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M. Night Shyamalan hopes to get back on track with The Last Airbender

The real has always coexisted with the surreal in M. Night Shyamalan's films. In his 1999 breakthrough The Sixth Sense, a seemingly delusional boy sees dead people. In the following year's Unbreakable, a security guard discovers he has superpowers. And in 2002's Signs, a farmer's life takes a drastic turn after a crop circle appears on his land. Shyamalan's early movies reflect both his singular vision and latent spirituality.

But the writer-director's last three films — The Village, The Lady in the Water, and The Happening — were commercial and critical bombs. They turned the mystical into the hokey. Still, movie studios keep giving Shyamalan the green light. He returns on Thursday with The Last Airbender, a big-budget fantasy adventure based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated Nickelodeon series about a young warrior who tries to keep the peace between four nations, which are represented by the four elements. (The live-action movie lost the Avatar part of its title, for obvious reasons.)

The TV show was popular with both fans and critics, so the movie comes with a built-in audience, many of them probably eager to see how enormous creatures — including a six-legged bison and a 32-foot-long rhino — play out onscreen. "All my friends are huge fans of the series," says Jackson Rathbone (Twilight's Jasper), who plays the warrior Sokka. "I got kudos from them once I got the part."

Rathbone and co-star Nicola Peltz — who plays Sokka's water-controlling Katara — say they had to endure a sort of "boot camp" before filming began. Before heading off to Greenland, where much of the movie was shot, both learned kung fu and other martial arts to prepare for their roles. If the series continues (it's a planned trilogy), Rathbone will have to undergo even more training. "My character picks up sword fighting," he says. "I'm hoping I'll be around for that." We bet Shyamalan has similar expectations.

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