I think I can safely say that M. Night Shyamalan is the most unfairly-treated director in the history of the medium. After The Sixth Sense turned into a giant hit, he was basically doomed. Despite the fact that the movie’s twist ending was never its point (or the reason it was good), every single one of his subsequent movies was seen only in terms of twists, even when there weren’t any. And his every single movie gets trashed, no matter what it’s like. Remember when it was fashionable to bash Ben Affleck, no matter whether his performances were good or not? That’s what it’s been like for Shyamalan, movie after movie after movie.
Not that all of them were equally good – The Happening was a good B-movie, with some truly excellent scenes, but it was certainly a lesser film. It does tell you something about the irrational hatred people are carrying in them these days, though, that the most derided scene from that movie (“talking to a plant”) is actually a fairly clever joke about the entire premise of the movie- something which people, in their desire to bash Shyamalan, seem to completely miss.
The Last Airbender was also trashed to within an inch of its life, and I don’t really see why. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s also not the garbage reviewers make it out to be. It has some major flaws: the female protagonist is played by an unbearably bad actress, the story is so obsessed with keeping as much plot from the TV series as possible that it becomes episodic and slightly incoherent, and the voiceover narration is extremely amateurish. There are also writing problems, many of which stem directly from the TV series. But there are also good actors of refreshingly diverse cultural backgrounds (the people accusing this movie of being racist are insane*), beautiful photography, great music, and a couple of really nice fight scenes. It’s an enjoyable couple of hours, especially for children.
The Last Airbender may not be as brilliant as The Village or Lady in the Water, but it’s a decent little fantasy movie that does not deserve the critical scorn it got. Certainly not in a world where Solomon Kane and its army of bald stormtroopers are praised to the heavens and there’s another Transformers sequel coming. Even when The Last Airbender fails, at least it’s trying to do something good, something a little more meaningful and elegant. That it doesn’t always work is a shame, but let’s keep things in perspective here.
*Some more up-to-date thoughts on that subject here.