"The Last Airbender" is a joyless, soulless, muddled mess, but the worst part of all doesn't come until the very end. That's when it makes the clear suggestion that two more such movies are in store for us.
Hopefully, that won't happen.
Based on the Nickelodeon animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender," this live-action fantasy adventure has epic scope and soaring ambitions, exotic locations and a cast of thousands, but manages to get everything wrong on every level. It is yet another misstep for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose career has been steadily on the decline since the marvel of "The Sixth Sense" (although "Signs," from 2002, tends to be underappreciated).
A 2-D movie converted to 3-D, "The Last Airbender" often has a smudged and blurry look about it, as if there's some kind of schmutz on your clunky plastic glasses. It's bad enough that this is one of those glossy CGI monstrosities, utterly divorced from anything resembling reality; transferred needlessly to 3-D, it's just plain ugly. This is especially true during moments of darkness or scenes that take place at night - and that's a problem, since a lot of pivotal stuff takes place at night.
At least, one can surmise as much. The script is so incomprehensible, it's often difficult to follow, despite several instances of characters stopping whatever they're doing to explain what's going on.
Then there's the acting, which can charitably be described as stiff - although Noah Ringer, the young Chosen One at the center of the film's mythology, has a certain likable spunkiness about him. Too bad he's called on to say and do such ridiculous things.
At the film's start, the world has been at war for nearly 100 years, with the Fire Nation trying to take over the other nations of Air, Water and Earth. The people who live in these tribes can manipulate or "bend" their respective elements: hurl giant blobs of water or zap someone with a wave of flames. It's like an elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors, though it's hard to tell which bendy skill is preferable; they all seem kind of lame, with Earth being the most cumbersome one.
Apparently, no one knows how to bend air anymore because the Fire Nation warlords eradicated everyone with that skill - except one person, a boy named Aang (Ringer), who arrives one day in a block of ice with his hulking, six-legged bison buddy. A young waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, who plays the vampire Jasper in the "Twilight" movies), discover Aang and realize he may be the prophesied Avatar who can control all four elements and unite all four nations.
Katara and Sokka promise to protect Aang from the various villains who are out to get him; this is a good thing, because at least it gives them something to do. They'd be totally bereft of personality otherwise. There's Prince Zuko ("Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel), vengeful son of the power-hungry Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis); Zuko's uncle and co-conspirator Iroh (Shaun Toub); and unscrupulous military man Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi).
As for the airbending talent that makes the kid so desirable: It's kind of like having leaf-blowers shoot out of your hands. Useful for yard work, perhaps, but not a whole lot of fun.
"The Last Airbender"
Rating: PG for fantasy action violence. In 2-D and 3-D.
Starring: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 103 minutes.