Thursday, July 8, 2010

Squalor: The Last Airbender

I am woefully unprepared to talk about this.  I mean it.  While I can judge the film as a film, I know that there's a gigantic amount of information that will be excluded simply because my exposure to the source material is limited at best.  Going into The Last Airbender, I was aware of the general outline of the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender.  I knew there was a bald kid with a blue arrow tattooed on his head, and that he had magical powers of elemental control.  I knew that there were side characters who were slightly older and slightly taller, that there was a journey, and that people were after the bald kid.  That's it.  Mostly I just really liked Appa, the flying buffalo sort of creature who is so cute in the cartoon.  So cute.  That said, this is what I can tell you about the translation: Appa is not as cute as a CGI beastie. Ta da! M. Night Shyamalan seems to know this, and hides Appa's unnatural looking face almost every time he's on screen.  You should take this as a sign of much bigger problems.  They're there.  Based on the number of people with good taste I know who love the original cartoon, my educated guessing system tells me that it's ok for me to say, with 100% certainty, that the show is better than the movie, and that fans of the show will be hugely disappointed.
If you've been awake for the last decade, you shouldn't be surprised.  The Last Airbender is directed by M. Night Shyamalan...aka: my favorite director slash punching bag.  While this film manages to pull away from Shyamalan's trademark "oooo looky here, a lame twist ending" methods, what it actually does is prove that Shyamalan is indeed, as I had suspected, a gigantic hack.  Am I too harsh?  Maybe.  But come on!  He snagged the world with The Sixth Sense, made a decent showing with Unbreakable, and then cheated audiences out of their dollars with one lame, super flawed, identical to the last "thriller" after another.  It was like a small child who gets a laugh and then pounds the joke into the ground repeatedly, butchering it and making it more unbearable with each retelling.  Signs?  Don't even get me started (water? really? religion? really? showing the alien? really?).  The Village?  Again, you've got to be kidding me (I can't be the only one who knew what was going to happen five minutes in, right?).  I couldn't (still can't) will myself to even bother watching Lady in the Water or The Happening, but I'm pretty sure I'd loathe them as deeply as those others.  You could hope that maybe, with The Last Airbender M. Night Shyamalan would turn over a new leaf, attempt some material that wasn't his own, and prove his artistic mettle.  I hoped that.  I thought maybe, just maybe, being unable to rely on the twist ending would be good for Shyamalan.  Here was a brand new medium: the family actioner.  Here, an entire epic story with a completed narrative arc and supposedly rich characters.   How could you mess that up?  Answer: be M. Night Shyamalan and insist on writing the script, directing the picture, and casting many of the Asian characters as white people.


The script for The Last Airbender is bad.  Really bad.  It relies too heavily on exposition, constantly having its characters deliver the back story or insert unnecessary comments awkwardly into conversation just so that you can piece together exactly what's going on.  There are temporal leaps and illogical gaps from one scene to the next.  Early on in the film, we are given a scrolling prologue (a la Star Wars) that is promptly followed by a scene in which siblings (now newly white!) Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Twilight's Jackson Rathbone) fill in all the missing information on their dead parents, their own skills, their character traits, and what exactly is going on.  It feels redundant, but is made worse by the clunkiness of the verbiage and the sheer shallowness of Peltz and Rathbone.  Rathbone stares wide-eyed into space and has all the personality of corrugated cardboard.  Peltz is a non-entity with flowing hair.  Bland, bland and further still, all I could wonder as they spoke was what exactly Shyamalan thought he was going to get when he cast them.   



As the story continues to evolve, it holds on to its rigid dialogue so hard you can see the claw marks.  Everything furthering the story is delivered via flat commentary.  The audience is talked down to, told constantly what is happening in a way that never seems to quite match up with what we're seeing.  Even that isn't always enough to capture the scope and scale of the actual story Shyamalan is working with.  It's like he's written in all these little pieces to try and keep things moving, but the result instead is that characters are rendered dead and immovable.  Of course, what Shyamalan clearly does not understand is that the real story is in the characters.  If he destroys them, he has nothing.  When, for example, all of Sokka's actions and expressions have to be verbalized by his sister, the result is something groan worthy.  There's very little evolution in Shyamalan's script and casting, and even as we are shown action, the film remains empty.  As the titular Avatar (a reincarnated figure who can master all elements) Aang and fire lord Prince Zuko respectively, Noah Ringer and Slumdog's Dev Patel manage to make the best go of it.  Ringer doesn't capture much in the way of humor or childlike wonder, but he can at least look a little intense when conjuring up a wall of water.  Patel seems indignant as a goofy half-villain, and that's a little more than can be said for anyone else in the supporting cast.

As you watch The Last Airbender you can see how things could have gone differently.  A different cast, a revised script, someone else in the director's chair, and you would have had a summer blockbuster to reckon with.  The entertainment value, for example, might have come from the film actually pulling you into its story instead of merely being inadvertently hilarious. There's a lot of potential here, but it's squandered in poor casting and the relinquishing of too much power to one man.  Maybe it sticks too close, maybe it tries to include too much.  As it stands, the thing that keeps this film bearable is that it's lovely to look at.  The special effects, in spite of some clunky, slightly off-kilter movement in the CGI department, are largely well handled and the art direction involved in creating the on-screen world is fairly impressive.  The best I can say is that The Last Airbender delivers its share of eye candy even as it exercises a surprising adroitness in disintegrating your brain cells.  Can we run M. Night Shyamalan out of Hollywood now?  I mean, seriously.

Look how much cuter Appa was when he was a drawing...

1 comment:

  1. I wish you would see Lady in the Water. I actually thought that was really interesting. I'd like to see what you think. You should do that.

    ReplyDelete

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