DVD review: The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender marks a new low in the already floudering career of M Night Shyamalan.

Dev Patel star as Zuko in Paramount Pictures' The Last Airbender.
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The Last Airbender

Director: M Night Shyamalan

Starring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel


Every so often, a movie comes along that shapes the film industry, and the world, forever. Quotes become part of our everyday language; posters line the walls of of student dorms and family homes years after its initial cinematic outing, and its legacy as a classic is cemented instantaneously. The Last Airbender clearly wants to be one of those movies, but it isn't. Not by a long stretch.

It's a mystery at this stage who keeps leaving the once-golden boy of film, M Night Shyamalan, in charge of big-budget productions, but whoever it is deserves to be beaten about the head with one of this film's scripts, or, better yet, a clapper board. Shyamalan's career has become a classic example of a downward spiral; compared with The Sixth Sense, The Last Airbender is the celluloid equivalent of wet cardboard.

Based on the award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, the story is set in a world where the population has been divided into four nations - the tyrannical Fire Nation, which aims to rule the planet with a fiery fist, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom and the Air Nomads (driven almost to extinction by the Fire Nation and the group to which the film's hero belongs). Of these four nations, it is those who are born with the ability to "bend", or manipulate, an element who are given the greatest amount of respect, although none compare to the legendary Avatar, a mysterious being who has the ability to control all four elements. With this great power comes great responsibility, the Avatar being the only person on the planet who can keep the four nations united peacefully - in part also thanks to his unique ability to converse with the spirits of the world.

The Last Airbender - based on the first season of the cartoon show - begins a century after the unexplained disappearance of the Avatar, whose absence has allowed the volatile Fire Nation to begin their bid for world domination. But when two siblings of a southern Water Tribe, Katara (Nicola Peltz), and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) happen upon the missing hero frozen in time, his re-appearance kick-starts an uprising against the power hungry ruler of the Fire Nation, Lord Ozai. The film didn't meet with the same success as its popular source material. An $318 million (Dh1.2bn) haul at the worldwide box office might sound impressive, but compared with the total production costs of almost $300 million, it looks decidedly less so. It bombed at the critically as well as commercially, currently holding an abysmal six per cent approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Given the laughably bad script, stilted acting from every cast member (well, all except the monk who never talks - he's quite good) and mind numbingly boring plot, six per cent is possibly over-generous.

The cast might be made up predominantly of young actors, but age shouldn't be used as an excuse when it comes to talent. Newcomer Noah Ringer, who was cast as the Avatar, Aang, after impressing Shyamalan with his taekwondo skills, is both unconvincing and uninspiring as the supposed saviour of the world. Peltz, as the lead female protagonist and the film's narrator, is just as painful to watch. Both actors can lay the blame partially at the feet of Shyamalan, whose script should never have been allowed to see the light of day. Jackson Rathbone and Dev Patel - the latter in his first major film role since winning over the hearts of audiences for his turn in Slumdog Millionaire - are incredibly misplaced in this fantasy yarn. The bug-eyed, slightly dopey act may have served Rathbone well for his role as a vampire in the Twilight movies, but in the snowy confines of The Last Airbender, he looks amusingly bewildered. As if to balance out the timid and awkward performance delivered by Rathbone, Patel, as Prince Zuko, the son of Lord Ozai, is unintentionally hilarious. His role as the bad guy who just wants to be loved by his dad (excuse us while we don't shed a tear) is akin to that of a pantomime villain.

The Last Airbender is epic alright, but not in the sense that it was intended to be. Should he want to get his career to return to its earlier heights, Shyamalan could start by studying his earlier successes. After this, he's got even further to go to get back there.