With Noah Winger, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Aasif Mandvi. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG for fantasy action violence. 103 minutes.
Based on a popular cartoon series, THE LAST AIRBENDER arrives with a thud in a live action version directed by fading director M. Night Shyamalan. In a summer of clunkers that includes “Prince of Persia,” “Marmaduke” and “Sex And The City 2,” this adaptation sets a new low for boredom.
The backstory is complicated. We’re in a fantasy world where tribes have set up communities based on their affinity to earth, air, water or fire. Within each community there are those who are “benders,” who can control their element and bend it to his or her will. And among those benders, there is one who is the “avatar,” who can master all four elements.
The story begins with Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) discovering Aang (Noah Winger) who has been encased in ice for a century. Katara is a water bender, but still learning to control her power. Aang, as it turns out, is not only the last of the air tribe, but the reincarnation of the avatar. All his people were wiped out by the fire tribe, who are looking to capture him and destroy all their competition.
To complicate matters, the leader of the fire tribe has two people looking for Aang. One is Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), who has been exiled by his father but can redeem himself by capturing the avatar. The other is Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) who sees his success as a way of making himself the heir apparent and cutting off Zuko for good. While Aang is looking to be trained in his powers, Zuko and Zhao are looking for him.
As a story, this is not very compelling. As we try to figure out why the fire tribe is bad and the water tribe is good, it becomes obvious that we don’t care the slightest about the characters themselves. The cartoon series borrows greatly from Asian cultures and Japanese anime and there has been much criticism that Aang is not played by an Asian actor. One might just as well ask why all the villains seem to be from India. The issue here is less paying homage to sources than the fact that this is a manufactured product without any soul.
Shyamalan’s recent films may have been flawed but at least he seemed to know where to put the camera. Now, in this work for hire, he seems to be just going through the motions. The movie’s 3D effects are non-existent and there are long stretches where you can remove those annoying glasses and still watch the film. As for the acting, it is dreadful. Most of the performers are so bland that you forget them while you’re watching them. Patel, saddled with a character with conflicting motives, fares slightly better, but for adults the most recognizable face may be Aasif Mandvi, a regular on “The Daily Show.” Where he is so quick and sharp with Jon Stewart, here his performance is so turgid that a scene in which he delivers the line, “Yes,” actually got a derisive laugh from the preview audience.
The film ends with a set-up for a sequel, which those unfortunate enough to endure this torturous mess can only hope never occurs. Should “The Last Airbender 2” ever be made (and if the enforcers of the Fourth Geneva Convention fall asleep on the watch), it’s a safe bet that step one will be replacing Shyamalan with a director who can bend a cartoon into something that audiences will line up to get into rather than out of.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.