted-up tyke who if nothing else, acts better than Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. He’s the Avatar, but not the tall blue cat lizard kind, the “if he learns to control all four elements, he’ll save mankind” kind. Too bad he threw a hissy fit and ran away from class, only to plunge into freezing water and get entombed in a block of ice for a hundred years. See kids? Stay in school! He’s rescued by cutesy brother/sister act Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, much better in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) but watch out! The banished prince of the evil Fire Nation is hot (get it?) on the little Lama’s tail, ready to serve him up to his mean dad to prove his manhood. Dev Patel glowers through his first role after Slumdog Millionaire as if he can hear his career capital evaporating.
I’ve never seen the Nickelodeon animated series and I am certainly no fan of Shyamalan’s infamous ego that shows up in every frame of his films, but I can’t really dog-pile onto The Last Airbender like my fellow critics. I didn’t think it was horrible on a Battlefield Earth level, but rather it’s utterly bland and forgettable, save for some nice visuals and production design. I was also grateful that we weren’t treated to another stellar acting performance by M. (Night? Shyam-Wow?). Usually, those are like the anti-Hitchcock moments I dream of in his other films, much like grade schoolers tease each other with the grossest smells or bodily secretions they can muster. You know they’re disgusting and will nauseate you, but you can’t help but anticipate them with glee. An M. Nightmare cameo in The Last Airbender, however, would have spoiled the delicate aura of innocuousness that permeates the film, reminding us that it was indeed directed by the same man who cast Mark Wahlberg as a smart biology teacher and sent cast members running through the fields shrieking, “It’s the wind! It’s the wind!” in The Happening.
You’re better off going to just about any other movie this summer, even Jonah Hex, since chances are they will make you at least feel something. The Last Airbender, on the other hand, will exit your mind like a slightly putrid breeze.
UPDATE: The Last Airbender is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.