Avatar: The Last Airbender is an entertaining animated fantasy show on Nickelodeon. It takes place in a world where people can telekinetically control the four elements, those being fire, air, wind and water. I've seen a few episodes of this show and, while it has its down moments, it can accurately be described as bright, fun, hopeful and whimsical. In the new movie adaptation of that show called simply The Last Airbender, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan takes those charming, entertaining qualities and wipes his ass with them.
Round this time last week, Shyamalan was dealing with charges of racist casting since the evil Fire Benders are all dark skinned while the good Water Benders, even though they were dark skinned and possibly Eskimo or Inuit in the show, were being played by a couple of adorable white teenagers. This was a little scandalous and kind of hard to defend but Shyamalan now looks back on that experience as a wonderful and innocent time full of possibility and expectation. He was still a few days away from scoring 9% on the Tomatometer and having his movie become the ultimate example of his decline as a filmmaker, the best case against converting regular movies into 3D and just becoming an all-around laughing stock. Still, the movie didn't do too badly at the box office. In fact, its $70 million take was actually pretty good. That leaves me with a question: what the hell is wrong with you people?
Airbender is the second movie I've seen this week in which most of the characters were clinically depressed. The story is happening in the context of a war and all but this is a children's fantasy, not Saving Private Ryan. Even if it was, the characters in that film weren't clinically depressed. In the original show, the titular character, Aang, faced situations that certainly made him sad but he was also in general a happy kid who really enjoyed the fact that he could bend the elements to his will.
In the world of Airbender, there are four different nations based around the four ancient elements. Each one has people called Benders who can move their own specific element with their minds. Born into each generation is a one person who can control all four called an Avatar and this time around, that person is Aang but he didn't want to make the sacrifices an Avatar has to make so he ran away and ended up, by accident, being frozen for a century. In that time, the Fire Nation got too big for its britches and decided to conquer everyone else when they hear that the Avatar is gone. They dominate the Earth and Water Nations but decide to pull a King Herod on the Air Nation because that's where the next Airbender is supposed to come from.
Skipping ahead a bit, we meet novice Water Bender Katara and her brother Sokka. They end up freeing Aang and his magical flying bison from his suspended animation and get the privilege of breaking the news that his entire race is dead. In his grief, Aang flees to the Spirit World (doing so is one of his Avatar powers). The Spirit World looks a lot like the real world except that it's shot through a blurry lens and you have an excellent chance of meeting a dragon who will dispense helpful advice and wouldn't you know, that's exactly what happens to Aang.
You know, that plot actually sounds pretty cool and it is. It's the execution that turns it into a giant suckfest. So much of the movie is dark and unpleasant to look at. I can only imagine how dark it would have been in 3D. I'm an admirer of M. Night Shyamalan and have always found that, even when his movies are failures, they're interesting failures. As a storyteller, I compare him to Stephen King because he takes fantastic situations and populates them with realistic and down-to-earth people. Until now. These characters are just depression-bots used to bring us down in between scenes of martial arts and CGI tidal waves. Even the depressed people of The Village weren't this depressed. The only real good news for Shyamalan is that it looks like he won't have "one of the biggest money losers" of all time on his resume and he no longer has to say that The Village was his worst movie. So, yay.