‘Airbender’ Fails to Bend Minds

One of the most dexterous summer releases in recent memory, M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” has been successfully riding several waves of hype for months before its July 1 release. Retro-fitted for 3-D and banking heavily on the strong fan base of the Nickelodeon animation of the same name, can the CGI-heavy adventure capture the elements of the Hollywood blockbuster?

The short answer is a most emphatic no, but it’s the long answer that intrigues. It’s a rare sight to see a film of any variety come so close to success, and yet at the same time fail on nearly every conceivable facet of production.

The story separates the world into competing factions, each bearing the ability to control a singular element somehow related to their geography. The civil war that has been going on between them since days long past threatens to destroy the world, barring the intervention of a mystical being with the ability to control all the elements himself.

The simple plotline, in theory, opens up the film to a breezy narrative pace that allows for plenty of varied and large-scale action sequences. However, the “Last Airbender” anime fan base must be a frightening one indeed, for within such an open story expanse the screenwriters have tried to fit in as much of the mythos of the original television series as humanly possible.

It’s a difficult enough task converting a 600-page book into a two-hour film. It’s an impossible task to fit an entire 20-episode season into a 90-minute film. Without a hint of hyperbole, every single piece of dialogue contains at least a passing phrase of exposition. Coupled with the dangerously painful acting, the film’s plot is most often dispensed in wooden monologues of flat readings of rephrased character biographies.

Perhaps it is the casting choices in particular that are the final nail to the coffin to this film’s spectacular failure. The hilarious controversy of character whitewashing aside, “The Last Airbender” appears to take itself far too seriously around the same time it just wants to shut up and look pretty. Especially in the choice of villains, Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”…yes, that guy) ignore the expected bombast of such roles and instead attempt an awkward seriousness that only looks like an attempt at smoldering intensity that never even gets lukewarm. The rest of the cast feels so forgettable and are barely even worth a mention before…wait, what was I talking about?

Most curious in the lopsided dunce that is “The Last Airbender” is its effects. While shiny and pleasing when examined within their proper existence – that is to say, executable programs run in a half-screened digital editing program on an underpaid animator’s laptop – their actual execution in the film is haphazard and pitiful.

Fire never seems to leave a burn mark, and water flows more like partially coagulated vegetable oil. For a film about the manipulation of elements, such a display is unforgivable. Sure, the larger the effects get in scope, the more difficult such faults are to notice, and the film’s final ten minutes do tickle the escapist part of the brain surprisingly well. Grandiose effects have been done better overall in parodies of such action fodder.

If meaningless technology is your game than there is no better (or worse, depending on your point of view) playing field than “The Last Airbender.” It’s a pity that 3D’s first main usage in its resurgence was so well executed, as what has come after has amounted to a reminder of why the fad died out around the same time as the city of Berkeley.

3-D effects more often look like paper cutouts being run atop the original image rather than any depth enhancements or perspective blurring. The film was obviously not intended for the technology, as implementing it so late in the development process has required a dimming of the overall contrast of the film itself, resulting in the final movie having an odd sort of darkened lack of focus to it, as if one is watching it through a slight squint.

“The Last Airbender” is more a joy to itemize and deduce for its faults than to watch for pure enjoyment. It’s a fun, brain-tickling collection of poor planning and lazy ideas that never even amounts to an IMDb synopsis of the original anime. Its story is a cluttered mess of plot dysentery, its performances misguided at best and its effects a firing-worthy offense for everyone involved. Worse still is that all these blemishes were put under a microscope with literally the worst use of 3-D in a major motion picture since “Jaws 3-D.” A beautiful train wreck, a lousy motion picture.