M. Night Shyamalan may have made liberation-flavored lemonade out of the failure of his last two films, The Happening and Lady In the Water, but no longer worrying about people's expectations, and the effect of people's actual expectations, don't always mix well. With The Last Airbender being the first film he’s directed based on pre-exististing source material, won't expectations be higher? Won't this come under more scrutiny?
With casting gripes seemingly no longer a subject of controversy, and the confusion between Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender of which the movie is based, and James Cameron's $2 billion (and counting) world-wide phenomenon, behind us as well, M. Night may have calmer waters to sail. Falling short of the expectations of adults with a taste for Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone is one thing. But M. Night can either win over the loving young audience of the Nickelodeon cartoon series, or piss-off a whole new, more technologically vocal, generation of moviegoers.
After shooting to stardom with The Sixth Sense in 1999, M. Night had received many franchise offers including, he says, a proposal to direct the first Harry Potter film. So what was it about The Last Airbender that had him going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?
It was his then 7-year old daughter who hooked him on the Nickelodeon series, Shyamalan explained:
She made us watch as a family and all four of us were hooked. I was like, 'This would make a killer movie. And my wife who really has been kind of in neutral about my career was insane about it. Insane about it: ‘You have to do it. This is it. This is the one.'
The series is set in a world where the four ancient elements -- fire, earth, water and air -- can be manipulated by a select group of magical humans who are known as "benders." The brutal firebenders, known as the Fire Nation, are intent on world domination and the only thing standing in their way is 12-year old Aang, the last of the airbenders, who also happens to be the Avatar -- the only one who can wield all four of the elemental groups. Not unlike a pre-teen, martial-arts version of the Dalai Lama, the fun-loving Aang is charged with keeping peace in the universe.
M. Night found himself drawn to the Buddhist philosophy that underlies the series:
Aang himself needs to find balance to be the Avatar and to master each of these elements. We get to see the process of someone mastering themselves through the three seasons to get to peace.
With Airbender's fusion of Eastern philosophies and martial arts, M. Night likens the similar spiritual motiffs to that of Star Wars and The Matrix:
In the first 'Matrix,' you realize that what you’re seeing is all false. Those are really ancient ideas. Basic old, old religion. This has that as well. So if you go on the journey and you’ll feel that epiphany on top of a great roller-coaster ride. It’s going to be something.
The first of the planned trilogy will hit theaters on July 2nd, and stars Noah Ringer as Aang, Dev Patel(Slumdog Millionaire) as the evil Prince Zuko, with Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) portraying Aang’s trusty comrades-in-arms.
If all goes well with the film and they do move forward with the sequels, producer Frank Marshall has said it could take up to six years to complete the trilogy, as M. Night has opted to shoot the films one at a time. I've been quite impressed with what we've seen so far. It does look like M. Night has some mojo up his sleeve... I'm hoping it ends up being so. A new trailer is supposed to hit soon! So we'll just have to sit tight.