'The Last Airbender' has all the razzle-dazzle, imagination, enthusiasm, and elaborate action choreography commonly expected of a summer blockbuster, but none of the story to make it worthwhile, stimulating, or engaging. Most of the CGI-infested battle sequences fail to thrill, excite, or even rouse any emotion besides utter boredom. It's simply another empty spectacle of fancy eye-candy targeted mostly at those already familiar with the animated series it's adapted from, leaving the rest of the movie-going audience out in the cold and uninterested. The martial arts fantasy flick feels pieced together from material and ideas meant for a different and vastly superior film, made worse by the fact that it comes from the director who once showed such promise with 'The Sixth Sense.'
M. Night Shyamalan seems to be stuck in a death spiral of bad moviemaking, a pattern the likes of which I have never seen, where each consecutive movie is shockingly shoddier than the last. The once popular director of 'Signs' and 'Unbreakable' is quite literally sounding his own death knell, the end of what could've been an amazing career. Every movie released since is like watching a gifted filmmaker slowly construct a celluloid noose as he drags his director's chair into position. With 'Airbender,' the capable storyteller throws the longer end over a rafter and readies his jump. If he doesn't come out with a real stunner in his next foray — 'One Thousand A.E.' — I'm afraid it will ring in the demise of the once Hollywood wunderkind, since he's exhausted the support of most every major studio.
Based on the Nickelodeon cartoon, where there's plenty of time to flesh out the storyline, the plot about a boy destined to bring peace between four warring nations is condensed into 100 minutes of nonsense. The script, written by Shyamalan (as always), flings exposition at viewers at such a hurried pace that it becomes an obvious race to set up a sequel instead of providing one complete, unified story. The dialogue, which uses stereotypical fantasy jargon, is a cringe-worthy claptrap that does little to help explain anything. Every time I heard the word "bender," I half-expected a drunk, obnoxious robot to suddenly appear, pick-pocketing everyone while chomping away on a cigar. And the short inspirational speeches by the characters are ineffective, purposeless and laughable hogwash.
Apparently each nation is separated by their skill to control one of the natural elements — earth, air, fire, and water — and one person, known as the Avatar, keeps peace between them because he can manipulate all four. A century later, since the disappearance of the last Avatar, the Fire Nation has seized power in dictatorial fashion, but before we're even given a chance to connect or empathize with the rediscovered Avatar, Aang (Noah Ringer), we're thrown immediately into one of many confrontations with his enemy, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel). After that, we jump from one battle to the next with horrible editing and a silly montage segment. Relationships are as quickly abandoned or pushed aside as they are tossed into the mix — one love interest comes and goes with no emotion behind it.
If that weren't bad enough, the cast is made to utter such truly ridiculous dialogue, three very fine actors — Cliff Curtis ('Training Day,' 'Sunshine', 'Whale Rider'), Shaun Toub ('The Kite Runner') and Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire') — are now forced to include this drivel of a motion picture on their resume. Even 'Daily Show'-alum Aasif Mandvi will have to live with this as another exploit in his comedic career. Added to this, the three lead actors — Ringer, Nicola Peltz as Katara, and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka — can't act to save their lives. While Ringer is easily excused as a newcomer, Peltz has yet to deliver anything standout and comes off as far too sappy and melodramatic in 'Airbender.' Rathbone's haircut calls more attention to itself than his acting. He should stick to his Jasper Hale role in the 'Twilight' series because at least there he doesn't have to speak or do much of anything else.
Added to this, there's one jarring and disconcerting difference between the cartoon and the live-action version. The three child heroes, according to the series, are supposed to be of Asian descent, but here they are played by very Caucasian actors. Further impairing the movie is the fact that the bad guys are clearly portrayed by Middle Eastern men. I don't want to go too far with this other than saying it's something worth mentioning since it opens up a whole other can of worms, and I really don't want to explore it since its obvious implications are rather confusing and highly disconcerting.
So moving right along . . .
This mess of a family adventure flick is further proof that Shyamalan's real talent is behind the camera rather than a keyboard, penning his own destruction. Visually, 'Airbender' makes a great watch, full of amazing fight scenes and imaginative battles between magically powerful characters. As with all his movies, the Philadelphia-native shows he's a talented director, moving the camera with impressive skill and creating a suspenseful scene out of the simplest, most mundane situations. Shyamalan knows how to capture our eyes, but he fails miserably at holding our attention with a tedious and wearisome story. Unlike his previous ventures, the film is incredibly predictable and without the "shocking" twist-ending that's become a staple of any Shyamalan production.
In the end, we can only hope the movie stays true to its title and we never hear of it again. Its star attraction may be born with a natural talent to control the elements, but it sadly lacks the ability to sway and absorb the attention of its audience. 'The Last Airbender' is an unfortunate and devastating natural disaster, ringing the end of a Hollywood career.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment and Nickelodeon Movies brings M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Last Airbender' to Blu-ray in two varieties. There's the single-disc version, which shares the same special features as its DVD counterpart, or the two-disc package, which offers more supplements plus a DVD/Digital Copy of the movie. The latter is the version sent to High-Def Digest for review. The BD50, Region Free disc is housed in a blue eco-friendly keepcase with a glossy, cardboard slipcover. The discs are secured on opposing panels. There are no annoying previews at startup, and viewers are taken directly to a standard selection of menu options while full-motion clips play in the background.
'The Last Airbender' bends its way unto Blu-ray with a highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) that's sure to make fans happy.
The freshly-minted transfer displays excellent definition in the clothing, architecture and various fine objects. From the bolts and rust of the metallic battleships to the small nicks and depressions on the ice blocks of the frozen city, the image is distinct and striking. The faces of actors are also revealing and often stunningly dramatic with natural, healthy skin tones. The color palette is richly saturated and animated with an attractive emphasis on earth tones. Contrast is spot-on and well-balanced, rendering bright, crisp whites and terrific visibility in the distance. Blacks are also accurate and intense, and delineation is strong in the darker portions of the picture. Overall, Shyamalan's cartoon adaptation makes a very impressive debut on high-definition video.
Accompanying the surprising picture quality of 'The Last Airbender' is a near-reference and earth-shattering DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Full of explosive action and martial arts battle sequences, the lossless mix exhibits rich clarity detail in the front soundstage and excellent channel separation. Dynamics are sharply rendered and room-penetrating with clear distinction and transparency between the highs and mids, making fight scenes enthralling and exciting. The low end is a rumbling and bombastic powerhouse, packing the element-bending combats with a weighty punch.
Rear activity displays many ambient effects and fluid movement between the channels, creating a highly immersive and engaging soundfield. The musical score by James Newton Howard also occupies much of the sound system, and it draws viewers in with superb fidelity and welcoming presence. Amid all the chaos, vocals remain clear and intelligible to keep the drama moving. For all the movie's shortcomings, the high-rez track is shockingly entertaining, making the fantasy adventure fun to sit through.
For 'The Last Airbender' on Blu-ray, Paramount offers the same set of bonus features shared between the single-disc Blu-ray and DVD versions and adds a few more extras for the hardcore fans.
M. Night Shyamalan's latest feature, 'The Last Airbender,' is a disastrous mess adapted from the animated series and clearly geared more to that fanbase. The fantasy adventure flick features terrific visual effects, amazing martial arts choreography, and strong direction. But it fails miserably at engaging viewers unfamiliar with the story, lacking heart and ultimately feels pieced together with various ideas. The Blu-ray edition debuts with an excellent video presentation and near-reference audio. The supplements from the DVD and single-disc Blu-ray are the same, but the two-disc version features some exclusive bonuses fans are sure to love. Unfortunately for the rest of the buying public, this is another case of bad flick, good disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.