Where to start with this one? How about this: If any movie ever warranted a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers, it’s The Last Airbender. Not because it’s a terrible movie—though it is—but because its release as a 3-D film becomes false advertising a few seconds after a comin’-atcha gush of water appears behind the Paramount logo. From there, it becomes painfully obvious—even more painfully obvious than in Alice In Wonderland—that a few 3-D elements have been added to satisfy the current 3-D craze, and the higher ticket prices they allow. Worse still, the process makes the already-dark imagery darker, and turns the action blurry. Viewers who see it in this form will pay more for an even shittier experience than the one they would have had in 2-D.
And that would have been plenty shitty already. Adapting a well-regarded, epic-in-scope Nickelodeon animated series, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has failed to do right both by his source material and his own strengths as a filmmaker. Set in a world in which the population is divided amid the four elements, and some skilled practitioners can control those elements to their own ends, the film vomits out complicated mythology in mouthfuls of exposition, when not putting a supporting character’s voiceover narration in charge of relaying major developments. Shyamalan manages a few striking images, most of them involving otherworldly landscapes created in Greenland and Vietnam. But none of the care and craftsmanship evident in projects he originated, even lousy ones like The Happening, find their way into this movie.
So what does that leave? A lot of headache-inducing CGI-effects sequences, many scenes of children doing tai chi, and some imperiled magical fish. Another filmmaker might have crafted the material’s themes—which reference Buddhism and Christianity while exploring the relationship between good and evil—into a striking film. Shyamalan lets his unimpressive special effects do the work for him while coaxing performances from his young cast that make Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look studied. (Star Noah Ringer, who plays a messianic figure who might unite the warring forces, delivers his lines as if reading a book report, and his older co-stars don’t fare much better.) The Last Airbender isn’t that much different from the rest of this summer’s generally dire multiplex fare—from The A-Team to Jonah Hex—which started with established properties and half-decent ideas, then cranked up the volume, velocity, and effects to the point where neither sense nor tender moments could escape. But it is remarkable in one respect: It’s the worst of them.