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An Obiturary for M. Night Shymalan – Demise Comes at Release of The Last Airbender

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M. Night Shyamalan, famed filmmaker of such hits as The Sixth Sense and Signs died today in the minds of Hollywood.  His demise came at the release of The Last Airbender, an ill-fated attempt at a franchise by the once-acclaimed director.  The film is based on a wildly popular television show on Nickelodeon, yet even with a solid base story and characters that were rich and intriguing M. Night seems to have horrendously missed on this.

While M. Night was born in India, his childhood was spent in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, a posh suburb of Philadelphia. He has remained in Philadelphia throughout his whole professional life and has set and filmed many of his movies there.  He became an overnight filmmaking success with the release of his first studio movie The Sixth Sense in 1999, which garnered him Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Oscar nods.

Success came with heady expectations from the public to follow up this unique supernatural thriller with more of the same.  M. Night obliged with Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village.  These maintained his trademark style of mysterious atmosphere and twist endings. All of these were generally well received commercially and critically.  Questions began to arise after The Lady in the Water, which failed to recoup its budget.  Many began to wonder if the enigmatic director had lost his touch.  M. Night followed this up with The Happening, which was his first R-rated feature and was expected to mark a departure from his traditional style of filmmaking.  This was a harbinger of bad things to come, as it received horrendous reviews and many in the studio system became disillusioned with M. Night.

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osmont in "The Sixth Sense"

The Last Airbender was M. Night’s last chance to prove that he still had the “it factor” that had him tagged as a wunderkind early in his career.  It was a risk, a change of genre from the suspense/thriller genre that he had lived in.  It also had the opportunity to be a franchise, as M. Night was making the first film about the first season of the show only.  So Paramount bet 310 million between the production costs and marketing that M. Night could do it…

Unfortunately, even with this last chance at redemption Mr. Shyamalan could not capitalize.  The film is a disjointed, muddled mess that has no well-rounded characters, no discernable plot, and no purpose for the viewers.  The once lauded writer has reduced himself to simple exposition in his dialogue.  Visually the fantastic fighting style of “element bending” is slowed down to a snails pace, which builds zero tension in these confrontations.   Shyamalan seems to have just discovered the zoom button on his camera, and harkens back to poorly done 80’s films with his incessant zooming.  The acting is as wooden as it gets, and I won’t even get into the racially confused casting.  Overall the film has at once alienated its built in crowd of fans from the T.V. show by deviating from the source material and lost any new viewers with its lack of clarity.

"The Last Airbender" is a massive disappointment

Shyamalan will be missed, while at his best he seemed to give new life to Hollywood’s lame horror films.  However he has been reduced to just another director, and will most likely never again produce, script, and direct his own feature.  His best bet is to wait and find a good script that fits his style and interests and put all of his energy into it outside of the studio system.

Shyamalan is survived by Oren Peli, the director of the wildly popular Paranormal Activity who seems to have the pedigree to be a visionary new horror filmmaker.  Hopefully he will learn from the M. Night story and be able to forge his own path in Hollywood.

For an alternate viewpoint on The Last Airbender, see In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan: Last Airbender and the Disappearing Art of Storytelling