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

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“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.”)

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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

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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