It’s not just the presence of titles like “The Karate Kid”
    and “The A-Team”: If you’re heading to the movies this summer, it really is
    1983 all over again. That was the last time we had this kind of an onslaught of
    3D extravaganzas — with the accompanying headaches and eye-aches from sloppy
    filmmaking and sub-par projection.


    “The Last Airbender” was shot in 2D and hastily (and
    hideously) converted to 3D. If you had the misfortune to see “Clash of the
    Titans” a few months ago, you have an idea of what you’re in for in
    “Airbender.” The conversion process leaves distracting “ghosting” patterns
    around some images (the sort of thing you see on ancient video tapes) and
    double-prints other details, resulting in characters that seem to have
    misshapen heads or hairdos that float above and behind their scalps. In one
    truly laughable close-up, the perspective is so woefully distorted that the
    eyebrows of our young hero, Aang (Noah Ringer), seem to have retreated deep
    into his forehead.


    lastairbender.jpgAnother drawback to the bogus 3D is its tendency to darken
    every scene, to the point where even when Aang and his followers are outdoors
    in broad daylight it still looks as if they’re standing beneath ominous storm
    clouds. Unfortunately, large segments of “Airbender” are set in murky corridors,
    shadow-filled caves and in similarly sunless locations. In these scenes, it
    becomes a major challenge to even see what’s going on, much less follow the
    chases and battles.


    “Airbender” was inspired by a popular animated series known
    as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or “Avatar: The Legend of Aang,” which
    originally ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 through 2008. (It seems someone else
    decided to call his movie “Avatar,” so “The Last Airbender” had to suffice.)


    Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (who was probably hungry
    for some kind of a hit after the debacles of “Lady in the Water” and “The
    Happening”) has followed the basic outline of the series, although my
    15-year-old niece Rachael — an “Airbender” expert — complained many of the
    character names were either mispronounced or dropped altogether in Shyamalan’s
    screenplay, which labors dutifully to set up what Paramount hopes will be a
    trilogy. The filmmakers aren’t particularly subtle about this: The movie begins
    with the subtitle “Book One: Water” and ends with a cliffhanger custom-designed
    to segue into the next installment.


    Seventy years ago, “Airbender” would almost certainly have
    been a serial; now, it’s a would-be blockbuster.


    Picture “Harry Potter” with a Buddhist bent, and you’ll have
    a good idea of what to expect from “Airbender.” Set in a future in which
    civilization has splintered into far-flung nations — the Water Nation, the
    Earth Nation, the Fire Nation, etc. — the story opens with Katara (Nicola
    Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) hunting for food in the frozen wastes they
    call home. Instead of bringing home dinner, they discover a mystery: Young
    Aang, dressed like a miniature monk and adorned with odd tattoos on his shaven
    head, emerges from an enormous bubble beneath the ice. It’s quickly discovered
    Aang is an Airbender, a psychic warrior blessed with a talent for telekinesis;
    Katara, for her part, is a Waterbender, who can manipulate liquids with her
    mind.


    Although the two of them could probably team up for one
    heckuva magic show, they are instead forced into battle against the sinister
    legions of the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation foot-soldiers dress like Shogun
    warriors and travel around in ships that look like they’ve been in dry-dock
    since World War I. They are, naturally, Firebenders, capable of shooting flames
    at their enemies or surrounding their prey with flaming rings. Sounds like a
    great skill to have, although the Firebenders don’t seem particularly adept at
    using their powers. Besides, if there’s a Waterbender anywhere nearby, well,
    the Firebenders run out of firepower pretty quickly.


    Aang, Katara and Sokka embark on a round-the-world tour to
    drum up support for their anti-Fire Nation crusade, finally setting up camp in
    a snowy pseudo-Shangri-La ruled by a sympathetic – and way foxy — teenage
    princess (Seychelle Gabriel) who could pass as Jessica Alba’s kid sister.


    This is all unhappy news for Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of
    “Slumdog Millionaire”), the disgraced and temporarily banished son of Fire Lord
    Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Zuko wants to win back his father’s favor by capturing and
    enslaving Aang before the adolescent Airbender can master waterbending,
    earthbending and firebending and truly take his place as the all-powerful
    Avatar.


    “Airbender” might please the Saturday matinee crowd, and
    there’s something to be said for any youth-oriented film that takes time out
    from its fights and frights to extol the virtues of meditation, the wonders of
    yin and yang and the importance of the grieving process. Those messages are
    easier to take than Shyamalan’s script, which manages to seem half-baked at
    some points and overcooked at others. There’s certainly no harmonic balance to
    be found in the dialogue, which frequently flips back and forth between
    lightheartedness (“Hey, guys! Where are you at?”) and heavy-handedness.


    Perhaps legions of followers of the original show will turn
    “Airbender” into a box office success. But don’t be surprised if Aang and
    company soon find themselves exiled to the Nation of Failed Franchises,
    alongside the casts of “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” “Eragon” and
    “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”