The Last AirbenderRed lightComing to terms with the sound, fury and sheer insanity of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies has evolved well beyond the point of morbid fascination, well beyond the shock-tainment of watching something spectacularly awful – like a train crash or a Justin Bieber performance or even a combination of both.

I have strange visions: there is Bieber – mic in hand, wind against his face, hordes of squawking teenage girls below, Richard Wilkins and Angela Bishop making out somewhere behind a bush – singing and train surfing as the train dislodges itself from the tracks in an unlikely act of kamikaze selflessness of the kind hitherto unseen in this world, the first locomotive in recorded history to somehow consciously destroy itself for the betterment of human kind…

Yes indeed, strange visions. Just an example of the psychological impact a Shyamalan joint can have on you these days.

How the once promising career of the writer/director/now turkey breeder extraordinaire could plummet so spectacularly and keep on plummeting is a mystery for the ages. Film commentators watch with sore eyes and crotchety temperaments as Shyamalan continues the best damn cinematic limbo this town has ever seen. How low can you go? Pretty damn low.

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The Sixth Sense (1999) was a skilfully made supernatural thriller unreasonably regarded in some circles as a modern classic, largely thanks to a well executed twist and a trio of fine performances. Conversely, Shyamalan’s follow-up Unbreakable (2000) is a criminally under-rated postmodern superhero/super villain flick, the jewel in his corn kernel crown. From then on things get hazy.

Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), both atmospherically astute, had serious structural issues and hinted at what was to come: horror handled as unintentional goof. They make Shyamalamalamb’s following ventures masterpieces by comparison. There was the hilarious knee slapping dreadfulness of Lady in the Water (2006), in which the beleaguered filmmaker cast himself as a great writer and created a critic character he literally sent to the dogs, then the even more awful The Happening (2008), which didn’t even have the courtesy to soften the blow of its tragic ineptitude with so-bad-it’s-funny trashiness.

From that apparent creative nadir the only way, it seemed, was up, but Shyamalan has once again performed the cinematic equivalent of necking a bottle of rocket fuel, hoisting his chin in the air, tilting his head back and clumsily staggering forward, somehow lowering the tone below subterranean levels with The Last Airbender. It is a movie comprised of screen saver visuals, a juvenile slapdash storyline and more gibberish than happy hour at a nursing home for the criminally insane.

Adapted from a comic book series that is apparently quite popular in some circles, but which for most of us simply hints at the grim knowledge that this might not in fact be the last Airbender, I cannot do a plot description more justice than the official synopsis:

The story follows the adventures of Aang, a young successor to a long line of Avatars, who must put his childhood ways aside and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations.

In other words it’s Captain Planet sent through a blender, with the worst bits of Narnia, Middle Earth and Dragon Ball Z thrown in.

The dialogue humorlessly hurls together lines such as “you must stop the avatar from mastering earth and fire” and “let your emotions flow like water.” I prefer the sage appraisal of my companion, to whom over a couple of beers after I apologised for giving a free ticket: “the only good thing about that movie was when I farted.” I may not have agreed with the smell, but by god I agree with the sentiment.

A wannabe epic coated with garish images that look glossy in the manner of week old pastries given a fresh layer of glaze for the next day’s customers, Shyamalan attempted Lord of the Rings and came up with Lord of the Fries — all fat and no fire, all slog and no sizzle.

The performances in The Last Airbender are strained as springs in a torture chamber. Poor Dav Patel, so powerful and convincing in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), comes across looking like a rank amateur. Every actor who stars in a Shyamalan venture these days exits stage left looking red faced and exposed, the proverbial animal caught in headlights, or, if you like, a spooked actor caught in spotlights.

You can’t say he wasn’t warned. A viewing of The Happening should have been enough to put him off for life. Then again, Patel may have justified his involvement in The Last Airbender using the simple logic that Shyamalan’s movies couldn’t get any worse.

History begs to differ.

The Last Airbender’s Australian theatrical release date: September 16, 2010.

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