Actually, Dune is an apt comparison. Like that movie, The Last Airbender tries to cram a lot of elaborate world-building into a tiny space. It proves that trying to force eight well-crafted hours into 90 minutes is a perilous project.
Because of this, the movie’s pacing is relentlessly exhausting. It spends so much time racing from one story point to the next that it seldom has a chance to settle in and savor the moment.
Action is a good thing, but recall any exciting movie you’ve loved and it’s the moments to catch your breath and perhaps have a quick laugh that you most fondly remember. The Last Airbender doesn’t find enough time for these necessary pleasures.
I’d like to see a “director’s cut” some day. I think an extra hour or so would make a big difference. The movie is always visually beautiful (I recommend seeing it in 2-D) and when it occasionally slows down and savors the moment it is actually quite stunning.
When we see flashbacks to Aang’s early training, it evokes similar scenes from many a great martial arts epic. When the camera gracefully tracks around Aang and his companion Katara as they practice martial arts or when the camera pulls back to allow us a glimpse of the lovingly detailed world Shyamalan has created, I felt love for the movie.
And there are scenes in a cave involving Yin/Yang Koi fish so perfectly fitting of the movie’s and series’ particular brand of pop-mythologizing that the scale ended up favoring the good, for me at least.
Yes, the movie is a mess. But how many messes can you recall wanting to be longer messes? That certainly counts for something.