Now I’m not saying M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, an adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, is “great,” or “good,” or even “mediocre;” I disliked it. But with hyperbolic descriptors like “torturous” and “nauseating” and “worst-film-of-the-last-20-years,” being lobbed, I can’t help but backpedal the conversation. By my estimate, 2010 has wrought at least half a dozen worse films (and because the internet evidently has no long-term memory, they are: “Legion,” “The Wolfman,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Survival of the Dead,” “Killers”), and a few more I would consider of “equally bad” caliber.
So where does the fire-and-brimstone fury come from? I’ll tell you why I had trouble with “Airbender,” though it’s hardly worth getting into a tizzy over—It bored me. Plain and simple. The fight scenes in particular elicited yawns, with gymnasts pointlessly whirling batons or kicking theatrically at one another before unleashing their impotent elemental tempests. Some of these scenes are cut so short that they border on nonexistence; others are stretched long enough to support multiple catnaps.
The choreography is lousy, but the real perpetrator of “Airbender’s” persistent boringness is its clunky pacing, a function of either poor scripting or eleventh-hour editing. As I recall, early test-screenings for the film begot none too positive feedback, resulting in ominous reshoots. It seems likely that among those initial complaints was the snore factor—Which might have been sloppily addressed by slashing scenes and bridging the gaps with an unconvincing voice-over.
Of course, the alternative is equally likely, since as readily as I’ll defend Shyamalan the director, as a writer I’m one of his stalwart detractors. Out of misguided pride, he carries a snooty auteur’s attitude about directing anyone else’s material, which is especially frustrating given that he still shows potential as a visual storyteller. The fact of the matter is he didn’t have the slightest qualification to pen “Airbender,” and had he instead hired a (competent) professional screenwriter, the results could have been something extraordinary.
I will, nevertheless, cede one final point to the piranhas that encircle Mr. Shyamalan’s every release. One of their most vociferous accusations this time around was in regards to the performances of his young cast, particularly the airbender himself. Aang, who as the title suggests, is the sole descendant of a race with the ability to manipulate wind, and who befriends and battles those that 'bend' fire, water, and earth, is portrayed by newcomer Noah Ringer—Who is terrible in the film. However, I’m inclined to blame Shyamalan for his dramatic floundering—Ringer was clearly chosen for his talent as a martial artist over his obvious inability to carry a film.
And yet, for all “Airbender’s” clear missed potential and consistently shoddy storytelling, I didn’t leave the theater formulating some all-caps condemnation of Shyamalan. Nor did I, as has been tirelessly proclaimed and repeatedly rebuked, type up some smarmy headline about this being the final, final nail in the coffin of his movie career (until the next one)—I just felt sleepy and dissatisfied.
His film is nowhere near the year’s worst, let alone of the past two decades, but Shyamalan has become irrelevantly hated and an exceedingly popular target as public opinion, along with critical consensus of each subsequent project, has steadily fallen since the release of “Signs” in 2002.
Can 122 critics and a thousand internet fanboys really be wrong? Maybe not, but they don’t have to be so ornery about it.