Note: This is a speculative article, written BEFORE opening weekend box office numbers came in.

M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of The Last Airbender hits theaters this week and upon closer examination, I dare say that there’s a lot at stake in regards to how this film performs at the box office – and not just in regard to Shyamalan’s career as a filmmaker.

Early critical reaction is that The Last Airbender is THE big movie fiasco of 2010; however, if the film manages to connect with audiences this weekend, it would seem that we’ll have another Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on our hands, and that would be a development that could steer Hollywood further down a path that many avid movie fans do not want to follow.

If you haven’t read our official Screen Rant review of The Last Airbender, let me sum up our official standpoint on the movie: it’s terrible. If you’re thinking to yourself “Well Screen Rant, that’s just your opinion,” then I hate to be the bearer of bad news by pointing out that the collective critical opinion (pretty much across the board) is that this film is terrible. Just pop on over to Rotten Tomatoes and have a look for yourself, or check out our review HERE to learn about everything that went so terribly wrong with this movie.

So, by all critical accounts The Last Airbender is a failure that just might be the final nail in the coffin that M. Night Shymalan’s career is waiting to be buried in. The film should also be a sign to Hollywood that cheap (or non-existent) storytelling, flashy effects, and ticket price-hiking gimmicks like post-production 3D conversion are not enough to fool the masses and mask a glaring failure in movie making.

However, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Just a year ago around this time Revenge of the Fallen was widely blasted by critics for being the reeking pile of cinematic failure that it was. The critics who tore it apart then kicked back, content that they had done their job exposing a lame duck, and waited for the public to send a message to Michael Bay and Hollywood: “We expect better!

And then a strange (and terrible) thing happened: Transformers 2 made crazy amounts of money.

Revenge of the Fallen cost about $200 million to make (thank the HD IMAX sequences), and in a sane universe would’ve never been able to recoup that budget. However, the final tally of the film’s receipts counted out to about $400 million domestic and another $400 million overseas, culminating in $800+ million total.

Not only did the returns shock every critic (or critical movie goer) who thought Revenge of the Fallen was crap, those figures actually spawned a new faction of movie fans who were animate in their belief that a blockbuster need not have a deep story, big brains, character development or anything else beyond flashy effects, big action, hot eye-candy and the most juvenile sort of humor – so long as it was “entertaining,” of course. ;-)

Two guys who loved Revenge of the Fallen

This new fan-faction was quick to make its opinions heard, telling critics they had fallen out of touch with “average” movie fans, and even going so far as to suggest that if a movie like The Dark Knight (which was critically acclaimed) made $1 billion and Transformers 2 could still make $800 million, that there was little difference between a “smart” and “brainless” blockbuster. That debate is still raging in comment sections on our site a full year later.

If The Last Airbender blows away the box office competition over the July 4th weekend and somehow manages to generate a sizeable profit for itself, not only will advocates of the “big brainless fun blockbuster” have a new stock of ammo for their guns, Hollywood execs will have all the justification they need to keep peddling crap movies as if they’re gold – complete with shoddy gimmicks like 3D conversion and inflated ticket prices.

And don’t expect Inception to reverse that perception; if Last Airbender does well and Inception does well, that’s just further evidence that there’s little difference between smart and dumb blockbusters, right? (At least that’s what “brainless blockbuster” types will say.) But if Last Airbender does well and Inception’s brainy ideas fail to lure a mass audience… well… I don’t even want to think about that scenario.  :-(

If Airbender does well the stakes for Inception will be sky-high

To all you movie fans (of every kind) out there: You need to pay attention to what happens at the box office this weekend. You may think I’m being dramatic (and drama IS my middle name), but mark my words: we’re currently standing at a fork in the path, and where movies go from here will be (in part) determined by what happens with The Last Airbender.

I know Shyamalan is probably in a bunker sweating bullets right about now, and Paramount (the studio behind both The Last Airbender and Transformers 2) is hoping and praying that lightning strikes twice. Should be interesting come next Tuesday, when the holiday box office receipts get tallied.

What do you think – will The Last Airbender be the 2010 Transformers 2, or is there no way the movie will be able overcome its glaring faults to claim box office glory? And how do you think Last Airbender and Inception will affect the debate over smart vs. brainless blockbusters started by Revenge of the Fallen and The Dark Knight?  Let us know how you feel in the comments.

The Last Airbender is currently in theaters.

Inception will be in theaters on July 16th.

Turn on a cable premium channel and you can waste 2.5 hours watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at your leisure.

Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Box Office Mojo