Stage One: Denial. To be an M. Night Shyamalan fan is to be an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I understand why the blogger generation has turned him into their whipping boy – he has made a series of terrible films. That’s fair enough. But when did it become fashionable to hate his early features? I thought we were all in agreement that The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs were great? It seems the online community has swept the rug out from under me, making me look like the kid who rocked up to Free Dress Day at school still wearing my uniform. There has been retroactive dismissal of his cinematic output that puzzles me; many are now scrambling to claim that they always knew M. Night was a hack, as if he were the demon spawn of Brett Ratner and Uwe Boll. I certainly can’t say I predicted the depths Shyamalan would reach later in his career, and I still consider those aforementioned three films to be phenomenal. Even in his worst pictures, I occasionally see a glimpse of his innate directorial talent and think, “Perhaps this is the moment where he will enchant me once again.”
Stage Two: Guilt. The very fact that I am prefacing a review of his new film – The Last Airbender – with an acknowledgment of his public perception is sad. Will I always have to say before discussing his latest, “He’s a good filmmaker; he just makes the occasional bad movie!”? Francis Ford Coppola made Jack, but people aren’t grabbing their pitchforks and storming his winery in the Napa Valley. Let it be said that The Last Airbender is not a good film. Not at all. It betrays its much-loved source material – the Cartoon Network show Avatar: The Last Airbender – with (less than) one dimensional characters, an almost incomprehensible dilution of the narrative, and laughably bad action sequences that look like dance routines in which the dancers are one step behind the beat. But I take no joy in tearing into Shyamalan’s failure. Perhaps a little part of me is still desperately clinging on to the filmmaker I once revered. Perhaps I just feel bad for the guy.
Stage Three: Anger. But wait a second; I’m not the one collecting million dollar checks to produce entertainment. He is, and therefore, he needs to claim responsibility for this travesty. It’s all well and good if Shyamalan wants to make misguided vanity projects (Lady in the Water) and hilariously off-the-reservation horror films (The Happening). I can even forgive The Village, which is two-thirds of an impressively made film (I’ll chalk the mind-numbing ending up to poor judgment). But Avatar: The Last Airbender is loved by millions; how can he let all those fans of the show down? How could the creative minds behind the program trust the franchise to a filmmaker who seems to have forgotten how to tell a story? I’m not entirely familiar with the series, but I enjoy big budget action adventures just like anyone else, and Shyamalan has failed to deliver that too. Why should I feel bad, when he is the one that keeps disappointing everyone? He keeps disappointing me, and I keep apologising for him! Well, not any more…
Stage Four: Depression. What really saddens me – apart from the disintegration of a once exciting talent, and the distressing racebending of the cast of characters – is that it seems as if a good film could be made out of The Last Airbender’s tale. But this is not that film. The picture takes place in a universe divided up into the Water, Fire, Earth and Air nations, each of which are being terrorised by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) and his son Zuko (Dev Patel) because [unexplained]. Our hero is Aang (Noah Ringer), a young boy with the power to “bend” all four elements, which means [unexplained]. He is expected to unite the nations by [unexplained][unexplained] with the help of Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). Together, they [something] [something] [fish god] [something] until the final battle! Also, the ending alludes to a sequel. Attempting to recount this plot was difficult and disheartening.
Stage Five: The Upward Turn. The Last Airbender is a mess at its very core. Shyamalan does not know what story he is telling, and he fails to convey it either aurally or visually. His characters are empty vessels; they exist to explain what we should instead be shown. No one is funny; no one is smart; no one is interesting; no one is anything. The action sequences are slow, tedious and silly. It’s a children’s film, but I can’t imagine a child not clawing their chairs in boredom. BUT, there is the odd moment that seems to evoke Shyamalan’s finer films. In certain moments of emotional intensity (and only when his actors aren’t speaking), the camera is framed in such a way that it elicits chills. Credit must also go to cinematographer Andrew Leslie and composer James Newton Howard. Well, it’s not much credit and they’ll have to split it three ways, but its credit nonetheless.
Stage Six: Acceptance … and Hope. The Last Airbender is awful, but for what it’s worth, it’s not the worst film of 2010. I personally think The Expendables, Eclipse, Sex and the City 2, Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman and Tooth Fairy are all far greater travesties. The film has been hit with allegations of racisim in its selective casting, and although they’re significant (and not totally unfounded) accusations, the film is not nearly as offensive as The Expendables (which makes men seem like idiots), Eclipse (which makes women seem like idiots) and Sex and the City 2 (which makes men AND women seem like idiots, AND is racist – the trifecta!). While The Last Airbender proves that Shyamalan has forgotten how to tell a story, it offers enough hope to suggest he might one day be able to recapture his talents. He had to hit rock bottom sometime. Onwards and upwards?