Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Love: The Last Airbender

I'm starting to think it's me.
I keep seeing these movies that everyone hates only to come out of the theater going, wow, that really deserves more than an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, that was pretty enjoyable, I might even say, quite good. M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is another one of those movies that everyone is so busy hating ahead of time, that they seem to miss the whole thing.
The movie, based off of the popular Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, sticks closely to its source plot, beginning when Katara (Nicola Peltz), the sole water bender of the Southern Water Tribe and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) stumble upon the "last" airbender, a boy frozen in ice for 100 years named Aang. Luckily for the world, Aang is also the Avatar, the one that like Luke Skywalker and the blue avatar of James Cameron, will bring balance to the world. During Aang's 100 year disappearance, the Fire Nation (one of four nations, Earth, Air, and Water being the other three), has declared dominance, kidnapping, pillaging, imprionsing, and basically killing everyone else, while the banished Prince of the Fire Nation (Dev Patel) hunts for the Avatar, the only one that can stop the Fire Nation's domination and the only one that the Prince can bring home to his father the king and once again reclaim his honor. Each nation is gifted with the ability to control their element, and they fight with it by "bending" it, hence the airbender, waterbender, etc.
Like many dorky adults, I have been a huge fan of the show since it first aired. The mythology of the it centered around the ideal of balance without ever becoming too preachy, walking a fine line between hilarious and heartbreaking that made it appealing to kids but interesting to and worth respect from adults. Shyamalan recreates this world beautifully, with rich sets and costumes that look appropriately exotic yet lived in. The Fire Nation is particularly well rendered, their war ships menacing, metallic, and belching black smoke and fire.

The effects used to bring this world to life are absolutely stunning, a necessity considering the nature of bending fights that could appear a little silly as each enemy takes several seconds to do a little martial arts routine before an element shoots forth from around them. But fire bursts from candles in long arcs of impressive heat, air swirls in artful patterns around enemies, blowing whole armies apart, while walls of earth grow from the ground as shields and water solidifies like something out of The Abyss. The simulation is so real looking, it never once feels corny, holding the same impact that the fighting scenes in the first Matrix had upon it's release. Appa, Aang's giant flying air buffalo was the thing I was most worried about when it came to effects, but he too looks totally real, adding the perfect amount of interest and fun without become ridiculous.
But yes, not all is perfect in Shyamalan's film, especially when it comes to acting. On one hand, you have Dev Patel as Prince Zuko. His nuanced performance holds the film together, opening up what otherwise could have been a static film. Patel never once feels unjustified, even when his own actions seem evil. He balances and communicates all of his character's many motivations and struggles with very little dialog, his face full of emotion and strength. His interactions with Shaun Toub who plays his Uncle Iroh are some of the best parts of the film, as each struggle with what is right and what is honorable to their nation. Newbie Noah Ringer is acceptable, yet not perfect as Aang, bringing enough goofy looks while he mixes the serious stares that imply he's somebody powerful.
 But Shyamalan's choice of female heroines is sadly lacking. Nicola Peltz breathes no life into Katara, the one that saves and inspires Aang, reading her lines with the emotion of a middle school starlet (to her credit she probably is one plucked right from the gym stage). The Princess of the Northern Water Tribe, Seychelle Gabriel seems equally awkward and one dimensional. And while Jackson Rathbone's Sokka is thankfully lacking the goofy comedic stuff from the cartoon, he just sort of exists as they stripped his character down, coming to life only for a brief moment during the end battle, as if Shyamalan was terrified of the Jar Jar Binks spirit that he could unleash. But all of this leads me not to blame the actors, but to blame Shyamalan himself. He seemed to give them no direction, beneficial in the case of the seasoned and skilled Patel, but disappointing when it came to Gabriel and Peltz.
The beginning and middle of the film are also a bit shaky. Despite the incredible world that Shyamalan creates, he doesn't luxuriate in, breezing through much of the mythology with a simple one sentence explanation. In the show, Katara has been obsessively following the legend of the Avatar, convinced that it could one day save her people. It's no surprise then when she takes him in so readily despite the danger. But in the movie, this passion is filled in with a speech by a very unconvincing grandma after they've found the Avatar, making it seem weird that they'd take him in like a puppy. These important character developments and pieces of the story are often handled as such in the first half, making the film feel rushed before it falls into place for the ending, one of the worst when they first meet the Princess. She glances at Sokka who glances back as Katara explains, "My brother and the Princess became fast friends." It all feels too fast, and when they part emotionally you wonder when that big romance even happened. It's easy to show things like that in a few seconds, easy to make time feel like its passed, but Shyamalan just doesn't pull the pacing off properly.
Oddly, and unlike so many other action films, it's the beginning of the battle that marks that strength of Shyamalan's film. He suddenly relaxes as if the rest of the of the film was a huge race to get to that point. The lacking characters seem to find themselves, the action comes to a head, and the fight ends with an incredibly powerful image of a wall of water reaching high above city walls and over the enemies ships.

The Last Airbender is not for everyone. The mythology is a bit crazy, something that Shyamalan, to his credit, doesn't try to change and make overly accessible to those not into that sort of thing. But despite a few problems, it's not a bad film. It's an enjoyable one, one that fulfills the requirements for good summer fun while paying it's source material enough of a respectful nod, its effects incredible to watch. Do I want the next one to be better? Of course, but when other tripe gets scored highly while other directors like Shyamalan are automatically panned for the good along with the bad, then I'm not sure what we're supposed to expect from them. Shyamalan, like Prince Zuko, we know there is good in you, it's time you used it. And you reader, hunched in front of your computer? Get off the bandwagon of hate and start enjoying yourself once in awhile.

1 comment:

  1. I think you misunderstand how Rotten Tomatoes works. THEY didn't give the movie 8%, that score means that out of all of the critics on their list, only 8% of them gave the movie a good review.

    ...Of course, after "Sokka is thankfully lacking the goofy comedic stuff from the cartoon", I think you misunderstand how Avatar works, too. Even if you don't like Sokka's humor, I'd hope you'd agree that a goofy Sokka is still better than a Sokka who does NOTHING AT ALL.

    I didn't see any of the "goofy looks" from Ringer that you saw, either. I saw smiling Ringer and frowning Ringer. That's about it.

    And I wouldn't "give credit" to a filmmaker for intentionally alienating any of his audience that happens to be unfamiliar with the source material of his adaptation. Accessibility is a *requirement* when a property is moved between mediums. Coppola didn't decide to lock people who hadn't read "The Godfather" out of his adaptation just because they might not be "into that sort of thing."

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