Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Mr. Shyamalan is taking a pasting on this one. People are baying for blood from the man once audaciously proclaimed as the successor to Steven Spielberg, the critics are scenting the kill and it may well be the end for him (though, we’ve said that for how many movies now?)

For the most part, the critics have it spot on. The Last Airbender is a horrific mish-mash of genres that follows a depressingly large number of dead ends in adapting its source material, the Nickelodeon cartoon ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’.

The story is set in an alternate world, a fantastical world divided into four great nations: earth, air, water and fire. Each of these nations is, unsurprisingly, connected to their chosen elements and a select few of them can even manipulate (bend) their element at will. The nations cannot co-exist in peace, however, and to rectify that one man in every generation is born with the ability to bend every element, and to unite every nation under a philosophy of peaceful coexistence.

That man is the Avatar, and we join this world at a time when the Avatar is missing, and the nation of fire is ritualistically exterminating the nation of air (to which he is believed to have been born) before exerting its power over the nations of earth and water.

The story is a grand one, and the various designers in the film do a great job in bringing the world in which it is set to life. Each realm has its own identity, and the philosophy, a sort of mix of Buddhism and various Eastern teachings on peace and enlightenment, are liberally spread among the inhabitants. So far so good. But then somewhere, somehow, some terrible decisions were made.

Firstly, making the show into a trilogy left this film with the unenviable task of being an origin story.

There’s a lot of talky set-up dialogue that makes the entry into this new world feel contrived and clunky. Worse still, it meant that Shyamalan was given a lot of time to get ‘under the skin’ of cartoon characters who were written to be easy-to-follow in series format: i.e. quite simple. The result of this is that there’s some corny subplots and hammed up ‘emotional’ scenes that the film could easily do away with.

The latter problem is compounded by the fact that the acting is, without exception, awful. The ‘Avatar’ is just The Golden Child but without the gravitas, while his sidekicks are average kids next door, but with a few battle skills.

Speaking of battle skills, it’s difficult to know how to assess the action sequences.

The potential thrills and spills of people who can manipulate the elements entering an epic sequence of battles are enormous, and they are, to some extent, realised. There are a few excellent moments of explosive fighting that really liven up the film, but they often falter and end before they quite reach the crescendo they should (a problem Shyamalan seems to frequently suffer from).

But a bigger problem for the action was the late, and awful, switch into 3-D format. It’s not quite Clash of the Titans awful, but it does look really poor on some of the big set pieces, and for large swathes of the film I found that I could comfortably take off my 3-D specs and not notice the difference. So it hardly seems worth spending the extra cash for the additional dimension.

One final point I feel I can’t really avoid is the name of the film, or rather, part of it. Now in America it might seem perfectly reasonable to call someone who can control the elements a ‘bender’, but here in the UK it has some quite different connotations. For those who aren’t from these fair shores, the a ‘bender’ is a childish and derogatory term for a homosexual. So lines like ‘I remember when you mother first realised you were a bender’ and ‘these benders are stronger in the moonlight’ caused a series of childish sniggers across the screening room I was in. Not least from me.

So I guess my verdict would be that this is a disappointing effort. No irredeemable, not the worst film of the year, but still an adaptation that fails to meet the promise of its source material, and makes a series of needless blunders as it attempts to do so.

The Last Airbender opens Wednesday in the U.K.

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This article was first posted on August 9, 2010