I kept waiting for the surprise ending while watching the latest film from director M. Night Shyamalan. After all, the filmmaker best known for the knock-your-socks-off conclusion of "The Sixth Sense" has a track record of trying to shock viewers at the end of his films with some sort of (hopefully) unexpected twist. The only problem is that once he became known for that, such endings lost their value since we knew they were coming and thus were on the watch for clues leading to a guess of what they might ultimately be.
As a result, many of his films after the Bruce Willis/Haley Joel Osment surprise hit have not only felt gimmicky (all build-up for one pay-off) but such construction and our knowledge of that also essentially meant most of us were taken out of the films' proceedings -- and thus were no longer as emotionally engaged as needed -- while we tried to figure out the twist before it arrived.
To his credit, Shyamalan isn't up to his old tricks with "The Last Airbender." Yet, much of that's due to the fact that he's adapting preexisting material (not to mention it's the first installment of a planned trilogy) rather than basing his screenplay on one of his own ideas.
And that material would be the Nickelodeon animated TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. A U.S. based anime type show (which I've never seen), it reportedly was influenced by and consisted of a mix of Eastern elements, philosophies and such, and was quite popular during its run from 2005 to 2008.
I'm not sure what fans of that series will think of this big screen and big-budget adaptation (where the "Avatar" part of the title has been dropped because of some obscure James Cameron movie). But for this newbie to the material, I kept hoping one of the characters was really a ghost or that the entire villages were just isolated communes in the real world. Or that Bob Newhart dreamed the entire thing or it was an imagined world inside an autistic boy's snow globe.
And that's because it's bad, as in "Wild Wild West" will no longer be considered the nadir of July 4th weekend releases. It feels off from the get-go (with the obligatory scrolling onscreen text and voice-over narration) and never gets its footing or a sense of balance with the material as it throws in a wide variety of elements, characters, creatures, large scale battles and maybe even a kitchen sink or two from far better films.
It's also badly edited, poorly plotted, horribly directed, features less than state of the art special effects (in less than necessary or really that noticeably effective 3D) and contains characters with which viewers will have a difficult it not impossible time caring for and/or being engaged by. In short, you'll probably end up hoping, wishing and/or praying along with Dev Patel (playing the lead villain) that the concluding twist will be this was all just a dream during an intermission in a scene from "Slumdog Millionaire" (in which Patel showed he could really act, compared to the over-the-top but not hammy enough to be entertaining performance here).
Granted, he had the advantage of working under the creative eye of director Danny Boyle who had a firm grip on the multi-tiered aspects of that Oscar winning and highly entertaining film. Here, you can sense that Shyamalan is simply in over his head working in this large scale, special effects laden environment. He's far better operating in smaller settings where he allows his performers to do their thing ("Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs"), with "The Village," "The Happening" and now this flick showing the bigger the scope, the less he's able to handle all of the increased scale and related elements.
All of which is too bad since -- as I seem to be saying about an increasing number of films nowadays -- there's some inherent potential with characters who can control various elements. Granted, that's not exactly original (think, for example, of Storm from the "X-Men" comic books and films and Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm -- wait a minute, are they related? -- from "The Fantastic Four"), but mixing such telekinesis with Eastern practices and mindsets does present some possibilities.
Alas, all they lead to are slight variations of the big, CGI heavy battle scenes we've grown accustomed to from Hollywood ever since "The Lord of the Rings" movies made them popular once again. And that's just more of the same old, same old busy mayhem without a care in the world about the outcome. As the unlikely lead battler, Noah Ringer is okay as the title character but better in the physical acrobatics than in the big emotional moments.
Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone play siblings central to the plot, but they feel as if they walked off the set of the latest "Narnia" movie. Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi and Cliff Curtis play the obligatory villains, Shaun Toub is the bad guy who actually has a heart and conscience, while Seychelle Gabriel shows up as a blonde princess with nothing to do but get Rathbone's character smitten with her. But you won't care and you won't remember much if anything once the end credits roll, that is, right after the tease for the next installment.
One can only hope, though, that the title will end up indicative of how many "Last Airbender" films will be coming our way (the ironic part being dialogue where the lead villain orders that the Avatar not be killed as he'll simply come back in another reincarnated form, and nobody wants that).
It's possible that the series could be salvaged with someone other than Shyamalan at the keyboard and behind the camera, but I'm not holding my breath for that Hollywood twist. And you shouldn't hold yours hoping for a fun, entertaining and/or adventurous time with this film as you'll end up passing out (which in this case might be a more desirable alternative than watching this boring, muddled and disjointed offering). "The Last Airbender" rates as a generous 2 out of 10.