The Last Airbender (Rated PG) 3 stars
I admit I did not watch the original series. After watching M. Night Shyamalan’s lackluster (and more than a little racist) version, I wish I had. Shyamalan’s career started off strong, but quickly degenerated into a series of farcical box office flops too dependent on his signature “twist” to sustain creditability. The Happening offered the promise of better things to come, but The Last Airbender (103 minutes) fails to deliver on that promise.
The world created by DiMartino and Konietzko is distinctly Asian and references authentic cultural practices, celebrating diversity. The world created by Shyamalan relegates Asian actors to background roles and villainy while the heroes are all obviously caucasian. This is even more inexplicable considering the caucasian heroes live in the middle of villages filled with Asian characters.
This is not to imply that there are not Asian actors in primary roles. Adding insult to injury, consider the main villain, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), alongside a number of other villains primarily played predominately by Asian actors. Central casting can hide behind choosing actors over ethnicities, but there are so many prominent/qualified Asian actors it is especially offensive to think that Hollywood values them so little. Did anybody even call Kal Penn? What about John Cho? What about Michelle Yeoh? What about that chick from Glee? The list goes on.
The myth behind the show involves element-based tribes, the Airbenders, the Waterbenders, the Earthbenders and the Firebenders. The Firebenders are the film’s antagonists, and this tribe seeks to dominate the rest of the world. They began taking control with the disappearance of an Avatar capable of controlling all four basic elements approximately 100 years prior to the film’s opening.
In the present, the Avatar Aang (Noah Ringer) is rediscovered and immediately begins to suck screen time while running around with a cheap version of Falcor the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story. He begins hanging out with the wonder twins Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). Between the three of them, they have the acting ability of one child star, so in any given scene only one of them is really selling the story while the other two look on blankly.
The three begin a pilgrimage to various ruins on the way to the big waterbender city while dodging several factions of the Fire Nation. Their most persistent pursuers include Prince Zuko and Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) who are unable to play nicely together.
The acting grows increasingly worse, the plot grows more and more complicated, new characters are introduced, but nobody in the audience cares. The reason nobody really cares is because the real stars of the film are the elements, twisted into new life by skillfully applied CGI. The FX guys and gals are the saving grace of an otherwise poorly realized vision, giving us something to look at instead of the dead eyes of the leads. Though enjoyable on a basic level, the film fails to achieve the bright contrasting tones of other visually arresting action movies (Curse of the Golden Flower; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).