Like a lot of other filmmakers with a good visual sense and apparent no idea how to structure a story or write dialogue, M. Night Shyamalan has been the subject of much "if only he'd direct someone else's screenplay!" conjecture since his career started tanking in earnest with 2004's The Village (which at the time seemed like a shockingly bad work from a pretty good artist, and how silly we all were to think that it couldn't get so, so much worse). The Last Airbender doesn't put that theory to the test, but it comes closer than anything else has: while Shyamalan still wrote the screenplay, he adapted it from the first of three seasons of the American anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which aired on Nickelodeon beginning in 2005 ("Avatar" was snipped from the title on account of that other movie). I've not seen an episode of the show, but from the evidence of Shyamalan's condensation, I'd guess it tells a real corker of a story: once you scrape away everything about the movie that is dysfunctional, misjudged, badly executed, sloppy, and asinine, what you have left is a structurally intriguing bildungsroman set in a very specific, well-articulated fantasy world. It's a bit like trying to re-construct the Q Document, if the Q Document was not the source for the foundational texts of the world's largest religion, but for a phenomenally shitty popcorn movie. And if the Q Document, instead of being a hypothetical, now-extinct text, was available on Netflix View Instantly.

The film opens with a crawl (and attendant narration) explaining how the world is divided into four nations, each of which holds sacred one of the four elements - water, fire, earth, air - and that there are certain people born within each of those nations who can "bend" the element to their will. Once a generation, the Avatar is born, who can bend all four elements; but about 100 years ago, the Avatar just disappeared. Yes, "just" disappeared. That "just" absolutely cracks me up: it has such a slangy, earnestly childish quality to it, a squirrelly informality that doesn't fit it in with the sobriety of the rest of the exposition, or of the rest of the mercilessly serious epic.

That taken care of, we jump to the Southern Water Tribe, an icy region of subsistence hunters, of whom the only two we care about are Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone. Incidentally, if I were Mr. Rathbone, and the wish-granting fairy said that I was going to be in two films that would both open huge on the same weekend, but the one that sucked less of the two was The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, I would crawl into a bottle and never ever crawl back out). While hunting, they come across a strange light under the ice, which in turn leads them to a giant ice sphere, in which they find a boy who identifies himself as Aang (Noah Ringer). Long story short, Aang is the last of the airbenders (the Air Nomads having been wiped out 100 years ago by the Fire Nation, at the dawn of its quest for dominance over the world that is nearly complete), and indeed he is the Avatar, though he can't presently bend any other elements. The exiled Fire Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) are hunting Aang and his friends to get back in the evil Fire Lord's (Cliff Curtis) good graces, while that king's greatest general, Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) is hunting them on behalf of the Fire Nation - for Aang, incensed at the destruction of his people a century ago, just after he entered his icy coma, has decided to raise all the good people of the world against the evils of the Fire Nation. And yes, that is the long story short.

Though, like I sort of mentioned, the story isn't the bad part of The Last Airbender - in fact, it's the best part, though I imagine it's even better when it's expressed slowly and methodically over 20 episodes, instead of feverishly over 103 insanely dense minutes of this thing happening and then over here and then they do this and let's head over here next-

The bad part of The Last Airbender is almost everything else: I will exempt the CGI effects, which are stunningly good, actually. So if you're life's goal has been to see photographically realistic depictions of human beings using telekinesis to mold water into a mid-air ball, you need stop waiting.

By far, the most obvious problem is in the script, which is comprised solely of things that no person would ever possibly say under any circumstances. I was at first trying to keep track of the most riotously bad lines for the purposes of this review; within ten minutes it became clear this would be akin to trying to count syllables during a performance of Hamlet, so I gave up. It's uncanny, really, that there should fail to be even the most accidentally plainspoken line, natural in conception and sonorous in execution. Instead, we get expository dialogue that splats across the screen, hitting the audience like an uppercut: whether it's the all-too-numerous examples of the ever-classic "You know that thing of which you and I are both entirely aware, and have been for years? Would you mind explaining it to me in detail?" or just some moments where Shyamalan straight-up assumes that every last person in the theater is a stone-cold idiot, like when Sokka bitches, "We found a strange light, and then this boy came out of it, and now the Fire Nation is coming?" (or words to that effect), within ten minutes of our having seen every one of those events play out. You know, seeing things? Like you do with a visual art form? Shyamalan has perhaps confused "show, don't tell", the famous dictum about how to best present narrative information in cinema, with "show and tell", the elementary school tradition of describing a favorite toy or interesting object in front of the whole class. Which would also explain why The Last Airbender feels like it was written by a six-year-old.

But rather than presenting a detailed criticism of all the problems with the film's dialogue (which would consist of transcribing it, and then writing "Ha ha!" after every single line), let us push on! To the actors, perhaps, who don't necessarily deserve all the blame for what they do - Sarah fucking Bernhardt would be hard-pressed to sell the bit where Zuko goads a child into explaining the prince's own backstory - but nor are they any good at all. Since they are mostly young and mostly haven't been in very much, it seems cruel to point out that Peltz (who looks eerily like Michelle Trachtenberg) can't think of anything better to do with her under-written character than skittle about and shriek every line as though she's auditioning for the Kate Capshaw role in a tween remake of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; that Ringer seems so palpably uncomfortable in front of the camera that it made me nervous; that Seychelle Gabrielle, as the princess of the Northern Water Tribe, literally doesn't move any part of her body, including her eyelids, in the first shot that she appears in, and that it's apparent throughout that she doesn't understand that acting involves the physical things you do, and not just the words you say; that Rathbone is also currently in Eclipse (which I did already, but still: hee), and and that the only reason he's better here is because he doesn't have to sport the worst Southern accent in the history of fake Southern accents.

Then on to the direction itself: and Shyamalan's vaunted eye, which was looking a bit reedy after Lady in the Water and The Happening, has finally worn itself out. Maybe that's because he had top-notch DPs Christopher Doyle and Tak Fujimoto helping him out on those projects, whereas he now gets to match wits with the competent, weirdly overrated Andrew Lesnie. I shouldn't overspeak: it's not like The Last Airbender is a technical abortion, for most of it is quite unexceptional in any way, good or bad, unless it be that Shyamalan doesn't like rapid-fire cutting as much as a lot of people, and bully for him. But the moments that don't work, really don't work: for example, the profoundly bizarre use of zooms, or the terrifyingly close close-ups (a trick the director picked up in The Happening, which made Zooey Deschanel look a saucer-eyed giantess). Or my favorite part, a long-ass single take which features a battle between the earthbenders and firebenders, in which everyone waits very nicely until they get to fight, exactly like in a turn-based RPG. A genre of video game that I love, but it doesn't work in a movie, where you just stand gawking at the villains thinking "Don't fucking stand there! Attack! If you kill Aang now, I don't have to watch the next hour of the movie!"

The best part is how damn seriously Shyamalan takes it all. It's hushed and profound with lots of big expansive wide shots to tell us how Glorious and Epic it all is; James Newton Howard's score positively screams us into submission with its string-heavy orchestration; which makes its virtually endless incompetence that much more giggle-inducing, and I do not doubt for a moment that I laughed more during The Last Airbender than I have at any actual comedy in months. To hell with all the people who want to see Shyamalan return to the form of the great The Sixth Sense, or even the good enough Unbreakable: this is exactly where I want him, burning through mountainous piles of cash in the creation of stupefying cinematic Hindenburgs. The man is in the middle of a truly arresting exploration, finding new ways to bottom out artistically, over and over again, no matter how certain you are that he can't possibly get any worse; it would be a crime to stop him now.