Friday, July 9, 2010

The Last Airbender

It's fitting that M. Night Shyamalan should put out a movie in 3-D, considering both have no artistic application yet still get pushed by studios because they somehow turn a profit. That the film was shoddily converted in post-production without reason only adds to the unintentional comedy of The Last Airbender, which is the only feeling of any kind that emanates from this somber, plodding bore. I have not seen the Nickelodeon anime show upon which the film is based, but I've read reviews and listened to trusted friends who enthusiastically extol its virtues. Even if they're all wrong, however, and the series doesn't live up to the hype, it doesn't deserve this. Nothing could deserve this.

Shyamalan prides himself a storyteller, yet the primary nature of his dialogue is and always has been expository. Every exchange, nearly every single word, serves only to move a story forward or to provide meaningless backstory to characters he never fleshes out enough to make anyone want to know their pasts. Never has that been so horribly self-evident than in The Last Airbender, from an opening scroll of text to hysterically stilted dialogue in which characters cannot simply state where they wish to go but must give a brief history of the location to someone who clearly already knows about it simply to let the audience in on everything. Most egregious are the voiceovers, which not only impart superfluous information but play over images of what's being described. Perhaps Shyamalan takes the idea of storytelling literally, choosing to deliver everything in writing and spoken descriptions over imagery. Someone should have taken him aside and explained that just because the television series called its seasons "books" doesn't mean that the series is meant to be shown as literature.

Then again, judging from his visual style, one can understand how he came to this conclusion. The haphazard application of 3-D technology to films not meant to be played in such a format has caused numerous headaches (sometimes literally) in the recent resurgence of the gimmick, but I have never seen a film suffer worse than The Last Airbender, precisely because the original direction is so wretched. 3-D dims the brightness of the screen, but even when I took my glasses off all I could make out were shadows in the murk. So dark and blurry is the film that I wondered if Night filmed the movie with a pair of 3-D glasses hung over the lens, but that would assume that the director knew his work would be converted. After the film ended, I stayed in the theater just to see if a gaffer was listed in the credits. There was; Jay Fortune, you're on notice.

Maybe the film stock was simply so ashamed of what it captured that it deliberately underexposed itself. The Last Airbender bills itself as the first of three separate books dealing with three of the four elements -- Water, Earth, Fire -- that the titular character, who can manipulate air, must learn to bring balance to his world. As "Water" is the first chapter, The Last Airbender plays out in various icy regions, an appropriate backdrop given the glacial movement of the story. Dialogue jumps from plot point to plot point, but the lack of any clear emotional or logical bedrock causes the narrative to stagnate, no one moment sticking out as vital until you reach the end and figure out which scenes actually moved the story in any way.

We meet Katara, a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka, hunting for food in the tundra outside their impoverished village. Katara mentions in her voiceover that her brother lacks serious hunting skills, a throwaway line clearly meant to establish a character that never forms. Before I even read up on the character, I could tell that Sokka's frustration with his poor hunting, as well as any lingering jealousy over his sister's ability to bend water, should have informed a character determined to prove his worth to his super-powered friends. (Basically, I thought of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) But Shyamalan never returns to his character to add depth, even when he sparks a relationship with a Waterbender from another tribe later in the film.

Even Aang, the long-dormant Avatar destined to bring harmony to the warring tribes, simply is. When he awakens from his suspended animation, Aang discovers that not only has he been frozen for a century but his mere existence drove the warring Fire Nation to exterminate all Air Tribes in their hunt for him. Somehow, Shyamalan robs this revelation completely of emotion; that's right, M. Night Shyamalan cannot even make genocide affecting, reducing the moment to the same "Nooooooo!!" cliché that has become shorthand for extreme pain.

Aang, played by Noah Ringer, is white, as are Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka) and all of the noble Waterbenders fighting back against the invading Fire Nation hordes. This casting has caused much dissent among fans of the cartoon, which boasted a heavy Miyazaki influence and -- according to my friends -- treated Asian culture with great respect. The easy joke here is that Asians would have suffered more from actually appearing in this awful feature, but this whitewashing turns the Asian influence into nothing more than an exotic flavor. Everything has a vaguely Asian feel instead of a concrete usage of Buddhism, martial arts and such; imagine if white people were the minority and someone replaced the protagonists of a show reliant upon white culture simply to make the film more marketable. Wouldn't you be suspicious if the characters just wondered into The Gap or attended a jam band festival in the middle of everything?

Shyamalan does, however, cast actors of Indian descent, such as Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel and Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, albeit only in the villainous roles. Somehow, Shyamalan can defend this film as multicultural, but I can only marvel that he could show up each day, pick up that shovel and keep digging without realizing -- or even someone informing him -- the implications of his casting.

But that would suggest that anyone paid attention to this film long enough to do something creative, which clearly isn't the case. The lazy addition of 3-D is but the cherry on the shit sundae: the CGI would look awkward in a film made five years ago, with Aang conjuring the same dust cloud each time he tosses gusts at attackers and manipulated flame looking as convincing as an electric fireplace. Night appears to have gotten as bored writing his dialogue as the audience was listening to it: when Aang is discovered at the beginning of the film, Katara and Sokka's grandmother tells them she thinks the boy might be the Avatar, a concept foreign to the young adults. Yet when Katara tries to buck up Aang in the climax, she tells him, "I always knew you'd return." Elsewhere, lines clang like acorns on a tin roof, such as Aang saying he needs to meditate before a battle, then taking time no one has to explain to his friends that some monks could meditate for up to four days. I half expected a shooting star to pass through the frame as the words "The More You Know" appear in the sky.

What most offends me, though, beyond the racial bleaching, the awful visuals and the stiff dialogue, is the ending. I say this because, for half a moment, Shyamalan nearly bumbled into the most memorable sequence of his career, or at least since Unbreakable, his one truly solid film. Spoiled by the trailers, the scene involves Aang mastering his second element by moving an ocean, a moment nearly as magical as anything in this year's magnificent animated feature How to Train Your Dragon. Then he mucks it up, breaking the moment for an utterly useless flashback and then undercutting the first real emotion of the film with a tacked-on ending meant to set up a sequel we should all pray never sees the light of day. The way that he spoils the first pure moment in his entire oeuvre stands as final proof that M. Night Shyamalan has coasted for too long on luck and the gullibility of the American mainstream, and the thought that even this movie won't finally send him packing is too unutterably depressing to bear.


  1. Oh goodness it's weird but I LOVE reading all the bad reviews of this film. It's excited a wealth of hilarious metaphors and I'm impressed with how universal its dreadfulness seems to be. Yours is one of the more thoughtful reviews, so congratulations for refraining to just write "AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!" as I imagine I would have.

    Also if you want an entertaining look at the racial bleaching, see this interview with Shyamalan. He calls this "the most culturally-diverse movie of all time", essentially because he cast a lot of non-white people as extras!

  2. Yeah, I read that and it just made me angrier. The idea that he could defend this movie as diverse because all East Asian people appear as exotic slaves in an internment camp and all Indians are villains is more broadly offensive than anything. And it's not like any of the white actors are names. I mean, neither Patel nor Mandvi are household names but they have higher profiles than a child who's making his film debut. They couldn't have found an Asian unknown>

    Ugh. I actually laughed out loud at times because this film was so terrible. My theater was mostly empty (GOOD) and all the kids there came in making a shit ton of noise but they were all quiet during the movie. Lest you think they were well-behaved, half of them fell asleep. Oh, you suck so bad, Night. Maybe we can finally say "Good Night" to his career. Oh Jesus, he's made me use puns.

  3. Outstanding review, Jake. Love it, LOVE it, LOVE IT.

  4. Great review, man. You went into some areas that I didn't make space for in my own review. For example, I had the same problem with the "I always knew you'd return" line. Speaking of lines, this one made me laugh out loud: " appropriate backdrop given the glacial movement of the story." Well done!

    As for the multiculturalism ...

    Personally, I'm more baffled by it than offended, and I can be easily offended by this kind of stuff. So maybe my shoulder-shrugged attitude about it is a product of all the months of pre-release controversy, which of course always manages to make it seem more criminal than it is.

    Back to being baffled ... Here's the thing, it really is one of the most multicultural films ever made. Sad, but true. I don't think Night should go around patting himself on the back, but it's difficult to disagree with him. The thing is, it's multicultural in the wrong way, which is to say that for the most part he's still turning whitey into the good guys and dark skinned folks into the villains. He had an opportunity here to think big and really go all-in with the GAP ad approach ... to make the water benders white, black, brown, etc. Fire people, same deal. Now that would have made a statement. This is just like the old cowboys and Indians movies.

  5. I certainly don't think that Night is racist, but I think the casting shows how desperate he was for a hit, to the point that he let casting directors call the shots. Now, they're not racist either, but they use a bunch of ridiculous figures and test audience numbers to justify a racial bias that they never notice.

    I think that the film sets up the possibility for multiculturalism but never delivers. It plays its Asian influence as nothing more than an exotic flourish: you could take out the Asian-influenced stuff and not a thing would change. That's my issue: there's no real respect shown, only a simplistic grab-bag.

  6. M. Night Shyamalan is due for a comeback sooner or later, but he just needs to go back to what we don't see on screen, instead of showing us too much.

  7. Haven't seen this movie.(Somehow I view that as wise.) But I've looked up some reviews for most of Shyamalan's films, and I'm begining to wonder if he really is one of those professionally evil directors.

    What I mean is that he made a bad movie or two, realised he couldn't keep that up, and then made three or four good or descent films- just enough to give him a fanbase -until he could go back to not trying again.

    To support this theory, I will list all of the rotten tomatoes(a good review site) percentages of critics that liked his movies, from first to last.

    (Night's first film, Praying with Anger, has no review on the site.)

    Wide Awake - 41%
    The Sixth Sense - 86%
    Unbreakable - 67%
    Signs - 74%
    The Village - 43%
    Lady in the Water - 24%
    The Happening - 18%
    The Last Airbender - 8%

    Besides the percentage between Unbreakable and Signs, it's perfectly down, up, down. I'm sure some people feel differently about the movies, but the fact that general critics feel this way may not state that Shyamalan's a money hungry shit as fact, but it doesn't help his case either.

    Personally, I've seen 5 of his films, and none recently, but all I can say is that even if the only good thing about the Sixth Sense was the final twist, when I look at the Happening, there's no comparrison. If what I'm saying is true, then I don't see how anyone can watch one of his better films with the same amount of respect.