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'The Last Airbender' and Taking Back Shyamalan

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Jun 22, 2010 | 4:36am EDT

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  'The Last Airbender' and Taking Back Shyamalan

The Last AirbenderLike a lot of people my age, I fell in love with M. Night Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why I keep coming back to his films like a battered spouse too timid to ever make a clean break for greener pastures. Others may find Unbreakable to be a bit of a slog for too little a payoff, but it did little to dampen my lust to see more of his films. Then The Village came along. This was a film I embarrassingly confess to having actually dreamt about prior to its release. It was the first time Shyamalan struck me.

I wanted to believe it was just a fluke that would never happen again; a casualty of the public's expectations that all of M. Night's films have a surprise ending. Then Lady in the Water came out. There was no getting away with an "Oh, I fell into a doorknob" excuse this time, it was just a blatant bruising. But even with as goofy as it was, a few elements (mainly the darkly enchanted look Christopher Doyle's cinematography bestows upon the film) saved it from being the final straw that broke the back of an increasingly strained relationship. And then The Happening happened. I'd say what I really thought of it, but that much Not Safe For Work language would drastically alter the keywords associated with this Web site. Let's just say that I'd rather watch Two Girls, One Cup again than The Happening.

I was done with Shyamalan at this point in our relationship. I hated every frame of that irredeemable putrescence and had sworn off the director for good. Then the trailers for The Last Airbender began to roll in and, damn it all, I found myself eager to return to that poisoned well. It looks like a stunning bit of spectacle-packed fantasy that's overflowing with style and imagination and July 1 can't get here fast enough. The rational part of me wants to scream the immortal words of the honorable Admiral Ackbar, "It's a trap!" But the irrational part refuses to acknowledge how cool the trailers for The Happening also looked, particularly the Red Band ones. We'll see how it turns out soon enough, but what's even more fascinating to me than my "Never again!" anticipation for a Shyamalan film is the fact that he is really the only filmmaker I've had this kind of a relationship with.

The Last AirbenderSure, there are plenty of directors whose careers are filled with films I both love and hate, but none that inspires the Shyamalan rage. Even stranger is the fact that I really don't think Shyamalan has ever been a brilliant filmmaker. He's made two good-to-great films, one mediocre and one worthless -- he hasn't exactly fallen from the good graces of a long-term post, so why the hate? It has everything to do with how much promise can be found in each of Shyamalan's mainstream films. There's no inherent reason that The Happening needs to be such refuse. Re-cast the leads and re-write the script and you'd have a very enjoyable B-movie experience about a world where an unknown event has turned suicide into an infectious disease. Even Lady in the Water showed a lot of imagination -- it just took itself too seriously to really let its fun side take over.

But The Last Airbender looks like nothing but fun. It's got people sieging castles on the backs of giant lizards, fireballs, dragons, tidal waves, fireballs, naval invasions and even more fireballs (I cannot stress this last part enough) -- and that's just what's in the trailer. I have yet to see a single episode of the television show on which it's based, but from those ingredients alone it doesn't look like it'll fall victim to the Shyamalan curse. I've certainly been wrong in the past, but maybe this time it'll be different. Maybe this time M. Night will embrace his fan base and directly deliver the kind of movie they're expecting. I hope so; otherwise, I swear this will be the last time I go back to him...

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