Chunks of “The Last Airbender” are so spellbindingly awful, they approach a perverse kind of majesty. Larded with incomprehensible storytelling, flimsy characterization and dialogue so groan-inducing, it makes George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels look like David Mamet, the movie’s missteps brush the heights of what might have been campy appeal.
Alas, even those comparatively fun moments are hobbled by the picture’s unrelenting tedium.
A live-action version of the Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the film concerns a fantastical world populated by the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. Balance among the groups had been secured for eons by the Avatar, a mystic who is reborn through the ages and who can master all four elements. But the Avatar has been AWOL for a hundred years, leaving the tyrannical Fire Nation to virtually wipe out the Air Nomads and terrorize the good folks over at Water and Earth.
Lucky for them, then, that a teenaged brother and sister from the Water Tribe (Jackson Rathbone, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” and Nicola Peltz, “Deck the Halls”), stumble upon a 12-year-old boy who has been frozen in ice. The child, named Aang (newcomer Noah Ringer), turns out to be the last airbender, meaning he can perform a lot of tai chi moves that manipulate air.
But his gifts run even deeper. Aang is the long-missing Avatar, a fact that puts him on the radar of a ruthless Fire Nation commander (Aasif Mandvi, TV’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) and deposed Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), who hopes that capturing the boy will put him in good standing back home.
Get all that? I hope so, because that’s the simple part. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) doesn’t make things easy with marathons of monologue to provide exposition.
It is an exhausting process. In one scene, Prince Zuko even stops a boy on the street so that the boy can relay to him the prince’s own backstory. And by the film’s end, principal characters are still introducing themselves with inexplicably long-winded howlers (“My name is Katara, and I’m the only waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe!”).
Such nonstop talk might have been tolerable, had Shyamalan not penned a script cornier than the state of Iowa. He does his largely unknown cast no favors, burdening them with dialogue that’s downright laughable. It is another dubious milestone in Shyamalan’s continued decline, a dismaying turn of events for a guy whose 1999 effort, “The Sixth Sense,” was a near-perfect supernatural thriller.
The film’s look is marginally better, but even its elaborate production design and computer-general effects are undermined by Paramount’s last-minute decision to retrofit the proceedings in 3-D. The results are blurred and visually muddy.
It’s a shame, really, in light of the obvious care that Shyamalan took in choreographing swirling, uninterrupted camera movements.
But storyboards don’t trump a bored story, and “The Last Airbender,” for all its “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-meets-“Matrix” hooey, never rouses an emotion beyond the burning desire to check your watch. “Phil Bacharach