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M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender plumbs new depths

Director spouts nonsense about children’s cartoon adaptation

M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender plumbs new depths

Alistair Harkness listens to M Night Shyamalan spout nonsense and wonders where it all went wrong for the once feted filmmaker

It was sometime around July of 2010, a time when lowly journalists were still shuffled into London hotel rooms to politely listen to film-makers modestly tell of their own creative genius. On this particular occasion, the assembled throng – a particularly scurrilous lot of which I was one – had generously been given lots of time by the film company to prepare our game faces. We needed it too. For the man we were about to encounter was no lowly hack determined to deceive the public by spinning outright lies about story being more important than special effects. No, we had come to hear the great M Night Shyamalan, the internationally renowned director of The Village, Lady in the Water and that one about the plants that scare Marky Mark.

Mr Shyamalan had come to London to share with us his new opus, The Last Airbender, a live action adaptation of a children’s cartoon that he had kindly retrofitted with 3D to make it look more like Clash of the Titans.

As he took his seat in between the film’s stars – that nice kid from Slumdog Millionaire and two young Hollywood up-and-comers that none of us could pick out of a line-up (even after seeing the film) – he began by talking about his inspirations.

'Most of my movies are connected to some childhood point of view,' he said, to the surprise of no one who had seen Unbreakable or that one about the plants that scare Marky Mark. He then diligently outlined in intricate detail some of the philosophies, mythologies and controversies involved in making a film based on a children’s television cartoon that even Mr Shyamalan admitted was ‘blown away’ in the TV ratings by Dora the Explorer.

It was only when the subject turned to ‘negative reviews’ that our collective torpor was relieved. Mr Shyamalan was known to have developed a strong distaste for critics. After they mistakenly showered his career-making hit The Sixth Sense in praise, he slyly coerced them into to revealing their true feelings by systematically making films that were each more obviously and undeniably terrible than the last. Films like Signs and The Village and that one about the plants that scare Marky Mark. Only then could he justifiably take his revenge by making himself the messianic hero, and a pompous film critic the villain, of his $42 million-grossing blockbuster Lady in the Water – a film that only cost $75 million to make (not including marketing!).

But I digress.

Defending himself by pointing out how lucky he was to be making “these original movies”, the director of children’s cartoon adaptation The Last Airbender said: 'When we made The Sixth Sense in ’99, the industry was all original material, so we had Being John Malkovich the same year, American Beauty the same year, Magnolia the same year, The Matrix the same year, Blair Witch the same year. So every single movie that was dominating cinema was by an original filmmaker with an original point of view and clearly that's not the case today.’

As he casually aligned himself with the makers of some genuinely entertaining films (and Sam Mendes), there was no arguing with his logic: the year Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace ruled the box office was indeed dominated only by original material.

Asked, however, if he felt pressure to live up to the success of The Sixth Sense, he smiled at us pityingly and patiently explained why such a question was redundant for someone like him. ‘As an artist, it's so foreign to think like that,’ he said.

The artist who made that film about the plants that scare Marky Mark then looked a little glum. Despite informing us that two studios wanted to make his new idea for a thriller, he’d come to the realisation that he might not be able to tell his ‘very specific stories’ forever and might even have to change career. ‘I’ve definitely talked to the family about that and [told them] there is a line where I won’t go.’

Having just sat through The Last Airbender in Clash of the Titans 3D – and with still-fresh memories of that film about the plants that scare Marky Mark – neither I nor anyone else in the room dared enquire as to what unspeakable horrors that ‘line’ might involve…

The Last Airbender is on general release from Fri 13 Aug.

The Last Airbender

  • 1 star
  • 2010
  • USA
  • 103 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: M Night Shyamalan
  • Cast: Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis

Visually flashy but incomprehensible and joyless action adventure in which young Avatar Aang gets caught up in a tiff between the kingdoms of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.


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