The title character of M. Night Shyamalan’s junior mystical martial-arts fantasy The Last Airbender is a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) with big, bright eyes, a monk’s shaved head, and an intricate array of symmetrical tattoos that culminate in an arrow pointing right down his forehead (it’s sort of the equivalent of a third eye). He also has the ability to bend air — that is, to whoosh and shove chunks of the atmosphere around him so that the air literally gets turned into a weapon. Aang, we’re told, is the one person on earth who still possesses this ancient talent (though a number of others know how to bend water, fire, and clods of dirt). In a world engulfed by tribal warfare, he is also ”the Avatar,” the only one who can save mankind. He’s a leaping, flying, butt-kicking prepubescent Christ figure in Zen robes. To accomplish his air-bending, Aang assumes a series of highly balletic tai chi poses, twirling and bowing his body, curling his hands around like a boy dancer. The movie should have been called Crouching Billy Elliott, Hidden Air Pocket.
The Last Airbender is Shyamalan’s adaptation of the animated Nickelodeon series that debuted in 2005, and the filmmaker — working, for the first time, from someone else’s material — has said that he was drawn to the series because of his daughters, and that, in essence, he watched it through their eyes. I have no doubt that they’ll like the movie. The Last Airbender is compulsively faithful to the series — to its lexicon and mythology, its boy-wizard spirit, and to everything it meticulously borrows from movies and books and graphic novels and anime and videogames. Shyamalan, for all his talent, has always been a deeply derivative filmmaker. Signs was warmed-over Spielberg, The Village was The Crucible gone Twilight Zone, and even The Sixth Sense (still his most celebrated movie) was, in essence, Ghost meets The Shining. So it makes sense that he’d be drawn to The Last Airbender, which, on TV, is a veritable trash compactor of familiar tropes and effects.
The movie is Star Wars with martial arts, plus a touch of The Last Emperor. Technically, it’s not badly done; I enjoyed the physical clash of elements, the water balls rising like sculpture in the air. The trouble with The Last Airbender is that Aang, as a character, is a saintly abstraction (Noah Ringer plays him with a sensitive pout that grows cloying), and he’s surrounded by generic young actors who are like place holders for real stars. Your eyes are sometimes dazzled, but you’re shut out of the spectacle because there’s no one of any force or charm or stature to identify with.
Aang, who’s like a generic kiddie-Buddhist Luke Skywalker, teams up with the young waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to go up against the aggressors of Fire Nation — who are basically a fascist-empire group, a tribe of Death Star marauders. Their most vengeful member is Prince Zuko, a sullen young man with a singed scar on the side of his face who is working out his daddy issues. He’s an Anakin Skywalker clone, played by Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire, whose performance here is an unvarying snit fit. The story, considering how busy it is, isn’t much. Sokka develops a crush on Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel), whose complicated white hair and cheerleader voice render her a kind of Cosmic Barbie; Aang, to get in full fighting mode, must learn how to bend the three other elements, beginning with water (fire and earth, presumably, will be left to the sequels). As for the 3-D, I’m tempted to leave responsible critical language behind and say, quite simply, that it sucks — except that the 3-D visuals in this movie would have to exist before they could be called terrible. The Last Airbender keeps throwing things at you, but its final effect is, in every way, flat. C