Published Jul 01, 2010M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is so vast in its awfulness that I fear reviewing it will devolve simply into a laundry list of complaints. So be it. We've got a lot of ground to cover, so you might as well get comfortable.
The Earth, Water, Fire and Air Nations lived peacefully for hundreds of years in generic digital landscapes that look uncannily like generic digital landscapes. They were peacefully united by an Avatar who was in contact with the murkily explained spirit world (which Shyamalan seems to be making up as he goes along), but when the Avatar abruptly disappeared, the Fire Nation sought to destroy the other nations and conquer the spirit world. Hopefully, the elements gimmick was less hackneyed on the original Nickelodeon show, and the nations appeared less like a patronizing hodgepodge of various Eastern cultures.
The Avatar is Aang (Noah Ringer), who's still a small boy after being frozen in ice for one hundred years, which perhaps also explains why he has no personality whatsoever. He is discovered by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), siblings from the Water nation also devoid of personality, who were Asian on the cartoon series, but who are white here for no good reason. Perhaps racial differences are the only way to tell any of these characters apart.
Our heroes band together to defeat the oppressive Fire Nation, but Aang (an Airbender) must first visit the other nations to master the arts of water and earthbending - essentially, an ability to manipulate the elements that he picks up with such ease that no dramatic interest is generated. Aang also discovers the Fire Nation destroyed his village, which he mourns for about two minutes before moving on to his next adventure.
It's difficult to evaluate Noah Ringer's performance since he doesn't actually give one to speak of. More grating is Nicola Peltz, who reads her lines either with confused frustration or breathless intensity ("The city knew our arrival would bring great danger!"). As for the villainous Prince Zucko (son of the Fire Lord), Dev Patel's one direction seems to have been "glower."
Shyamalan also wrote the script, demonstrating the same accountant's ear for dialogue he showed in The Happening. This is the kind of writing where when Aang discovers the Fire Nation killed his family, Katara says, "Aang, the Fire Nation knew the Avatar would be born among the air nomads, so they exterminated the air nomads!"; where Katara's narration occurs completely arbitrarily, either to plug the occasional plot hole or describe what's happening on screen ("We arrived at the northern Water Tribe. We presented ourselves at the royal court..."); and where after the Fire Lord's son abruptly appears, Katara actually exclaims, "Fire Lord's son!"
But forget the inept storytelling, convoluted mythology, dreadful acting and piss-poor special effects. The real reason why The Last Airbender isn't even remotely compelling is because Shyamalan has created a universe without any humanity. In the Harry Potter series, the characters are allowed to have little eccentricities, and Harry is sometimes able to step back and be awed by the magical world he lives in. Here, nobody has interests or hobbies. Nobody has quirks or character flaws. Nobody ever says anything that is not directly related to the plot, and I don't think anybody cracked a single joke.
M. Night Shyamalan has made some very bad films, but never before has he made such a black hole. (Paramount)