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Night's morning after: Has 'The Last Airbender' salvaged the embattled director's career?

July 6, 2010 |  7:00 am

The Last Airbender

"The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" may have been the big opener of the weekend, but the big story (OK, one of the big stories) now that the weekend is behind us is just how well M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender" did, even as critics belched with displeasure and audiences didn't respond much better in post-screening surveys.

"Airbender" netted some wincing critical notices -- and as many of those who saw the fantasy film about a magical child named Aang trying to save the world can attest -- for good reason. (The Times' Kenneth Turan noted "Airbender's" "determinedly unsophisticated dialogue" and said that "nothing about the film's functional visual effects makes a major impression.")

Yet people came to see the film anyway, with the movie grossing a very solid $71 million over the five days it played this long holiday weekend in the U.S. As my colleague Ben Fritz points out, "Airbender's" box office grosses exceeded the expectations of both studio Paramount and many of its competitors, and, as it happened, also outdid another big-budget fantasy film this summer in "Prince of Persia."

Even taking just the four-day weekend domestic total of $53 million for "Airbender," or the three-day tally of $41 million, it's an impressive take, the highest three-day U.S. total among Night's last three films. This as the director's latest entry into his library of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror earned some of the worst reviews of his career. (And that's saying something -- since Night's reasonably well-reviewed "Signs" garnered a 74% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the director's numbers have steadily declined; he outdid the mediocre 43% of "The Village" with the tepid 25% of "Lady in the Water," sank lower with 18% for "The Happening" before a putrid 8% for "Airbender.")

Certainly, the "Clash of the Titans" effect was at work here, as higher ticket prices from a late conversion to 3-D helped boost the bottom-line gross. Paramount's generous marketing campaign didn't hurt either. And there's at least one contextual factor: pretty much since "Independence Day" (and in some ways, long before it), this has been a weekend reserved for action releases. The last five July 4th weekends brought the release of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Hancock," "Transformers," "Superman Returns" and "War of the Worlds." "The Last Airbender" doesn't exactly match the pyrotechnics of most of those films, but absent a Michael Bay-a-thon this weekend, moviegoers seemed to have turned here for their action buzz.

Given all these factors -- and the fact that lukewarm word of mouth (the movie earned a "C" CinemaScore) could mean it ends its U.S. run quickly -- an interesting question reveals itself, like Aang's telltale tattoos: Has Night --gulp -- re-established himself as a director capable of a box-office draw?

The existence of said factors could work against him, and those looking for signs of Night's once-active creative vision might be even further put off than before. [UPDATE: And yes, as many commenters rightly point out, much of the opening-weekend success can be chalked up to the innate popularity of the Nickelodeon series.] But the numbers should prove a powerful weapon. A $70-million opening isn't easy to pull off, no matter how long the holiday weekend or how dimensional the opening-weekend screens.

It's an important question for a director who hasn't had the clout he once had to get a quirky passion project through the pipeline, and who also has been looking to show he's still reliable enough to be put in charge of a big budget (about $150 million here, according to some estimates, a budget larger than any he's piloted before).

And it's an essential question for "Airbender," whose final scene is set up as a tease for a new movie -- in fact two more are waiting in the wings (or Night's mind).

In his "Last Airbender" review, a displeased Roger Ebert memorably said that he hoped the franchise proved true to its name. After these surprisingly good numbers, we wouldn't be so sure.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Dev Patel in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender." Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Comments () | Archives (35)

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It feels like Night dropped the ball big time on this. Beside being unhappy with casting, slow moving *action* scenes. I and others who watched this felt like Night didn't allow for any humor in the characters. Was he trying too hard to be taken seriously? Oh Peter Jackson I wish they could have ponied up the money to have afforded you. Night did no justice to the story line and characters.

Interesting, I am both happy and sad about the success of the Last Airbender. I am happy that many people were interested in seeing the live action version, but also sad that this success (so far, I expect a steep decline in its second weekend) may be attributed to M. Night Shyamalan. The movie did well because it had a stong and loyal built in fanbase who were willing to watch the movie and judge for themselves. Many fans of the cartoon had July 1st marked on their calanders for months, meaning they were watching the movie no matter what. That may have worked in M. Night Shyamalan's favor for the opening weeekend, but it won't help the movie in upcomming weeks and the sequel. M. Night Shyamalan should not receive any credit for any success this movie may attain. All he did, was direct and ruin a great story that people already wanted to see. I understand it is hard to make an hour and half movie out animated series that is over 8 hours long (Season/Book 1) but talented directors can make it work, M. Night is not one of these talented directors.

Its not often that both the critics and fans of the original source material agree. As part of the latter, I agree that The Last Airbender is as bad as the critics are making it out to be - maybe even worse. I went to the midnight premier with a sold out crowd of adults and teenagers who were obviously fans from the original series (the built-in fan base is one reason this movie opened so well). I've never felt so compelled to walk out of the theater before (which is saying a lot after sitting through Date Movie). I've never heard a crowd issue as many audible gasps, chuckles and moans of indignation than I heard that night. I spent every one of the 94 minutes cringing in my seat and feeling guilty for inviting friends - who I ended up not charging for the tickets I bought them.

To that end I hope this movie dies a quick death (hopefully getting a reboot in a few years). I credit the box office numbers with the built-in fan base and slew of advertising leading up to the opening, neither which will save it in the following weeks.

people came because of the airbender property and the admittedly cool visuals. shyamalan's name worked against it. the quality of the film in coming weeks will work against it. im predicting bigtime drop. if they want to salvage this property, they need an actual screenwriter and a new director.

I saw the movie and - to my surprise - enjoyed it, frankly. There were some weaknesses, but there were also moments that wowed me, the effects were amazing, and I got very involved with the story. The actors were all effective and the lead character was quite appealing. I'd recommend it as a good fantasy for all ages.

May I point out that many movies with a built in fanbase do well because tickets are sold to the opening night/weekend a couple of weeks in advance? Seriously, if Tron had tickets available, I'd already have mine and that's not due out until December.

Once the built in numbers are gone, it will be interesting to see how the movie places.

The amount of money this film made have nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself. Rather, it has everything to do with the enormous success of the animated version. People came to see a live action installment of a beloved story. What they got instead was a cinematic catastrophe. Shyamalan screwed up this movie in every conceivable way. The Acting was bad, the visual effects were unconvincing, the plot was non-existent, and the characters were all miscast. The last part was what made me certain there was no redemption for this movie. Shyamalan had a correspondent from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart play one of the most evil and sinister characters in the story. That alone tells you everything you need to know about the quality of this movie.

Cinemascore is a great predictor of future business. The studio will hold the screens but nobody is happy with the outcome of the film creatively. The sequel's budget will shrink.

Steve, how could you? You totally forgot to mention the popularity of the source material as a factor for how well the movie did.

Cannot underestimate how many fans Avatar: the Last Airbender had.

I certainly hope the sequels come out -- and quickly! My son was thrilled with this first movie, but every fan of the tv show knows that the second and third seasons have much better storylines. -- Your rundown of M. Night's numbers at rottentomatoes clarified for me just how absurd this critical pileup on Airbender has been: The Happening got 18 but this one got only 8??? That's so skewed that it shows just how herdlike critics can be. Anyone who has seen both can tell you that, realistically, The Happening is execrable -- unwatchably dull and weirdly acted -- while Airbender is perhaps a little disappointing [in the very same way and for the same reasons that the first Harry Potter movie was: too much narrative, too little time, character development gets short shrift] but beautiful, even breathtaking, in its sets and special effects and admirably true to the spirit of the original. All in 97 perfectly G-rated minutes! Not bad. I would certainly rate it among the top 3 or perhaps 5 children's films I've taken my 6 year old to over the last 3+ years. Indeed, my son liked it so much that he has asked to see it again -- and he never does that! If there are more like him out there, maybe the box office won't drop off as precipitously as all that, despite the continuing cacophony of critical Cassandras.....

This article forgets to mention this movie is based on an established franchise with a very strong fanbase. So the actual numbers are more to do with the Avatar - The Last Arbender fans, many who apparently saw the movie twice, than whether Shyamalan can revive his failing career in movies.

One more thing. There are also many people going to see this film due to morbid curiosity. Much like people slowing down to see an auto accident, they want to experience just how bad this movie is for themselves.

I think you're missing a key point in your article. The fact of the matter is that M. Night rewrote a preexisting script to a preexisting story. He took a great children's show, and decided that he could somehow make it better using his own dialogue and his own take on the world it was set in, the characters themselves, and the actual progression of the story. However, and what we're seeing now, is that he only made it worse, and a great deal worse.

The fact that he was able pull that many many into the theaters to watch this disgraceful piece of cinema is not because he's such a critically acclaimed director, because we all know that he's not. He (in my opinion, anyway) hasn't made a great movie since Signs, or even The Sixth Sense. He was able to gross the millions of dollars it made because people expected to see the same Avatar: The Last Airbender they knew and loved from Nickelodeon. Because when you get down to it, it is a great cartoon, and it is moving, and powerful and frankly very funny.

I wouldn't be asking if "[is he] still reliable enough to be put in charge of a big budget" as the big question, because we all know the answer to that. What we should all be asking is "how can M. Night make it up to all of those fans who he let down?" Because when you look at the reviews on YouTube, or rotten tomatoes, or any kind of site where you can really feel the anger coming from the fan-base, you know it's their money that he has, and the only reason he has it in the first place is because they expected something completely different.

Last Airbender could have done much better. It should have been the fantasy trilogy of this decade like Lord of the Rings was last decade and Star Wars was in the 80's. Paramount spent $150M producing and $130 million marketing Last Airbender because they've stated that it could be their Harry Potter. And they were right it could have been, it had all the elements to be the next big fantasy cinematic story of a generation with it's beautifully crafted and award winning story and characters. But they failed. This not the next Harry Potter. Instead Last Airbender with M. Nights terribly written and rushed script packing a 7-hour season into a 90-minute movie, with his absurdly bad casting of inexperienced actors he has turned Last Airbender into a cheesy incomprehensible children's movie. Instead of being compared to Harry Potter and Star Wars, the Last Airbender is now more inline with past box office grabs of childrens cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Flintstones. So while the ignorant mainstream media champions this as some sort of master stroke by Paramount the reality is that the millions of fans of this award winning series know that Paramount has completely failed and will not be returning to theaters for the sequels. M. Night's Last Airbender is a tragedy of unfulfilled promise. Last Airbender is a story worthy of a $300-$400M box office fantasy epic and instead it is a cheesy forgettable $100-$140M childrens movie.

Only Hollywood logic could reason this abysmal film might resurrect M. Night Shyamalan's career. The numbers indicate the Airbender franchise has potential, not its inept director. Considering the reviews and exit polls this should be viewed as a woefully missed opportunity.

After reading all the critical dubbings, I steeled myself and went to see "The Last Airbender." My impression in a word? Amateurish.

Once regarded as a filmmaking prodigy -- and not without reason -- M. Night Shyamalan's ability to think like an audience has disintegrated so completely it would not surprise me (and I mean this with absolutely no sarcasm or derision) to learn the man has a substance abuse problem. The movie seems to have been made by someone with the compromised judgment of an alcoholic trying to hide his weakness. For his mauling of the wonderfully conceived source material of the original TV show, at first, I wanted to tar-and-feather M. Night. Now, I think he might need an intervention.

As a huge fan of the TV show, I hope this movie makes enough money to merit sequels -- of course, turned over to other writer/directors. Don't applaud this movie for making $70 million on a holiday weekend from its vast, all-ages fan base. None will go twice. Few will buy the DVD. This film was supposed to launch a billon dollar fantasy franchise, something all but impossible now, even with a complete re-boot for Part 2. Make no mistake: M. Night Shyamalan single-handedly killed any chance for "The Last Airbender" to move into Harry Potter territory.

-- mm

Word of mouth is killing it already. Yesterday, 7/5, Toy Story 3 jumped over it to no. 2 in terms of daily gross. Expect a huge fall in coming days and most especially, the coming weekend.

Alright, I didn't even see this movie but I knew it was going to be terrible by looking at the cast list. I saw a few previews for the movie on television and was immediately turned off by it. I loved the television series, and I knew this movie wouldn't do it any justice at all. The characters of the Fire Nation and everyone else don't add up. The boy who plays Aang has no emotion, at least what I saw from the previews.
I wouldn't even watch this movie online illegally. -_-

If by word of mouth you mean posters here who are killing it without even seeing it - maybe you have a point because there are a lot of this animus. As far as my word of mouth goes - the movies was thoroughly enjoyable and I am eagerly awaiting a sequel.

As a huge fan of the show I felt entitled to see the movie in the theater despite how bad I knew it would be. Clearly other fans of the show felt the same way. The big surprise of this movie to me is not that it did well in its opening weekend despite being awful, it was learning just how massive the fanbase for this show is. Not only massive but loyal and deeply connected to the show. The vitriol expressed towards Shyamalan in comment boards across the internet has been extremely amusing. My guess is that expression is a way to cope with the disappointment and for some even "heartbreak" at seeing a story you love taken out of its element, presented to the world, and massacred before our very eyes.

I don't want to go to see The Last Airbender any more than I did any of the other of "Movie Night" Shaymalan's since I walked out of the mess that was "Signs."

He is in the anti-pantheon of Spike and several other 'filmmakers' who now can't get a budget cobbled together. Now if only Tarranteno would join those ranks.

Unfortunately, I bought tickets a week before the movie came out. I did not read any reviews although I heard from other people how bad they were. After seeing the movie, I have to say the reviews were correct. The movie sucks. Bad directing, writing, and acting (which is mainly the director/screenwriter's fault). OK visual effects with lousy use of "3D."

Ah, so many tools here. Yes, a lot of us remember this newspaper's attempt to say the film discriminated against EAST Asians, which are apparently the only Asians in the world. According to Racebending, apparently Buddhism, which plays an important role in the movie, came from China. Good job losers! Airbender grossed $70M! Even if it drops a lot, it's still going to make a lot internationally, and yes, even in EAST Asia!

This movie is for children, not for grown ass unemployed adults riding out the financial crisis.

There will be no sequel. Count on it. It will plummet 70% this weekend and die a quick death domestically.

I have my doubts that Airbender will salvage anything.

Something like 300 million dollars was spent to make and promote the movie. Which means it has yet to turn a profit.

Additionally, I think the main reason why it did so well at the theaters was because it was a choice of Twilight or Airbender during a holiday weekend. Not a good thing when people come out of the theater and go "I should have watched Twlight instead."

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