A slow-motion car wreck? A chronic illness that worsens and worsens without ever quite proving terminal? A night out on the town with Lindsay Lohan?
It's hard work coming up with a metaphor equal to the task of describing the precipitous cinematic decline of M. Night Shyamalan. The writer-director's career over the last dozen years has been like an exercise in entropy: from the critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense; to the underrated Unbreakable; to the bold but ill-conceived Signs; to the escalating idiocies of The Village; to the risible Lady in the Water (a failure notable enough to occasion an entire book); to The Happening, a picture so terrible that it defied conventional criticism.
Having evidently run out of filmable ideas of his own, Shyamalan has now turned to an adaptation of Nickelodeon's animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." (The movie borrows the latter half of the show's title, the former being otherwise engaged.) At first, the project seemed to promise an experiment of sorts: Has Shyamalan truly emerged as one of Hollywood's most awful directors, or merely one of its most awful screenwriters? Alas, the experiment was corrupted by the studio's decision to let Shyamalan write his own script, so it is impossible to determine the precise origin of the awfulness. But rest assured, it's there.
The story, such as it is, follows Aang (Noah Ringer), a bald, tattooed boy-mystic who is found packed in an ice bubble one snowy morning by siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). Katara and Sokka, we learn, belong to the Water Nation, some of whose members (Katara among them) can manipulate ice and water with their minds; Aang, meanwhile, is the last survivor of the Air Nation (no relation to the Aryan Nation, tattoos and baldness notwithstanding). All three have suffered at the hands of the Fire Nation, which bullies the Water folk and has eradicated all of Aang's people save him. Aang, as it happens, is the Avatar, the sole being in the world with the power to manipulate all four elements (air, water, fire, and earth). Unfortunately, his Avatar training was cut short before he'd learned to manipulate anything other than air. So he spends the duration of the film hanging out with tribes of the Water Nation, learning to use their element and overcoming various attempts at kidnapping or invasion by competing Fire Nation bands led by ambitious Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and exiled Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, looking decidedly cranky at the wrong turn his career has taken since Slumdog Millionaire).
It's a remarkably flat arc, though tolerable movies have been made from less. But I think it's fair to say that none of those movies boasted quite the array of leaden performances, overscripted dialogue, narrative inertia, and underwhelming visual effects that characterize The Last Airbender. This is a film that resembles a video game in all the bad ways--Manichean premise, non-existent characterization, an obsession with dutifully explained "rules"--while still managing to miss out on the kinetic momentum of Xboxiness. If there has been a duller, more stagnant action film released this decade, I managed, thank God, to miss it.
The movie is narrated intermittently by Katara, though she need hardly have bothered: Nearly every character self-narrates with redundant promiscuity, announcing what he intends to do, then describing what he is in the midst of doing, and finally recounting what he has just done. (Shyamalan evidently worries that a large proportion of his audience will suffer from deficient memories and/or restless bladders.) Indeed, the film works so hard to explain its plot developments that it scarcely has any time left over to dramatize them. Exposition has not merely vanquished mimesis, it has burned its homes to the ground and sown salt in its fields.
Saddled with such stubbornly instrumental dialogue, it is little surprise that Shyamalan's castmembers creak listlessly through their lines. Yet it is nonetheless an accomplishment of sorts that not a single character in the entire film manages to establish an identity discrete from his or her narrative obligations. (Checkers have more individuality.) When a secondary heroine decides to sacrifice her life for the greater good--shortly after meeting cute with the boy of her dreams!--her martyrdom has all the moral and emotional gravity of a popping soap bubble.
If one might hope for a single courtesy from The Last Airbender, it would be that it live up to the promise of its title and forswear any future installments. Alas, in a coda scene--perhaps the most ham-fisted sequel-primer since Harry Osborne found his dad's secret Goblin closet at the end of Spider-Man 2--Shyamalan emphatically announces that this is not his intent. The leader of the Fire Nation (Cliff Curtis) ploddingly explains that Aang, having now learned to manipulate water, will doubtless follow by training in earth and fire, and assigns a new agent to deter him. I mean it as no reflection on this agent's capabilities when I say that she is almost certainly not up to the task. No one, I fear, can bring Aang's tiresome odyssey to a close save you, the discerning moviegoer. I pray that you act accordingly.