Will ‘Last Airbender’ resurrect the M. Night Shyamalan mystique?

May 21, 2010 | 2:09 p.m.

Here’s an exclusive, eye-catching image from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender,” which arrives in theaters July 3. That’s actor Shaun Toub (“Crash”) in the role of Uncle Iroh, the wise elder who was once the crown prince of the Fire Nation.

Last Airbender

“Airbender” is an intriguing release — writer-director Shyamalan goes into new territory this time by adapting an existing property (the film is based on the Nickelodeon series) as opposed to his usual path of creating a story from scratch. More than that, the subject matter and tone seem far removed from his past works such as Signs,” the underrated Unbreakable and the darkly sublime The Sixth Sense.”

M. Night Shyamalan There’s a sense that Shyamalan has something to prove — some say he has lost his way as a filmmaker or that he is still in the shadow of his 1999 breakthrough, “The Sixth Sense,” which was a true word-of-mouth movie moment and a strong commercial success with $673 million in worldwide box office – an especially potent performance considering its production budget was a lean, mean $40 million.

The popular perception is that Shyamalan is hungry for a hit but, really, if you look at the numbers, his films have ended up doing well commercially: “Signs” in 2002 had a production budget of $72 million and $408 million in worldwide box office; for “The Village” in 2004, the production budget was $60 million and the global box office hit $257 million; and “The Happening” in 2008 had a $48-million production budget and finished its run with $148 million.

There was one major commercial failure, though, with “The Lady in the Water” in 2006 — the swimming-pool fable belly-flopped with just $72 million in total box office and the production budget was $70 million. And since a film’s production budget is just what it sounds like (it doesn’t include, for example, the advertising costs that come with a major release), “Lady” clearly lost a lot of money.

Shyamalan has proven himself to be a strong storyteller and visual stylist. He is also a confident guy, to say the least, and that hasn’t always won him friends; critics howled and pounced, for instance, when Shyamalan cast himself in “The Lady in the Water” in the role of “The Vessel,” a writer destined to change the world with his powerful ideas. The filmmaker has been quite candid about his elaborate plans to make “Airbender” a full trilogy, so if this film does not do well, it will be framed as more than a single-film setback. On the other hand, if “Airbender” resonates with moviegoers, Shyamalan will be the magic man once again. Here’s the trailer — what do you think?


– Geoff Boucher

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Photos: Top, a scene from “The Last Airbender”; credit: Industrial Light & Magic / Paramount Pictures; Middle, M. Night Shyamalan; credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


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